John L. Gray chosen to lead National Museum of American History

May 8, 2012

John L. Gray, the founding president of the Autry National Center of the American West, has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution to lead the National Museum of American History.

The choice indicates the Smithsonian’s commitment to tell more American stories as part of its strategic plan. The Smithsonian has often been criticized for not including in-depth histories of events and people from the West, outside of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Besides his time at the Autry Center, Gray spent 25 years in banking, a background essential as museum directors increasingly have to spend more time fundraising. Gray, 63, replaces Brent Glass, who retired in 2011 after nine years at the museum.

Sitting in a small office Tuesday at the history museum, Gray said museums should raise expectations and then try to exceed them. “There is no more important American history museum than this one, and no other has more responsibilities than this one,” said Gray, dressed in a banker’s blue suit and shirt. “Telling the complex stories is a responsibility.”

At the Autry Center, Gray took the collections of the singing cowboy Gene Autry and expanded the museum’s vision via mergers with existing institutions. The Autry Museum of Western Heritage, based in Los Angeles, merged with the Colorado’s Women of the West Museum in 2002 and then with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, Los Angeles’s oldest museum, in 2004.

“John comes to the Museum of American History with a track record of transforming the organizations he has led,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture.

The Autry Center holds more than 500,000 objects and has an annual budget of about $16 million. The capital campaign raised about $100 million between 2003 and 2010, Gray said.

In 2009, the Autry withdrew from an announced expansion plan, and Gray said at the time that the project “would be an ill-advised diversion of our financial resources.”

With 5 million visitors a year, the National Museum of American History is the third-most popular of the Smithsonian museums. It has a budget of $34 million. The museum is undergoing a major renovation of a 120,000-square-foot exhibition wing, which will include a Hall of Music for live performances and a gallery for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation.

As a visitor, Gray said, he is impressed with the way the renovation of the main hall, completed in 2008, lets in light. The new display for the “Star-Spangled Banner” flag underscores the importance of the museum’s iconic artifact. “I want to expand the emotional quality that has,” he said. “What is the most essential thing is to focus on how the public sees the institution and how the public sees that stories are evolving and changing.”

Gray left the Autry Center in late 2010. He had served as executive vice president of First Interstate Bank of California in Los Angeles from 1987 to 1996. For two years, he had worked for the Small Business Administration in Washington, living in a basement apartment in Georgetown.

He is studying for a master’s degree in Eastern classics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. Final exams are next week, he said with a slight grimace.

Gray will officially start his new job July 23.

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