The Bowers Museum has hired Peter C. Keller of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County as its new executive director. Keller assumes his new position April 29, replacing Josie De Falla, appointed acting director in 1989 after the departure of Paul Piazza.
Keller, 43, has been associate director for public programs at the Natural History Museum for six years. He was responsible for overseeing permanent and temporary exhibitions, educational programs and publications. During this period, the museum was host to a record number of international exhibitions including shows from the Soviet Union, Colombia and Finland.
Keller has worked in the museum field since 1970, when he was a geology major at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and worked in his spare time as a volunteer and then as a museum technician at the Smithsonian Institution. While in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in geology, Keller curated the university’s E.M. Barron gem and mineral collection.
In 1976, he was hired by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County as curator of gems and minerals and as supervisor of construction of the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Four years later, he became director of education at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica and immediately was elected to the Natural History Museum’s board of trustees. In 1984, he returned to the Natural History Museum, initially as a consultant to develop a new gem gallery.
Arthur Strock, president of the Bowers’ board of directors, said Keller had several virtues that boosted him above the other five finalists, whom he did not name.
“He’s local; he knows and is known by the cultural arts community of Southern California, and he has friends and contacts among his peers and colleagues,” Strock said. “He was available to come on board quickly. And, probably of greater importance than either of those, he had very strong experience in three areas:
“One, he is a scholar, with a lot of experience as a curator. Two, he has a great deal of experience in administration--he understands that museums, to some degree, have to run as businesses, and he is both confident and comfortable doing that. Three, he is very comfortable meeting the public, promoting the goals of the museum, and he is a confident and experienced fund-raiser.
“The board all felt that this was a person we could work with and for, with a great deal of comfort. At the same time, there is no question that he is a strong-willed and determined person and will give us the leadership we need.”
Stock declined to state Keller’s salary. The Bowers, which focuses on art of the Americas, Africa and Oceania, has a collection of 100,000 art and anthropological objects. The current operating budget is $1.4 million.
Keller, who lives in Pasadena but is planning to move to Orange County, said Monday that the Bowers position is “just a fabulous opportunity for someone with my background.” He cited the chance to work with an institution “now literally starting from the ground up in many respects” (the museum has been closed since January, 1989, for a $12-million renovation and expansion) and the good fortune of becoming a museum director “without leaving Southern California.”
Asked about the lack of identity that has long dogged the Bowers, Keller said: “I think it will (have an identity) once it opens again (in 1992). It has a greatly expanded board that wants to do wonderful things.”
Keller said he was “very impressed” by the Bowers’ collection in the areas of American Indian, Pre-Columbian and African cultures. When he got out of the Air Force, he recalled, “I was essentially torn between being an anthropologist or a mineralogist. I went the mineral route, but I was always interested in ethnographic anthropology.”
He said his intentions are to assemble the best material in the collection into permanent exhibitions and, as he did at the Natural History Museum, to scout out material at other institutions to augment exhibits that would be curated by the Bowers and would travel to other museums.
But his first job, he said, will be to put together a strong management team, including a deputy director for administration and a development director. “One of the highest priorities,” he said, “is to increase the visibility of the Bowers in the community and establish a very broad private support base.”
The position of director has been something of a revolving door at the Bowers Museum during the past decade.
De Falla, who had been a candidate for the director’s job, withdrew from consideration last month, citing other job opportunities. Piazza was director for two years before resigning in the wake of postponements and major changes in the museum’s expansion effort.
Piazza’s predecessor, William Lee, held the job from 1982 to 1986. He left, he said, because of the long distance of his comute from Chatsworth. Lee formerly was at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles; as curator of anthropology there during the 1970s, he was a colleague of Keller’s.
Lee replaced Reilly Rhodes, who quit in disagreement with the city’s expansion plan for the museum.