EARL E. (RUSTY) Powell III says he's looking east through the Los Angeles smog and smoke, as he talks with me over the phone about his imminent move from director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to succeed J. Carter Brown as director of the National Gallery of Art. Our appointment to talk the day before had been canceled by the riots.
"I'm excited about coming back [to the gallery]," he says. "It's been like coming home for me. I began my museum career there." He had worked at the National Gallery for four years in several curating jobs, last as executive curator from 1979-1980. Mr. Brown will leave the directorship at the end of the year to become director emeritus.
"I worked with him very closely when he was at the gallery, during the crucial years ... on the most challenging exhibitions," Brown says in a phone interview. "He was promoted from curator to executive curator, a new title, by me."
Brown speaks of the enormous range of Mr. Powell as both scholar and manager, as a man who has a PhD from Harvard in art history and has published a range of catalogs and books. As a manager in the United States Navy and commander in the US Naval Reserve, he has a proven track record and is a good fund-raiser, as well as being on the boards of public bodies. "I'll be surprised if he doesn't do a better job here," Brown says.
Brown, who is a hard act to follow, has a reputation as an art impresario who fills his museum with millions of visitors with his blockbuster shows (though he dislikes the word "blockbuster"), such as "The Treasure Houses of Britain," "The Art of Paul Gauguin," and "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration." They are not only popular but scholarly, making breakthroughs in the art world.
Powell follows in that tradition, though he recently told The New York Times he expects to do fewer blockbusters. He says in this interview, "I am not, never have been interested in treasures exhibitions and blockbusters for popular appeal. I am interested in exhibitions that contribute deeply and meaningfully as catalogs for reference. I am interested in using the collections in different ways. I have no argument with those kinds of exhibits. The National Gallery has a great tradition of doing very impo rtant major shows."
Powell has brought growth and innovation to the Los Angeles County Museum in his 12 years as its director, increasing the budget from $8.5 million to $3l million; both attendance and membership have more than doubled, and the museum's capital campaign, which raised $80 million, has been successfully completed.
Powell says he expects to bring to the gallery some of the openness and expansiveness that are part of life in the West. He also has specific shows he'd like to see: one on his favorite artist, Vermeer; one on 17th-century Spanish paintings; and one on Thomas Cole, about whom he's written a thesis and book.