A Winding River Runs Through It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only two days before the opening of the most controversial exhibit to hit the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, and Director Peter Keller faced a dilemma.

Initially, he'd planned to pull one painting from "A Winding River," which featured Vietnamese pieces that some community activists railed against as Communist propaganda.

But news of his decision had prompted a deluge of angry responses from the public, and now the erudite gemologist wasn't sure.

For years, the Bowers Museum had sat in downtown Santa Ana not attracting much attention. But in the past few months there had been questions about Keller's ethics, questions about the museum's financial health and an exodus of employees.

Then this.

Keller, 52, reviewed, once again, the 70 or so voice and e-mail messages the museum had received--most castigating him--on his decision to edit "Winding River," said Janet Baker, the museum's curator of Asian art he had consulted with earlier.

After several hours, Keller, who declined to sit down for an interview but responded to questions submitted on paper, approached Baker and said he had changed his mind, realizing that "people are offended by censorship and they will protest no matter what."

Said Baker: "It took courage to reverse his decision and admit he changed his mind. That's not an easy thing to do, but he realized he can't make all people happy all the time."

Others view the incident differently, raising questions of a pattern of indecisiveness.

"Personally, I wouldn't have gone one way, then the other, I would hope," said board member Bick Lockhart, who said he generally sides with Keller on board issues, "but he was just trying to please everyone."

Keller defended the change, stating in writing, "If I make a decision and later am made aware of additional facts or information which, had I known prior to making such a decision would have altered the resolution, then I always reserve the right to change my mind."

Contract Extension

Continues Scrutiny

As Santa Ana has approved continued public funding to help the museum--reversing an earlier plan to phase out city support by 2007--and his board of trustees has unanimously extended his contract another five years, Keller is under the microscope again, and the concerns are many.

"We've all had our wonders," Lockhart said, "but you don't get perfection in any top man."

In the past several months, Keller has addressed many criticisms. A consultant has worked with him to help refine the vision of the museum and improve his management skills. And after the controversy where he purchased a personal item on an African trip and shipped it, along with items purchased for the museum, back at the cost of the museum, he has hired a public-relations firm to which he directs all questions aimed at the museum.

Keller describes the last few months not as rocky, but as "among the most exciting . . . in the museum's history." He said he was pleased with how the Bowers Museum "has gained international recognition in the press through the 'Winding River' exhibit," and he boasted of recently bringing in 10 new board members and signing agreements with the British Museum and a museum in Beijing that will result in a major exhibit at the Bowers.

"The museum has accomplished [very much] with a very small staff that has been asked to take on an extraordinary workload, and I can see how I might be considered inflexible when it comes to meeting our goals," Keller responded. "I, as well as the community, have set very high standards for the museum, as attested by our accomplishments."

He did not address the recent staff departures or the mailing from Africa.

Friends and foes agree that considering his limited experience, Keller has handled the job relatively well.

"We hire this fellow with good credentials, we tell him we expect him to do it all--raise the money, bring the great exhibits, everything," said board member Lowell Martindale. "And he's foolish enough to say, 'OK.'

"He's had to learn. [The board has] had to learn. It's been a learning process."

When Keller first arrived at the museum eight years ago, his primary training had been in studying gems. He had worked several years as a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Gemological Institute of America. But his role at the Bowers was his first overseeing an entire museum and managing a crew of 33.

Faced with the many responsibilities of the museum, Keller has sometimes responded by not delegating the work, Martindale said, and when he did, he would still make final decisions without regard to what staffers had recommended earlier, Martindale and former employees said.

In fact, he reversed his original decision to pull the painting from the 'Winding River' show without consulting his own curator of Asian art.

Wrote Keller: "There may be individuals who saw my efforts to stay informed about museum operations as micromanaging, when in reality, it was just to ensure that I was staying in touch with people and kept aware of the museum's day to day activities."

Acknowledging that Keller had too much to do, board members took on more fund-raising responsibilities themselves.

"We've narrowed the scope of his work," Martindale said. Keller will focus on getting exhibits, fund-raising and representing the museum. Board members will pull in more endowment funds, Martindale said.

Over the last year, Keller has also been working with board member Jack Shaw, past dean of the graduate management school at Claremont Colleges, to help hone his management style. Shaw said he has shown Keller the need to set priorities, delegate and give his subordinates more independence. Shaw contributes his expertise as part of his board responsibilities.

Keller said he has not worked with Shaw on his management style, only on setting museum strategies.

Previously, there had been complaints that Keller would hold weekly all-staff meetings but instead of following his agenda, would open his mail.

"If he came across something interesting, that's what you'd end up talking about, instead of what you had been talking about," one former employee said. "It led to other people bringing their mail and other work. It just became absurd. It drove everyone nuts."

Shaw said Keller realizes his strength is working with the outside community. His enthusiasm and museum contacts allow him to draw exhibits from all over the world.

And some colleagues say Keller is finally approaching issues with more forethought.

"He's being more reflective, that's the biggest change I've seen in recent months," Martindale said. "He's become more analytical in what he does."

Steps Being Taken

to Brighten Future

Two months ago, Keller sat down and mapped out who would sit on the board's executive committee, assigning each member with expertise or interest in a particular area, as a liaison to staff members.

"It was a big step in prioritizing and delegating more work to the board," Shaw said. "Now we're much more focused and organized."

And to help Keller direct more of his time to wooing donors and organizing exhibits, the board created a new position of chief administrative office and in April hired Vickie C. Byrd for the post to oversee day-to-day operations.

Though the latest controversies at the museum have rocked the museum and Keller, board members said they're hopeful about the future.

"We launched right into this race and just ran as hard as we could, never taking a breath," Martindale said. "Now we've had longer to reflect. We're on our way."

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