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New Autry chief executive saddles up for challenging task

W. Richard West Jr., former director of Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, is heading up the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, which means hitting the fundraising trail to work on exhibition space and preserve its prized collection.

April 27, 2013|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • W. Richard West Jr., the new director of the Autry National Museum of the American West, at Autry National Center.
W. Richard West Jr., the new director of the Autry National Museum of the… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The…)

Recruiting a new leader for a big museum can take months — sometimes more than a year — involving search committees, consultants and rounds of interviews and negotiations.

In the case of the Autry National Center of the American West, finding its fourth chief executive since opening 25 years ago was a much simpler affair. The biggest challenge was for board chair Marshall McKay, tired from a 12-hour day of meetings, to muster the energy to rush through a hotel corridor in Portland, Ore., catch up with the man he'd pegged as the Autry's next leader, and make him a proposal from out of the blue.

Autry museum: In the April 28 Arts & Books section, an article about the Autry National Center of the American West said that Shelby Tisdale, its vice president in charge of curators and exhibitions, began her job in January. She started last September. —

The candidate — although he didn't know he was one until McKay had corralled him in the hallway — was W. Richard West Jr., who made his mark as a national and global museum-world figure from 1990 to 2007 as founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

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During his tenure there, West and his staff raised $156 million in private donations and oversaw not just the construction and 2004 opening of the main museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but the launch of satellite sites in New York City and Suitland, Md.

McKay and West are Native Americans and had spent the day in Portland in meetings of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, on whose board both serve. McKay learned that West, now 70, had come out of a four-year semi-retirement and was working as the full-time interim director of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

"I threw out a request: If he had any intention to continue leading museums, would he consider helping us at the Autry?" McKay recalled. "I explained [the job] to him literally while walking down the hallway, giving the 'elevator speech' of the Autry."

West's hiring, and the departure of his predecessor, Daniel Finley, after less than two years, were announced the following month. Because of his commitment to the Textile Museum, West didn't start his new job until Dec. 31.

The American Indian Museum "was something that most tribal leaders thought of as a dream rather than a reality, and we were thrilled with [West's] leadership" in making it real, said McKay, now vice chairman of the NMAI's board, having joined after West's tenure. McKay, who chairs the tribal council of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Northern California, had seen West in action up close, when he successfully courted a substantial Yocha Dehe donation to the NMAI. "I admired his work, and his stamina."

West "was the only choice, once we found he might have an interest," said Jackie Autry, who established the Autry National Center with her late husband, cowboy star Gene Autry, and continues to be its leading funder. She provides almost $6.5 million a year, which will account for more than a third of its $17.7-million budget for 2013.

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West said his enthusiasm for the day-to-day demands of running a museum was rekindled at the small but venerable Textile Museum, which displays rugs, tapestry and artfully woven garments from around the world and needed an experienced leader to replace a director who'd unexpectedly resigned during preparations for a move next year to a new venue.

"I decided I still love this work, and I want to keep doing it for a while," said West, who grew up in Muskogee, Okla., the son of Dick West, a noted Cheyenne painter, sculptor and art teacher, and a non-native mother, Maribelle, who was a pianist and music professor at Bacone College in Muskogee.

With his trim build and smooth skin, West is clearly not an old 70. He's known as a dapper dresser, sporting an assortment of check-patterned garments during a recent interview, along with the suspenders that have been his sartorial signature since his first career as an attorney with a practice focused on Native American concerns.

West says he didn't inherit an iota of his father's artistic talent. He earned a history degree at his mother's Southern California alma mater, the University of Redlands, then got a master's in history at Harvard before deciding in 1968, amid a dawning Native American rights movement, that it was important to be on history's front lines. He enrolled at Stanford's law school along with his wife, Mary Beth, whom he'd met in Boston.

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