COMMENTARY : The Impact of County Art Museum's Earl Powell


When Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III was named director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shortly after New Year's Day, 1980, the special exhibition galleries at the Wilshire Boulevard facility were filled with the most astonishing group of Venetian Renaissance paintings to have been assembled in the United States or Europe in years.

The dream exhibition of Powell's outgoing predecessor, Kenneth H. Donahue, "The Golden Century of Venetian Painting" said two things about the youthful institution Powell was about to inherit. One was that the museum, which had been an independent entity for scarcely 15 years, did indeed have the wherewithal to pull off a show worthy of any of the world's great museums. The other was that such achievements were rarer than snowstorms in Los Angeles--and, rarer than great art in LACMA's permanent collection.

Powell arrived in L.A. at a moment of decisive transition for both the museum and the city. In retrospect, it appears he seized the moment by focusing on four closely related efforts: to improve LACMA's generally lackluster collection; to host important exhibitions; to upgrade and expand facilities for both; and to raise the money to pay for it all.

Money poured into LACMA during the boom years of the 1980s--a staggering $209 million in private donations during Powell's tenure, all told. That impressive record was likely an important ingredient in his having gotten the nod Tuesday to head the National Gallery of Art.

At LACMA, most of those millions have been spent on bricks-and-mortar--on new buildings, research centers, a conservation lab and more--as well as on works of art. The one area where fund-raising has not been sufficiently directed is into the museum's endowment, which now stands at just $31 million. For an institution whose annual operating budget has swelled to $31 million--almost a four-fold increase during Powell's expansionist tenure--the endowment is absurdly low.

Perhaps Powell's most important single accomplishment at LACMA was snaring the promised gift of the great Shinen' kan collection of Edo-period Japanese screens and scrolls, masterfully assembled by Joe D. and Etsuko Price. The magnificence of the paintings, which many regard as the most important such collection outside Japan, is matched only by the bizarreness of the building erected to house it. An eccentric, space-age riff on the design of New York's Guggenheim Museum--sort of Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-George Jetson--by the late architect Bruce Goff, there's nothing like it anywhere.

Powell also directed the sweeping renovation of the museum's existing galleries. Banished were the spare and awkward exhibition halls; installed in their place were Beaux Arts-style rooms--the kind common in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe when the museum-idea was born.

Some work better than others, but most are superior to what was there before. In all, more than a quarter-million square feet of space was newly built or refurbished during Powell's tenure. They house an upgraded collection, too. In addition to mainstream pictures by the likes of Jacopo Bellini and Jean-Simeon Chardin, there's such unusual fare as Pedro Berruguete's mysterious "Last Supper" and Hendrick Goltzius' astonishing "Jupiter and Danae."

Powell also pulled out hordes of things from storage, many of them minor and sometimes resulting in the Cluttered Storeroom Look for museum galleries. But, he developed important historical areas, too--areas often overlooked or downplayed in museums of much older vintage, especially late-Mannerist and 17th-Century European painting, 20th-Century German Expressionist art (the latter including the impressive Robert Gore Rifkind collection of graphics) and Arts and Crafts-era decorative arts.

The roughest moment in Powell's tenure may have been a 1982 IRS sting operation, which revealed lax acquisition practices at the museum, if no criminal wrongdoing. A more inspiring moment came in 1989, when the director and his board refused to accede to the inappropriate demands of patron Armand Hammer, who promptly decamped with his second-rate collection.

As for exhibitions, LACMA is now a prominent, regular stop on the traveling itinerary of major international loan shows. With Powell at the helm of the National Gallery, there's every reason to believe its position will be further enhanced.

Finally, though, it's the shows a museum chooses to organize that more firmly establish its reputation. Major shows organized during the past dozen years have included a wide variety of important historical endeavors. Notably, the achievement has been most consistent in the field of Modern art. Shows like "The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives," "A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape," "The Dada and Surrealist Word-Image" and "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" significantly expanded--or even redirected--the way we look at Modern art and its history.

It's ironic, then, that the biggest disappointment in Powell's aggressive building campaign was the design for the Robert O. Anderson Building for 20th-Century Art. Architecturally, Norman Pfeiffer's clumsy behemoth of a building is as egregious as the existing marble-clad pavilions it was meant to mask.

The great Modern shows successfully mixed insightful scholarship with broad popular appeal. Alas, the nadir of Powell's exhibition schedule abandoned scholarship in favor of flat-out pandering. The infamous show of Andrew Wyeth's "Helga" paintings, assembled by the National Gallery, was built around fabricated titillation and a financial arrangement of dubious propriety with the paintings' owner.

The groan of disbelief that had gone up in the newly cosmopolitan L.A. art world when LACMA was announced as a 1988 venue for the display was as sure a sign as any of the city's new artistic maturity. This was a heady development Powell had both contributed to and been swept along by.

Indeed, the status of LACMA's directorship may be the clearest indication of the museum's transformation. When hired as director in 1980, the little-known Powell was far from first choice. But, given a lackluster artistic record and a notorious reputation for a difficult board of trustees, LACMA was having considerable trouble finding someone willing to take the job. Twelve years later, as he returns to the National Gallery from whence he came, the post Powell leaves behind is likely to attract a variety of eager candidates.

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