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The Autry Banks on a New Leader

With businessman John Gray taking over as director, the Western heritage museum looks to expand its horizons.

June 27, 1999|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

It is a museum prefixed with a single-barreled name, but that one name has colored most expectations of what is inside it--the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park, founded and named after Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy of film, television and radio fame.

True, his money, some $55 million of it via the Autry Foundation, and his collection of both personal memorabilia and Western artifacts opened the museum in 1988, but museum staff are quick to point out that this is not a shrine to Gene Autry. Autry died last October at 91 after a long and glorious career both as celebrity and as businessman (he owned radio stations and the Anaheim Angels).

"Unlike some other museums," quips Jackie Autry, his widow, "you won't see his stuffed horse here." In fact, four years ago his first name was dropped from the museum's title, to try to refocus the museum's image from the personal to the public, to make clear that it is a place with a broader mission, one that attempts to present the history of the American West--mythology, reality and all.

It is also true that from the beginning the museum was formed and run by a small, close-knit team, many of them still in place. But this year, 11 years after its opening, and with considerable achievements to its name--the 148,000-square-foot facility, a reputation as a major museum of Western history and half a million visitors a year--the museum's founding executive director Joanne Hale is stepping down. A friend of the Autrys, she is passing the reigns to an outsider, John Gray, a banker who was hired after an extensive nationwide search.

Hale cites personal reasons for leaving the job she created--wanting to spend more time with her family--but also, she says, "I thought it would be really innovating for the museum to have a new director who will bring some exciting new ideas and a vision for the future."

She won't be far away, though; she remains as president of the museum's board of directors and has agreed to weekly meetings with Gray.

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It all started with the kind of self-reliant, can-do energy that the West was founded on. In 1985, the idea was raised at a dinner Gene and Jackie Autry shared with Joanne Hale and her husband Monte (also a former movie cowboy). After Gene gave the nod, Jackie and Joanne started plowing through the masses of material stored at Autry's Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, which had served for years as a film studio. They bought a one-ton truck and hauled all the interesting things they could salvage to a Burbank warehouse.

"This went on forever, forever!" recalls Hale good-naturedly. "It wasn't until the end of the year [1986] that I started to think, we need a curator." They hired the husband-and-wife team of James and Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage. (He is now the museum's vice president and chief curator, and she is vice president for collections and exhibitions.)

The collection was growing by leaps and bounds. In 1986 they bought a private Western history collection in Temecula, instantly adding 11,000 objects. In 1988 they began their art collection by buying a group of 30 Western genre paintings. "It was always basically a Western history museum, not a Western art museum," explains Hale. "Art is dispersed throughout the gallery--it has to be meaningful with our collection."

Finally, the new museum--a massive building, architecturally a cross between Spanish Mission style and Modernism--opened in November 1988.

The Autrys continued to contribute objects, and the Autry Foundation helped pick up the shortfall in operating expenses--after admissions, shop sales and grants were tallied.

Fund-raising efforts are ongoing, especially for programming and acquisitions, though Jackie Autry admits the Autry name deters donors: "[They think] he's got more money than God, so why should I support it?"

A direct, no-nonsense sort of lady, she has a business background and has helped run the family enterprises. She is especially comfortable talking about the nuts and bolts of things, though she clearly has opinions about the museum's direction.

This spring the remaining 75% of Gene Autry's share in the Anaheim Angels baseball team was sold to Disney--the total deal has been estimated at more than $120 million--and Jackie Autry has said the money will go to the museum. Asked about it now, Autry says that funds from "my husband's estate" have been set up for the museum in an irrevocable trust. Hale confirms that an endowment, which the museum does not have now, is in the works.

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John Gray is a trim, soft-spoken man with a subdued manner honed through years of boardroom diplomacy. His lack of museum experience is notable--he spent the past two years as an associate deputy administrator at the Small Business Administration in Washington, and before that he worked 15 years for First Interstate Bank in Denver and Los Angeles.

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