Settling in as Acting Secretary

With a month on the job, Al Horvath is settling into his new role as Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian. He sat down with the Torch to talk about how his job has changed, his priorities over the next few months and to share what makes this place so special.


Not many people have led the Smithsonian. How does it feel to oversee such a large and storied institution?

Of course it is a tremendous honor to fill this role through June 30. When you consider that Dr. Skorton will be only the 13th Secretary since our founding in 1846, it is also quite humbling. But I’ve led a number of large, complex organizations during my career, and I’m ready for this challenge. The fact that we have a tremendous team of people at the Smithsonian makes the task much easier. I have great colleagues in the Castle and across the entire Institution.

How were you introduced to the Smithsonian?

My first trip to the Smithsonian was in 1978 when I had a lot of hair and was a senior in high school. I came to the Castle and asked a security officer, “Where’s Archie Bunker’s chair?”  (It had just come into the collection and was getting a lot of press coverage.) The security officer, who was very kind, told me that I was in the wrong building—I had to go to the National Museum of American History. I realized then that the Smithsonian was a whole lot bigger than I had ever imagined.


Archie Bunker’s chair. The popular and controversial sitcom “All in the Family’ (CBS, 1971-79) broke with convention and shattered taboos by depicting, in the words of creator Norman Lear, “real people dealing with real issues.” Social conflicts of the day played out in the Bunkers’ living room as the bigoted Archie clashed with his liberal son-in-law and his wife Edith struggled to keep the peace. (Photo via the National Museum of American History)


Of all the projects you’ve been a part of as Under Secretary for Finance and Administration and now as Acting Secretary, which has been the most satisfying and why?

I love projects and I love challenges. I feel like the things that I’m working on at the moment are the best. But I can also tell you that the most satisfying experiences are those where you see you’ve made a difference. I remember being at opening events—the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery at the National Postal Museum; the Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center; the newly remodeled Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; and Alexander Calder’s renovated “Gwenfritz” stabile outside the National Museum of American History—and the excitement and promise that I saw at each. Knowing that you’re making a difference for our scholars, scientists, visitors…that is what it’s all about.

But then there are also the things that are less dramatic in scale: getting a museum opened on a snowy day when the rest of the government has closed; watching the success of our interns in Project Search, a school-to-work program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities; listening to a curator tell you the hidden stories within an exhibition. These are things that make me proud to be part of the Smithsonian.

What has been the biggest change since taking on your new role?

I would have to say the pace of my days. My Under Secretary role is pretty intense and demanding, but the Secretary really has to be “on” all of the time. And the varieties of issues that come my way every day require that I prepare constantly, so I don’t have much down time. But I do sleep well at night as a result, when I get to sleep!

Immersion Room 2

The Immersion Room at the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt offers the ability to view the museum’s collection of wallcoverings in an entirely new way. Visitors will be able to select wallpapers and see them projected on the walls from floor to ceiling, providing the first opportunity to discover Cooper Hewitt’s wallcoverings as they were intended to be viewed.


What are your three most important priorities as Acting Secretary?

First, maintain the tremendous momentum that Dr. Clough initiated during his time as Secretary. I don’t want this short period to be one of lost opportunities. We need to continue pushing aggressively on the key priorities in the Strategic Plan and seize new opportunities that might come our way. Second, support the many people who are working on the Smithsonian Campaign. We’ve just topped $1.1 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “B!”) on our way toward the goal of $1.5 billion. These funds are critical to achieving the important goals in the plans of each of our museums, art galleries, research units, educational offices, and the Smithsonian at large. We don’t want to miss a beat. Third, work with the Regents, the Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretary to support our Directors, staff, and volunteers and keep the Smithsonian operating smoothly. There are lots of other details, but these are the major things that I’m keeping my eyes on.

If you were redecorating your house and had to choose three items from the collections, which would they be?

The first would be the Pittsburgh Steelers helmet worn by Franco Harris in Super Bowl XIV. The second would be something by Robert Rauschenberg out of the Hirshhorn Museum’s collection, whose quirkiness I love (plus I actually got to meet him—he was quite the character). The third would be a rare stamp from the National Postal Museum in honor of my dad, who worked for the Postal Service for 40 years. Do I have to stop at three?

What is the strangest item at the Smithsonian that you have seen?

It has to be a shrunken head. Talk about exotic.

Franco Harris Steelers Helmet

The helmet worn by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (b. 1950) in Super Bowl XIV, held in Pasadena, Calif. on Jan. 20, 1980. The Steelers won the game, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 31-19. Harris ran for 46 yards and two touchdowns, and caught 3 passes for 66 yards. From the collections of the American History Museum.


What do you think is the Smithsonian’s greatest asset?

No question…people! The passion that everyone at the Smithsonian displays, and pours into their work, is unmatched. And that goes for our staff and our volunteers. We do more with fewer resources than any place I’ve ever been. Our “X-Factor” is the dedication of the people who choose to be here. It is truly incredible.

What do you envision the Smithsonian will look like in the coming decades?

I hope that we will look different. We are such a different organization from the early days or even compared to 1978 when I first discovered the Smithsonian. By different I mean that we will have continued to grow, expanding our reach and seizing new opportunities. While our reach is huge, there are still many people who don’t know us. My goal is that anyone, anywhere, will be able to take full advantage of what we offer.

As someone with a reputation as a big music fan, what do you think is the coolest example of music at the Smithsonian?

I had the opportunity to attend the first two Ingenuity Awards events sponsored by Smithsonian magazine, where I got to hear and meet Esperanza Spalding and St. Vincent (along with Herbie Hancock and David Byrne). These incredible artists are pushing musical boundaries. We have an incredible jazz footprint, from our Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra to our music collections in Folkways. And then, of course, there is the pure artistry of Ken Slowik of our Smithsonian Chamber Music Society playing the rare Marylebone Stradivarius cello from our collection. Bravo!


Posted: 28 January 2015
About the Author:

Dave Haddock writes and produces videos for the Office of Public Affairs.