Incoming director sketches the future: moderate growth for the National Gallery NEW GUARDIAN OF 'NATION'S GALLERY'

July 26, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Washington -- When he was named the new director of Washington's National Gallery of Art in late April (a position he will assume about Labor Day), Earl A. "Rusty" Powell was quoted in newspapers as saying the day of the blockbuster exhibit is over. It was natural for people to think that meant the end of the kind of big exhibitions that Mr. Powell's predecessor, J. Carter Brown, made the National Gallery famous for -- from "Gauguin" to It was also natural to infer that Powell was stating a dislike of big exhibitions.

But the new director didn't mean either of those things, and he wants to set the record straight. "I interpret a 'blockbuster' as a sort of big, expensive, non-scholarly, populist kind of exhibition that contributes very little to the advance of anyone's understanding or knowledge of art. I've never been particularly interested in those kinds of exhibitions." He doesn't name any, but he's describing the typical "Treasures of . . ." exhibition, such as 1984's "Vatican Treasures" at the Metropolitan in New York.

That doesn't mean, though, that he sees the end of all big exhibitions, or is against them. "I don't think there is going to be the same unbridled support for big exhibitions that we saw during the '80s, but I know I've been quoted as saying the big exhibitions are going away. I don't think that's going to happen at all," he said in a recent interview here.

"Large exhibitions are going to be more difficult to put funding underneath, and that is simply, I think, a fact, not a philosophical position. The cost of doing a vast international show is enormously expensive. Three or four million dollars is not at all unreasonable to see. We participated, in Los Angeles, in the Metropolitan's big Mexico exhibition, and our local costs were in the vicinity of $2 million. I think the days of one-sponsor exhibitions, at that level at least, are gone. We put together in Los Angeles a consortium of businesses and local foundations that contributed to make that exhibition happen. I think large exhibitions certainly will continue to happen, [but] institutions are going to have to be creative about the way they fund them."

He even knows of a couple of international exhibitions he would like to see happen -- one on the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer and another on 17th century Spanish painting.

Focus shows

He looks forward to "interpretively looking back at the 20th century." But he also thinks "You're going to see a lot more interest in exhibitions coming from the permanent collections," especially "focus shows" that concentrate on one or a very few works of art.

It's a museum director's job to have fingers in several pies at once -- exhibitions, collecting, administration, fund raising -- and Mr. Powell, 48, seems to have the perfect credentials for leading what he calls the "nation's gallery." He has been director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1980; during that time the museum raised over $200 million, and its annual budget went from $8.5 million to $31 million.

More than 40,000 works of art, including 12 major collections, were donated or promised, and 280,000 square feet of space were added or renovated. LACMA showed everything from Mexican art to Ferragamo shoes; the latter raised eyebrows, but Mr. Powell points out in its defense that the Los Angeles museum has a fashion institute, and that the show was organized by Britain's august Victoria and Albert Museum. He's against shows that are designed merely to bring a lot of people through the doors. "I don't think populist art for the sake of attracting an audience is appropriate at all."

He's also an art scholar, the first Ph.D. among the four directors in the National Gallery's 51-year history. He is a graduate of Williams College and Harvard University, and his Ph.D. thesis on the early 19th century American painter Thomas Cole became a book. Before going to LACMA he spent four years at the National Gallery as a curator, where he contributed essays to catalogs for such exhibitions as "American Light: The Luminist Movement (1850-1875)" and "Paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane."

He is anything, however, but an ivory tower figure. His full name is Earl Alexander Powell III, but that sounds far too formal for this all-American-looking former naval officer (during the Vietnam war), who would look just as much at home out at the stadium watching the Redskins as sitting in this carpeted and upholstered East Building office with its splendid view of the Capitol.

Even though the red hair that gave him his nickname has turned completely white, apparently everybody, but everybody, calls him Rusty. His easy manner, combined with the smooth confidence with which he answers questions, suggests he would have been equally good as a politician -- and considering that the National Gallery gets 80 percent of its $68 million budget from Congress, political skills are an important part of the director's job.

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