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Smithsonian official rapped over expenses

Director ordered portrait of himself

The portrait of W. Richard West Jr., former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, reportedly cost $48,500. The portrait of W. Richard West Jr., former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, reportedly cost $48,500. (Washington Post photo via AP)
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Associated Press / January 5, 2008

WASHINGTON - The recently retired director of the National Museum of the American Indian spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission a portrait of himself and selected a non-Indian artist to create it, a newspaper reported yesterday.

The portrait of W. Richard West Jr. by New York painter Burton Silverman hangs in a fourthfloor lounge of the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is dedicated to the arts and culture of American Indians.

West, who has come under fire recently for travel expenditures, authorized the payment for the 2005 portrait after consulting with some members of the museum's advisory board, Linda St. Thomas, Smithsonian spokeswoman, told The Washington Post.

No other museum directors have commissioned portraits of themselves, she said.

Silverman, who is of Polish descent, was chosen after the Smithsonian "couldn't find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this," St. Thomas said. According to Silverman's website, the portrait is in oil and is 48 inches high by 34 inches wide.

West, a 64-year-old Harvard-trained historian and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was hired in 1989 to oversee planning for the flagship museum, which opened in 2004. He retired last month.

His expenses have come under scrutiny following recent reports that he spent more than $250,000 in the past four years on first-class transportation and luxury hotels.

West was traveling yesterday and could not immediately be reached for comment about the portrait, Smithsonian officials said. He told the Post that all his trips were authorized.

Two US senators have called for independent investigations of West's spending.

"It appears that Mr. West was determined to meet Mr. Small's champagne lifestyle, glass for glass," Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said in a letter to the board Thursday.

Lawrence Small, former Smithsonian secretary, resigned in March after questions were raised about his compensation and spending.

Kevin Gover, who took over as the Indian Museum's director last month, defended West's costs, saying he "would not presume to question his judgment."

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