Gary Beer was heading for Los Angeles when a call from the Smithsonian Institution inspired a U-turn.

He had been planning to leave his Utah home to go west to run Propaganda Films, a commercial and music video company that his consortium bought from Universal earlier this year. But instead he turned east for Washington, to become the first chief executive of Smithsonian Business Ventures, the new umbrella organization for the Smithsonian's moneymaking activities.

"We made a mid-course correction and came here," Beer said. But the call from the Smithsonian did not exactly come out of the blue. Beer, former president of the Sundance Group, the profitmaking part of Robert Redford's Sundance film organization, had been approached by the Smithsonian in November. He said no then.

While he wasn't interested at first, the Smithsonian kept calling, and in May, he said yes.

"I felt like here was an opportunity that wouldn't come around often. It was maybe something that a lot of folks would think about in the tail end of their career rather than the middle, but I felt like the opportunity was now, I had the energy for it now, and that there were real important things I could do for the institution," Beer said.

But then Beer knows how to change career direction. He was a D.C.-based lobbyist on environmental projects when he met Redford in 1979. In 1983, he left Washington for Sundance in Utah.

"At that time, it wasn't really much more than just a concept and some beautiful land in the Rocky Mountains," Beer said. For more than 15 years, Beer was at the forefront of expanding Sundance under Redford's watchful eye, founding its catalogue, cable channel and film festival, expanding its educational activities, and promoting independent movies. Sundance, he says, "changed my life."

He and Redford "talked a lot about art and commerce, and that really was the partnership," Beer said. "He has a wonderful quality: He takes risks and he invests in people. He could have easily gone outside to experts as opposed to allowing me to test my mettle, and fortunately for both of us it turned out that I knew what I was doing."

Beer left Sundance last year to work on his own projects, such as acquiring Propaganda Films. He is co-chairman of Propaganda but says he is not active in its management. On Aug. 16, he took charge of a staff of 500 at the Smithsonian, with a mandate to inject new life into the organization's businesses. He has overall responsibility for everything from the 22 museum shops to mail order, magazines and restaurants.

Last year, these activities brought in $147 million for the Smithsonian. Congress provided $402 million, but, said Beer, "the feds only really just pay for the building and the security and that kind of stuff."

"They kind of pay for the past," he said. "The future, the Smithsonian has to raise itself now."

First, Beer wants to increase returns from existing operations, which are profitable but aren't growing. He said that in many areas, the Smithsonian "never had strategic business planning."

He praises the stores at the National Museum of Natural History and the Freer Gallery but promises an early redesign of the older shops.

He wants to freshen Smithsonian magazine, which sells 2 million copies but which he says is "just not as relevant as it needs to be in the advertising community."

"It's a general-interest magazine in a special-interest world now," Beer said, "and that's tough in terms of advertisers." He is thinking about creating an additional magazine and two new, targeted catalogues, one most likely in the "home category" and the other based on the Smithsonian's extensive gem collection.

But what Beer says he is most excited about are some as yet undefined departures into Internet commerce. "I look at Smithsonian as a sleeping giant in that area," Beer said. "We have an incredible amount of content and a 30 million [person] database [of potential customers]. The idea of taking that content and those services and those products and using electronic media to deliver and to develop revenue streams around those new products and services that we create, that's to me the future.

"Most folks think of Smithsonian as a cultural institution or a museum. The mission of the Smithsonian is the diffusion of knowledge," Beer said. "I view the Net as an opportunity to reinvigorate that, to take that knowledge out of the museum, out of the attic so to speak, into the home and into the classroom."

There is the potential for clashes with Smithsonian traditionalists, but Beer believes that he can defuse the tension.

"I think the issues have to do with the integrity of the offering and the ability to do things that actually support the work of the curators and the researchers," Beer said. "A goal is not 'I want more money.' A goal is 'I want to do something really special that people want.' "

Players

Gary Beer

Title: Chief executive, Smithsonian Business Ventures

Age: 48

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Roger Williams University, Bristol, R.I.; attended Northeastern University Graduate School of Public Administration, Boston.

Family: Married, two daughters and one son.

Previous jobs: President and chief executive, Sundance Group; lobbyist, Linton, Mields, Reissler and Cotton; lobbyist, National League of Cities.

Hobbies: Skiing, sailing, tennis and American history.

On the Smithsonian: "It's a very well-known name and institution, but it's not a very well-understood organization. ... It's basically a place of pilgrimage for America, but my understanding -- I'm certainly the new guy on the block -- is that the mission of the institution encompasses a much broader tent beyond just the preservation of objects."

CAPTION: Gary Beer looks over plans for the National Air and Space Museum's new multilevel store for visitors. The former Sundance Group president heads the Smithsonian Institution's profitmaking operations.