In his 12 years as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III worked on many things. He built buildings, departments, collections, membership, attendance and funding, and improved the quality of exhibitions. The ex-Navy man was at the helm during LACMA's christening as a museum of major proportion.
One thing he never got quite right, however, was the air conditioning in his office. It's always a little too cold in the copious space that faces Wilshire Boulevard from the Robert O. Anderson Building.
"A cold office has its advantages," Powell says straight-faced. "It makes for short meetings."
He sat for one such session just before moving his family back to Washington, where he'll assume directorship of the National Gallery of Art at the end of this month, succeeding J. Carter Brown and returning to the institution from where he came. It's inarguably the most prestigious museum job in the country.
Looking back on his tenure here, Powell sees himself as having been in Los Angeles during a time the city came of age culturally. He remains optimistic about its future despite recent riots and a stagnant economy.
"There is so much talent and energy here, the economy is bound to sort itself out," Powell said. "It's the end of a century and like other such times, people feel the mal de fin de siecle. As at the end of the 19th Century there are conflicting tendencies. In contemporary art there is no major track like the old New York School. Things started to disintegrate in the '60s. Now it's an international area that stretches from Anselm Kiefer in Germany to (David) Hockney and Bob Graham here. The times are interesting and eclectic and L.A. is right in the teeth of it.
"I'm troubled about the social unrest. Museums can't address such problems directly but they are educational institutions whose viability is an important manifestation of a city's health.
"They can't be a major force for social change but the interpretation of the collections can shape people's vision of history."
Powell's thoughts swing back to LACMA, where he has played The Master Builder. Almost reflexively he hauls out a diagram showing how to relocate the entrance to the Ahmanson Building to make for better traffic flow and bridge the atrium to gain more gallery space. He turns vaguely wistful at realizing his work will be finished by his yet-unnamed successor.
"It is a great job and I've had a great run. I have nothing but positive feelings," Powell said. "In that sense I'm not really leaving. But there is still plenty to do. My successor will start with a clean slate. There is no debt. This museum has grown from a regional entity to a national institution, but continuing to build the permanent collection is always a top priority.
"He or she will have to work hard getting funding in a tight economy. We've had a drop in membership. This is not an easy time but there is no place better than L.A. to address these problems. There's work to be done in the education department. We have an active program but there are still no classrooms or workshops.
"I hope some money will be found to start a museum training program for minority curators. We need them in a city like L.A., which is a kind of United Nations in miniature. There aren't enough minority museum people partly because the facilities for training them are in short supply. Now that UCLA is going to manage the Hammer Museum, it might be a good idea to make it into a training museum like Harvard's Fogg."
Powell plans to continue to strengthen relations between LACMA and the National Gallery established during his tenure. He sees an ongoing sea change in museums' ability to organize eye-boggling special traveling exhibitions.
"They aren't going away but all museums are searching for more creative ways to use their permanent collections. I'll be doing that at the National Gallery."
There has been some grousing among institutional insiders that the showplace on the mall does not lend enough of its treasures to sister institutions.
"I think that is a bit of a bum rap," Powell says. "The gallery has a national lending service. There are restrictions on the original collections. The Mellon Collection, for example, can only lend 12 pictures at a time. The Dale pictures can't be loaned at all. The day will never come when the National Galley can loan 50 of its prime works at once. Still I think more can be done."
Now the moment has come to think about the things that moved him personally. The highs and lows. Funny moments, scary moments, touching times.
Reminiscence is not exactly Powell's style but he's always game for a try. It must be a hangover from his days as a prep school footballer where he was occasionally mistaken for the legendary Sonny Jurgensen. He still looks bluff and hardy at 48 in his good suit with the elegant English shirt and tie.
"I could tell a lot of hilarious stories but most of them would get me in trouble with somebody," he says, ever the discreet model of a modern major museum director.
"There is this thing with Pratap (Pratadpaditya Pal, senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art). We both have Ph.Ds, so people call us 'Doctor.' If you say 'Dr. Pal' and 'Dr. Powell' fast they sound alike, so we are forever getting each others' phone calls."
The story doesn't exactly bring down the house. Powell tries again.
"When we were preparing the David Hockney retrospective there was a picture both David and I wanted very badly. It belongs to a European collector who just would not loan it. We tried everything. We wrote pleading letters. Nothing worked. Finally David in his usual humorous nonchalant fashion said, 'Well, I'll just paint you a new one.'
"He executed a second version which looked great. When the show was over he donated it to the museum."
Powell had nightmarish scares during earthquakes and a fire that turned out harmless. "The worst thing, of course, was Hammer." Powell alluded to the loss of the collection of the late Armand Hammer, who in 1988 broke a 17-year-old promise to donate his collection to LACMA. Instead he built his own museum in Westwood to house his valuable but uneven compendium of 19th-Century and old master art.
"There are even some funny memories of him. I think the occasion was a meeting with some Russian diplomats. Hammer became fascinated with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He devoured the entire thing while everyone looked on slightly aghast. Later he went to great lengths to find out who baked them so he could have them in the dining room at Oxy Petroleum. He was very tenacious.
"The single most touching thing came after the big 'Splendors of Mexico' show and the announcement that I was moving to the National Gallery. I got a group of letters from a class of fourth-graders."
One of the carefully scrawled missives, from a student named Robert Ayala from Washington Elementary School in Montebello, read in part:
"Dear Dr. Powell, I hope you like the National Gallery of Art. Do you know a lot about Leonardo da Vinci? I do. He loved to do all kinds of stuff like paint, sculpt, make music and liked to build things. Do you know there are only 12 paintings of his left? He's my favorite artist in the whole world."
"Those letters," Powell concluded, "are the kind of thing that make you realize it was all worthwhile."