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David W. Scott, Official at Three Major D.C. Art Museums, Dies

Before joining what is now the National Museum of American Art, David W. Scott was criticized for his own abstract artwork in his home.
Before joining what is now the National Museum of American Art, David W. Scott was criticized for his own abstract artwork in his home. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

David W. Scott, 92, an artist and art historian who served as founding director of the National Museum of American Art, played a key role in expanding the National Gallery of Art and shepherded the Corcoran Gallery of Art through a difficult time after a controversial exhibit, died of multiple organ failure March 30 at a hospice in Austin.

Dr. Scott joined the Smithsonian Institution's staff in 1963 as assistant director of what was then known as the National Collection of Fine Arts after teaching art history at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. At the time, the NCFA was a staid, conservative institution -- so much so, in fact, that he was warned he would lose his job if he didn't take down abstract works from the walls of his own home -- works he himself had painted.

Sophy Burnham, author of "The Art Crowd" (1973), a muckraking inquiry into the New York and Washington art worlds, wrote that Mr. Scott discovered that the National Collection included only two pictures painted after World War II. One was of a U.S. Navy vessel that remained because the staff worried that its removal would be construed as destruction of government property.

"Scott determined to build the NCFA into a museum of consequence," Burnham wrote. "He wanted it to be the equivalent of the Whitney or the Tate -- vital, vibrant, fashionable, discussed, a force in the art world."

He continued his quest after being named director in 1964 and guiding the collection's transformation into the National Museum of American Art.

In 1969, he was named planning officer for the National Gallery of Art, where he served as liaison with the architect I.M. Pei, designer of its East Building. He also was involved with the gallery's acquisition and installation of the Alexander Calder mobile "Untitled" (1976) and the Joan Miro tapestry "Woman" (1977).

After his retirement from the National Gallery in 1984, he worked as a consultant for art and gallery projects throughout the United States and Canada and in preliminary planning for the remodeling of the Louvre museum in Paris.

In 1990, the trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art asked him to take over as acting director after the previous director was forced to resign because of protests over the cancellation of an exhibition of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Dr. Scott was 73 at the time and was renovating an old barn on Maryland's Eastern Shore that would become his studio, so he turned down the request.

After an article in The Washington Post announced that he had accepted, he saw no way to back out. "He was railroaded," said his wife, Doris White Scott, laughing.

During 11 months as acting director, he helped stabilize the institution by filling key positions, arranging for new exhibitions and returning the institution's finances to an even keel.

David Winfield Scott was born July 10, 1916, in Fall River, Mass., and raised in Claremont. After graduating from high school, he took a summer painting class with Millard Sheets, a leading figure in the "California Watercolor School" of the 1930s and 1940s, and Sheets became a formative influence. Dr. Scott received his undergraduate degree in English, with honors, from Harvard in 1937, then studied at the Art Students' League in New York.

He served in a photo intelligence unit of the Army Air Forces during World War II, taking photos in Europe and North Africa to be used in the invasion of southern France. He also developed an interest in European art history during the war.

He joined the art faculty of Scripps College in 1946, eventually becoming department chairman, and received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960.

After his many years as an administrator, he resumed painting in retirement, working primarily on what he called "abstractions and mindscapes."

Dr. Scott's first wife, Tirsa Saavedra, died in 1986.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, of Austin; two daughters from his first marriage, Tirsa Scott George of Tucson and Elizabeth Scott Enright of Singapore; four stepsons, Rollie White and Campbell White, both of Austin, Thomas White of San Diego and Wesley White of Princess Anne, Md.; a brother; a sister; and four grandchildren.

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