Smithsonian museum's spaces up for rent

Rental fees for the expansive Kogod Courtyard (left) could start at US$22,500 or S$30,600.
Rental fees for the expansive Kogod Courtyard (above) could start at US$22,500 or S$30,600.PHOTO: ROMAN LUTSENKO/ SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM

WASHINGTON • If it has been your lifelong dream to say "I do" to your Prince Charming in a real castle, the Smithsonian Institution in the United States capital has your fantasy covered.

In a major shift that will make some of Washington's most impressive public spaces available for personal use, the federally funded Smithsonian has decided to put up for rent its signature spaces for celebrations such as weddings, engagement and retirement parties, and proms and other teen events.

As of March 1, individuals, non-profit groups and corporations can host parties in more than a dozen venues, including the Renwick Gallery's elegant Grand Ballroom, the entire National Zoo, the Natural History Museum's iconic rotunda and the spacious Kogod Courtyard, which is shared by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Rental fees range from US$1,000 (S$1,360) for a conference room to US$150,000 for the whole zoo. Security, maintenance and other fees are extra.

Ms Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said: "There has long been high demand and high interest in using our beautiful spaces for life moments. Imagine a long-time docent has a major birthday or anniversary. They want to come to the museum, they want to host their friends here, they want to say, 'This is a special place for me.'"

The three-year pilot programme will bring in much-needed revenue for the museums that make up the world's largest cultural organisation, which must raise about US$500 million in earned revenue and donations each year to supplement its US$1-billion annual federal subsidy.

It will attract new visitors, too, and deepen relationships with the Smithsonian's core audience, officials say.

"We have people who deeply love our museum and, whenever possible, we want them to have an art moment," Ms Stebich said. "People create memories and associations with places that mark important moments in their lives. Let's invite them in."

The change allows the Smithsonian to catch up with other cultural organisations, including many in Washington.

The National Building Museum, the National Archives and the National Museum of Women in the Arts are a few of the spaces that already host such social events. The Kennedy Centre, which opens its new space, the Reach, in September, plans to rent it out for private events.

It took more than two years for the policy to wend its way through the Smithsonian bureaucracy and receive approval. And the venues do not come cheap.

That fairy-tale wedding in the Castle on the National Mall will cost about US$15,000 for rental and security and maintenance fees. Rental fees for the Kogod Courtyard are US$22,500 to US$60,000, depending on the type and size of event. There is an additional charge for keeping any gallery spaces open.

The Smithsonian's previous special-events policy, last updated in 2006, limited outside use of the federal buildings to co-sponsored events that individual museums would host for a donation.

Yet, despite the prohibition on private parties and outside fund-raisers, many of the spaces were busy. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, for example, hosted 150 events last year, bringing in US$1.1 million. The museum held 15 parties in November and December alone.

The broader rules should increase special-events revenue by 20 per cent, Ms Stebich said.

She and other Smithsonian officials are adamant the private events will not encroach on public programmes. That could limit some of their appeal, since most museums are open to the public daily until 5.30pm.

Event planners are enthusiastic about the availability of new venues.

Ms Aimee Griffin, owner of A. Griffin Events, said: "The city centre has a limited number of venues for large groups. The idea of having beautiful architecture, a space that is interesting? We are excited."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2019, with the headline 'Smithsonian museum's spaces up for rent'. Print Edition | Subscribe