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County Museum's Powell to Direct National Gallery : Art: He is credited with transforming L.A. facility into bustling urban showcase during his 12-year tenure.

April 29, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1980, Tuesday was named director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Powell, who has transformed the once sleepy county museum into a bustling, urban showcase and proved himself a vigorous fund-raiser, will succeed J. Carter Brown, who resigned in January after 23 years.

The appointment, announced after a meeting of the National Gallery's board of directors, is effective Sept. 1.

Powell's "enormous success at the County Museum of Art" made him the unanimous choice of the board, according to Franklin D. Murphy, chairman of the National Gallery's board of trustees and director emeritus of Times Mirror Co., parent company of The Times.

"The fact that he had worked at the National Gallery and knew the place, the fact that he has a fine education in art history and the fact that he has a winning personality" also worked in Powell's favor, Murphy said. Powell served as a curator and administrator at the National Gallery for four years before coming to Los Angeles.

National Gallery President John R. Stevenson cited Powell's "wealth of curatorial judgment, fund-raising ability and administrative skills" as keys to the appointment.

"I'm deeply flattered to have been appointed but I have mixed feelings--positive ones about Los Angeles and excited ones about returning to Washington," Powell said. "I'm sad about leaving but the new challenges will be very stimulating."

"I think the National Gallery is very fortunate to have him. Rusty has performed brilliantly as director here," said Daniel N. Belin, president of the County Museum of Art board of directors.

Powell, 48, was virtually unknown when he came to Los Angeles but he raised his profile and that of the County Museum of Art during a period of unprecedented expansion. During Powell's 12-year tenure the museum has raised $209.4 million in private donations, including an $80-million capital campaign, and built a $31-million endowment. The annual budget has grown from $8.5 million to $31 million. Membership has more than doubled, rising from 42,299 to about 90,000, while annual attendance has grown from 497,449 to 968,224.

Powell will be only the fourth director in the 50-year history of the National Gallery of Art, which owns the nation's premier collection of paintings. Brown put the National Gallery in the public eye by launching an extensive exhibition program, opening the I. M. Pei-designed East Building in 1978 and adding about 20,000 works to the collection.

When Brown assumed his position in 1969, the gallery had an annual budget of $3.2 million, a $34-million endowment and an annual attendance of about 1.3 million. Powell will take over an institution that now operates with a $52.3-million budget and a $186-million endowment, and attracts about 7 million visitors a year. (While the gallery's operating budget comes entirely from the federal government, private funds are raised for acquisitions and special exhibitions.)

Powell is likely to take a cut in salary when he moves to Washington. He now is earning $275,000 a year. Officials at the National Gallery would not say how much Powell will be paid, but Brown is making $195,000.

The National Gallery's directorship is a highly visible post that has long been defined by Brown's aristocratic bearing, social connections and gregarious manner. When Powell moves to Washington, he will bring a different style to the gallery. Both Brown and Powell grew up in Providence, R.I., and were educated in part at Harvard University. But their appearance offers a sharp contrast: The 57-year-old Brown is lean, pale and has curly dark hair, while Powell is a stocky, athletic, ruddy-complexioned blond.

Brown, who is a descendant of the founder of Brown University, appeared to have been born to the National Gallery job. Powell has a middle-class background and has worked his way up through the ranks. Upon graduation from Williams College in 1966 with a double major in art history and European history, Powell served for four years in the U.S. Navy. He earned his Ph.D. in 1974 at Harvard, where he specialized in American and European art of the 19th and 20th centuries and wrote his dissertation on "English Influences in the Art of Thomas Cole (1801-1848)."

In his first permanent professional position, 1974-76, Powell was curator of the James A. Michener Collection and assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas in Austin. During his first two years at the National Gallery, 1976-78, he was a curator and senior staff assistant to both the assistant director and chief curator, then moved up to the position of executive curator.

At the County Museum of Art, Powell has directed an ambitious building program. A total of 281,000 square feet of new or renovated space has been added to the museum during his tenure.

The museum's collection also has grown exponentially under Powell's stewardship. More than 40,000 artworks, including 12 large collections, have been promised or given to the museum. Powell also has founded curatorial departments of photographs and ancient and Islamic art.

Powell at first appeared to be a dark-horse candidate for the National Gallery job but gradually became the front-runner as John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, withdrew from the competition and other contenders dropped out.

Powell was recommended for the position by a committee of board members: Washington attorney and gallery president John Stevenson; his wife, Ruth Carter Stevenson; New York financier Alexander Laughlin, and Washington real estate developer Robert H. Smith. Murphy disqualified himself from the search because he serves on the boards of the County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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