The venerable but troubled Southwest Museum, often described as the best-kept secret in Los Angeles, has a new director.
Duane King, assistant director of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, was formally named Monday as the new head of the 88-year-old institution on Mount Washington that has one of the most highly respected and extensive collections of Native American art works in the world.
Luckily, he enjoys a challenge.
"The distance between where this museum is now and where it can be in the future," King said in an interview last week at the Southwest Museum, "is so great it creates a tremendous opportunity."
In coming here, he leaves the famed Heye collection in New York, which is owned and displayed by the Smithsonian Museum. King, the ranking Smithsonian official in New York, oversaw the collection's move to its permanent home and has been involved in the planning for a new museum to be built by the Smithsonian in Washington.
In the spring, he was contacted by a search firm representing the Southwest Museum, and although he had visited the museum only a couple of times, he was aware of the collection's reputation.
"I was not looking to move," he said. "There were only a very few jobs in the country that could have attracted me away from what I was doing at the Smithsonian. This was one of them. Perhaps the only one."
King, 47, will have his work cut out for him.
Last year the Southwest Museum had to scrub a public attempt to find a new home. The museum's reputation also took a hit in 1993 when former director Patrick Houlihan--who was one of the nation's most highly respected museum officials dealing with Native American artifacts--was convicted of embezzlement and grand theft for secretly removing items from the Southwest Museum collection and selling them. (The conviction is being appealed.)
King said he was well aware of the museum's problems, which also include low attendance, lackluster fund-raising, a location far from other cultural attractions and cramped quarters that allow the showing of only a tiny fraction of the tapestries, paintings, baskets, photographs and drawings in the vast collection.
But King said he has faced even more daunting challenges, including as founding director of a historical museum on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.
"When we started there, we had nothing, no building, no money," said the soft-spoken King. "What they wanted was a multimillion-dollar museum in the middle of the desert in central Oregon on a 655,000 acre reservation, and we did it.
"Here, there is a building, a dedicated staff, a committed board of directors, a sound endowment fund and a potential for fund-raising. Los Angeles has that capacity."
King laughed. "Have you ever tried to raise money in the middle of the desert?"
His plan of attack for the Southwest Museum is on three fronts.
"We are planning on a complete refurbishing of the exhibits to attract more people here," he said. "Many of the exhibits have not been changed for several years."
On a stroll through some of the current exhibition spaces, where there were only a handful of visitors present, King expressed awe for the items on display. But he said the stark exhibition halls did not place the exhibitions in a compelling context. "One thing we can do to make them more memorable is to add interactive audio visuals, bells and whistles in effect," he said. "Right now it's primarily artifact oriented, so you don't get a complete cultural context of how an artifact was used or what its function was in a society."
Second, he wants to increase and enhance public events, like workshops and festivals. And finally, he said the museum badly needs more advertising and publicity to make it better known.
King, whose primary work in the field has been in administration rather than in curatorial or research endeavors, said that by developing adequate plans and approaching the right funding institutions, the money to fulfill these plans can be raised.
The president of the Southwest Museum board, lawyer Michael Heumann, said King's reputation as an administrator and fund-raiser is what made him the primary candidate for the job.
"I think it comes down to leadership, on the level of full-time director," said Heumann, "and that's been the missing ingredient.
"He presented us with a very well-organized, very well-articulated presentation of how we can go about moving this museum to its full potential. And he had a track record to show he has done it before."
King officially takes over on Oct. 2. In the meantime, he'll be wrapping up things in New York and making plans for moving to Los Angeles with his wife and 3-year-old son.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the future is very bright for this institution," King said. "If I didn't feel that way, I would not have put my career or my family's livelihood on the line."