Beverly Jones Cox has been with the
National Portrait Gallery
since the beginning- no, really. The 66-year old former Director of Exhibitions and Collections Management has just retired after 43 years with the gallery. “…before I knew it, it had been 43 years,” she says. “I kept thinking, I’d stop when I had my children, and then I’d stop, when I got to be 55, and then all of a sudden here I am, almost 67, and it’s, finally getting around to it. But [I] just never anticipated being there quite so long.” Here, in a phone interview, Cox talked with ArtsPost about her humble beginnings in the history department, her favorite exhibits, and what moments have made the biggest difference in her career.
What has been your favorite exhibit?
Well, I guess my very favorite was “If Elected,” which was unsuccessful candidates for the presidency, and that was back in 1972. It was my first real experience with actually bringing an exhibition completely together and finding all the artifacts for it – doing all the research, that sort of thing. And so that has a very strong memory for me, obviously. And I got to meet some wonderful people. The one that sticks out most in my mind is Barry Goldwater. He was really so generous with his time and cooperation, and seemed to love being a part of the whole show.
And then “Champions of American Sport,” which was in 1983. That one was just sheer fun because, again, getting to travel all over the country and meeting the athletes who were in that exhibition – Arthur Ashe…Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson, and Bob Cousy and just wonderful, wonderful athletes….it was a great, great experience. Dick Button…it was terrific. Going to all of the Halls of Fame of Sport all over the country, that was really a lot of fun. We even had a 1936 Maserati that belonged to Wilbur Shaw when he won the Indianapolis 500. I got to go on the racetrack at the Indy 500 and go around the racetrack there in Indianapolis. There was always something that was really fun to do.
How did you originally get your job?
I was going to be a teacher. I graduated from college and I was going to be a history teacher, and didn’t get a job right away. And then one day I said, ‘You know, I’ve always been interested in the Smithsonian and I’d love to just see if there was anything available through them.’ And that was [back in] the day when there was still a personnel office and you could walk in and actually talk to a person instead of having to just fill out a form. And so I went in to the personnel office – just walked in, completely without an appointment or anything – walked in and said I was interested in working for the Smithsonian and would they happen to have any jobs available. And it just so happened – a just freaky kind of thing – they said that we’re opening a new history museum – The National Portrait Gallery – and they need some temporary help to get things started. And so they set up an interview and I went over the next day… And I walked in and I thought, ‘Oh my God this would be so wonderful, I’d be working in a cathedral.’
But anyway, I went in for an interview, and they hired me right there. And they hired me on a three-month, temporary appointment, in the history department, and then…I just stayed, for the next 43 years. The appointment kept getting extended and eventually they hired me permanently. It was the flukiest thing, and that really doesn’t happen much very these days. But it was just my good luck, totally. I was just floored that it was that simple. Although I guess it wasn’t simple actually at the time, because they didn’t have full time positions yet for the museum, since everything was new and they didn’t know what they would need in the way of personnel and that sort of stuff. And so you never knew from one day to the next whether you would still have a job the next day, at first.
But I was just lucky and I kept getting extended until they were able to hire me full time. It was wonderful.
If you have had such an amazing time and have worked with so many wonderful people and exhibits, why retire?
The gallery is, I think, on firm footing. I think we have really accomplished so much over the years. When our collection started we only had about 600 portraits and now we have over 20,000. We have a great director and we are…moving in so many new directions, and it just seemed that it was the right time to give the younger staff a chance. The one thing that I didn’t want to do was to be the person that said – and I found I was doing this – was “We used to do it this way,” or “In the old days, we tried this, and it didn’t work.” And I didn’t want to be standing in the way of new ideas, and things that, for people that were excited about things, and I couldn’t …we might have already tried that, at one point, and for some reason it didn’t work.
I didn’t want to be just always doing that to people. And I thought that the gallery just needed to fly really on its own, with the new things that it’s thinking about and the new directions it wants to go in, and they needed young blood, new people, to do that.
What is the biggest change you have witnessed during your time at the Gallery?
The thing that was probably the most important was in 1976, we were able to start acquiring photographs. Before that time, the Library of Congress had requested that we not collect them because we would be competing with them. But through an act of Congress, the gallery was able to acquire photographs. And that made a significant difference in who we were able to represent because, as you know, so many portraits nowadays are actually photographs, and that really changed the whole direction of the collection. And then of course the acquisition of the Lansdowne painting of George Washington that we almost lost in 2000 because the owner was going to sell it. And we had had that painting since 1968 on loan and the English lord who owned it needed to sell it, and we had a national campaign to save it and we were fortunate enough, the foundation came through and bought it for us and then we sent in on a national tour. And so saving that painting for the nation was really incredibly significant, too.
What will you miss the most?
The museum itself. It’s a beautiful building. It has a wonderful history and the visitors…I absolutely love hearing the visitors talking about what they’re seeing in the museum. And being able to stop a visitor and say “Can I help you find something?” or “Is there something that you’re interested in seeing?” And just being able to show them around, taking visitors through the museum. That’s the thing that I’ll miss the most.
Starting a museum, actually being there at the creation, is so unusual, I think. And then having a chance to see it develop and grow, I mean that’s just an incredible, incredible experience. And I think that there was just such a love there for what we were doing. Our mission was very clear, and we just really were able to follow that closely. We have a long way to go, still. We still don’t have portraits of a lot of things… that we should have, but that’s just the nature of the game. But it was just so wonderful being there and helping it get started and helping it grow.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I guess mostly just that we maintained the high standards that we started with, and that we always keep clear what our mission is: to show portraits of truly significant Americans.