John L. Gray said the center's collection of Western cultural materials… (Los Angeles Times )
John L. Gray, who transformed a museum devoted to the legacy of film and recording star Gene Autry into an intercultural history center with a broad view of the term "Westerner," will announce his retirement Tuesday as president of the Autry National Center of the American West.
Opened in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, the institution evolved over Gray's 11-year tenure into the Museum of the American West and merged with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in 2003.
The Autry National Center was formed in 2004 as an administrative umbrella over the two museums and a research center, the Institute for the Study of the American West.
With a single board of trustees, multiple sites and a collection of more than 450,000 objects, the Autry aims to appeal to a broad audience through such exhibitions as "Home Lands: How Women Made the West," opening April 16.
"John has done a tremendous job," said Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. "He has fundamentally established a major new museum in Los Angeles, dedicated to understanding the American West in all of its complexity from the 18th and 19th century past to the 21st century present."
Gray, 61, a former administrator of the Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C., and First Interstate Bank in Denver and Los Angeles, said he was initially attracted to the Autry by its collection of Western cultural materials.
"The museum had the potential to look at people's identity, how they could see themselves as Westerners and to help them learn through history," he said. "Understanding the past helps us make better choices for the future."
Gray's tenure was often fraught with conflict about the Southwest Museum, which joined forces with the Autry after a long struggle to support itself.
The merger sparked bitter resentment among a community group that feared the Autry would seize the Southwest's collection and abandon its building on Mt. Washington.
The Autry -- with a $14-million annual operating budget and a $100-million endowment -- has overseen an extensive effort to conserve the Southwest's collection and invested about $7.5 million in renovating its badly neglected building.
But a $175-million expansion plan including exhibition space for the collection in Griffith Park was dropped last year when opponents demanded that the Autry make a legally binding commitment to maintain the Southwest's historic building as a fully functioning museum. Plans call for redesigning the Autry's existing facility to expand the exhibition space.
"My largest challenge was dealing with people who didn't understand the role of the museum and didn't appreciate it," Gray said. "As a result, the process of saving the Southwest and working on expansion plans never were discussed in terms of cultural institutions. It simply became politics."
But he views the merger as a success. "The most exciting part and the part in which I take the greatest comfort is having an intellectual framework and context for the Autry, which is to tell inclusive stories from the perspective of the people who were in them," he said.
Gray said it is good time for him to retire.
"The Autry is very stable financially," he said. "We have an extraordinary exhibition program funded for the next four years that will present the Native American and historic collections in inspirational and complicated ways."
Gray will continue in his position until the end of the year or until his successor is appointed.