Portrait Gallery Director to Retire in '07

Pachter raised millions of dollars to acquire a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.
Pachter raised millions of dollars to acquire a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter, who has held a series of high-profile jobs during his 33 years at the Smithsonian Institution, announced yesterday that he will step down next October.

As director, Pachter was a key part of the team that redesigned the Portrait Gallery and refocused and expanded its view of history and art. The gallery was closed for a longer-than-expected six years for a top-to-bottom renovation; since reopening in July, it has had record crowds visiting the building it shares with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. About 30 percent of the visitors are coming after 5 p.m.; the decision to extend the museum's hours till 7 p.m. was made to fit "the vibe" of the revitalized Gallery Place neighborhood, Pachter said.

Pachter, 63, became the director in 2000. He said he is planning to invest time in writing about themes and personalities in American cultural history, his primary field.

"I really think of life in terms of chapters," Pachter said yesterday, sitting in the director's reception room, away from the bustle of the tourists and the office. "Even when I took on this job in 2000, I thought, what is this chapter in my life? Not only how important is it but what is its length? I thought, okay, this is probably my last organizational job."

Leaving next fall is a natural step, he said, having seen the rebirth of the museum.

"Then it seems to me that is its own chapter for the National Portrait Gallery and Marc Pachter," he said. "I was the one who brought it up."

In his long tenure at the Smithsonian, Pachter has served in a host of positions, including acting director of the National Museum of American History and chairman of the celebration of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary. At the Portrait Gallery, he created an interview program called "Living Self-Portraits" and organized the first national conference on the art of biography.

"For decades, Marc Pachter has been an invaluable asset to the Smithsonian in many ways: as a museum director, scholar, author, educator and interviewer. He's done it all. In doing so, he's greatly expanded the cultural life of the nation's capital and the country," said Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small.

Pachter was born in New York but grew up in Los Angeles. It was there that his lifelong passion for dancing was born. (He won a contest in the 1950s on "Make Believe Ballroom," the teen dance show. Now he tries to incorporate dancing into the special events at the museum.)

He has a degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. He was recruited to join the Smithsonian during a five-year stint at Harvard, where he earned a master's in history and taught Colonial history.

David McCullough, the best-selling historian and Pachter's friend for more than 20 years, said: "I consider him one of the Smithsonian's human treasures. He is wonderfully full of vitality and energy, and none of that ever seems to dwindle or fade."

While the Portrait Gallery was closed, Pachter helped reorganize its holdings, sent some treasures on the road and crafted his own priorities as the "re-founding director," deciding to toss the gallery's rule that people had to be dead for 10 years before the gallery acquired their portraits.

In 2002 Pachter had to raise millions of dollars to buy Gilbert Stuart's iconic "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington when it was headed to the auction block. The breakthrough came when he got a call from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas after officials there saw his plea on television.

"He was in our office in two to three days," said Steve Anderson, president of the Reynolds Foundation, which contributed $30 million for the painting and later gave the museum an additional $45 million. "The second gift was made possible because of the way Marc and his staff handled the Stuart purchase," Anderson said. "His charismatic leadership impressed our board."

While the building, now called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, was undergoing renovation, Pachter and American Art Museum Director Elizabeth Broun had to figure out how to explain the changes to the public. "Some saw it as a preservation project, others as a modernization," said Broun. "We decided that building had always been about the future, that every generation added something to it, and we discussed it around that point." They also decided not to have dozens of meetings in their offices but to make a grand list and periodically go to Cafe Atlantico for a brainstorming session.

Pachter said he looks forward to writing after he leaves the museum.

"I've missed the intellectual me. That's been it -- a little bit of jealousy of the curators," he said. "I used to do exhibitions, I used to write, I used to have a lot of time to think about what now I protect other people's ability to do."

Pachter is the second Smithsonian museum director this year to announce his retirement. Richard West, the director of the two-year-old National Museum of the American Indian, said in October that he would leave in November 2007.

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