The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced that it has appointed Karen R. Lawrence, former president of Sarah Lawrence College, to become the San Marino museum’s ninth leader beginning Sept. 1.
“Sarah Lawrence is a liberal arts college that places both arts and humanities at the center of its educational mission,” Lawrence said by phone. “So I’m thrilled to grow and steward the Huntington’s extraordinary collections in both areas.”
The nationwide search for the Huntington’s new leader lasted more than a year.
With more than 750,000 visitors to the Huntington each year, there’s a desire to attract increasingly diverse groups and audiences.
Lawrence will replace interim President Steve Hindle, who is the Huntington’s director of research. Hindle became interim president in March 2017 when Laura Trombley stepped down after less than two years. The Huntington said Trombley wanted to focus on a book-length study of Mark Twain.
Lawrence was president of Sarah Lawrence for 10 years, leaving in summer 2017. She began her tenure shortly before the recession of 2008 and is credited with savvy fundraising during a difficult time, raising more than $135 million when many donors were closing their wallets.
Lawrence also has been praised for increasing diversity at Sarah Lawrence. Students of color represented 14% of the student body when she arrived; that number now stands at 24%.
Both accomplishments were attractive to the board members who chose her, Lawrence said in an interview. Among the big draws at the Huntington is a massive Chinese garden that opened 10 years ago with support from the region’s Chinese American community.
“With more than 750,000 visitors to the Huntington each year, there’s a desire to attract increasingly diverse groups and audiences,” she said. “So with cultural outreach, many different people can come and experience the extraordinary richness of the Huntington collections and enjoy the beauty of the gardens.”
Lawrence has a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale, a master’s from Tufts and a PhD from Columbia. Before Sarah Lawrence, she was dean of humanities and professor of English and comparative literature at UC Irvine.
Her deep interest in scholarship will guide her approach to her new role, she said.
“As someone who has spent her life doing research, teaching and reading literature, I’m particularly interested in the intellectual aspects of the Huntington,” she said. “That it offers conferences, lectures and the exchange of ideas. Collections like those at the Huntington really connect people across cultures and perspectives.”
Lawrence is also hoping to ramp up outreach to young people to help them understand how the scholarship and art on the campus are relevant to their lives. One area of research at the Huntington that Lawrence thinks enough people don’t yet know: the institution’s exploration of the history and development of California. She sees that as particularly relevant to the current discussion regarding immigration.
Then there is maintaining the experience for guests and scholars alike. Lawrence recalled a friend of hers who received a postcard from a visiting fellow at the Huntington. It read: “Greetings. I write to you from heaven.”