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A Winding River Runs Through It

Museums: The Bowers' Peter Keller navigates tricky waters, trying to maintain a balance.

July 09, 1999|ELEANOR YANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only two days before the opening of the most controversial exhibit to hit the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, and Director Peter Keller faced a dilemma.

Initially, he'd planned to pull one painting from "A Winding River," which featured Vietnamese pieces that some community activists railed against as Communist propaganda.

But news of his decision had prompted a deluge of angry responses from the public, and now the erudite gemologist wasn't sure.

For years, the Bowers Museum had sat in downtown Santa Ana not attracting much attention. But in the past few months there had been questions about Keller's ethics, questions about the museum's financial health and an exodus of employees.

Then this.

Keller, 52, reviewed, once again, the 70 or so voice and e-mail messages the museum had received--most castigating him--on his decision to edit "Winding River," said Janet Baker, the museum's curator of Asian art he had consulted with earlier.

After several hours, Keller, who declined to sit down for an interview but responded to questions submitted on paper, approached Baker and said he had changed his mind, realizing that "people are offended by censorship and they will protest no matter what."

Said Baker: "It took courage to reverse his decision and admit he changed his mind. That's not an easy thing to do, but he realized he can't make all people happy all the time."

Others view the incident differently, raising questions of a pattern of indecisiveness.

"Personally, I wouldn't have gone one way, then the other, I would hope," said board member Bick Lockhart, who said he generally sides with Keller on board issues, "but he was just trying to please everyone."

Keller defended the change, stating in writing, "If I make a decision and later am made aware of additional facts or information which, had I known prior to making such a decision would have altered the resolution, then I always reserve the right to change my mind."

Contract Extension

Continues Scrutiny

As Santa Ana has approved continued public funding to help the museum--reversing an earlier plan to phase out city support by 2007--and his board of trustees has unanimously extended his contract another five years, Keller is under the microscope again, and the concerns are many.

"We've all had our wonders," Lockhart said, "but you don't get perfection in any top man."

In the past several months, Keller has addressed many criticisms. A consultant has worked with him to help refine the vision of the museum and improve his management skills. And after the controversy where he purchased a personal item on an African trip and shipped it, along with items purchased for the museum, back at the cost of the museum, he has hired a public-relations firm to which he directs all questions aimed at the museum.

Keller describes the last few months not as rocky, but as "among the most exciting . . . in the museum's history." He said he was pleased with how the Bowers Museum "has gained international recognition in the press through the 'Winding River' exhibit," and he boasted of recently bringing in 10 new board members and signing agreements with the British Museum and a museum in Beijing that will result in a major exhibit at the Bowers.

"The museum has accomplished [very much] with a very small staff that has been asked to take on an extraordinary workload, and I can see how I might be considered inflexible when it comes to meeting our goals," Keller responded. "I, as well as the community, have set very high standards for the museum, as attested by our accomplishments."

He did not address the recent staff departures or the mailing from Africa.

Friends and foes agree that considering his limited experience, Keller has handled the job relatively well.

"We hire this fellow with good credentials, we tell him we expect him to do it all--raise the money, bring the great exhibits, everything," said board member Lowell Martindale. "And he's foolish enough to say, 'OK.'

"He's had to learn. [The board has] had to learn. It's been a learning process."

When Keller first arrived at the museum eight years ago, his primary training had been in studying gems. He had worked several years as a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Gemological Institute of America. But his role at the Bowers was his first overseeing an entire museum and managing a crew of 33.

Faced with the many responsibilities of the museum, Keller has sometimes responded by not delegating the work, Martindale said, and when he did, he would still make final decisions without regard to what staffers had recommended earlier, Martindale and former employees said.

In fact, he reversed his original decision to pull the painting from the 'Winding River' show without consulting his own curator of Asian art.

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