National Gallery of Art Director Earl “Rusty” Powell, whose tenure has been marked by the collection’s growth, the renovation of nearly every space and a startling lack of controversy, will retire in early 2019 after more than 25 years in charge.
Powell, 74, planned to tell the National Gallery’s staff Tuesday during informal meetings. Next year, the trustees will begin the process of finding a successor for the longest-serving director in its 76-year history.
“I think I have run a pretty good race here, and it seems sort of a logical time,” Powell said in explaining the decision. “I turn 75 next year. And this will be after that. I still have some gas in the tank. I’m not particularly interested in sitting on the porch looking at sunsets.”
What he’ll do, he said, is not clear. But what he has accomplished at the National Gallery is easy to chart. Over Powell’s tenure, the institution, with a $200 million operating budget and 5 million visitors a year, has been reshaped, from the addition of a sculpture garden in 1999 to the dramatic renovation of the East Building, completed last year to add stunning galleries devoted to Mark Rothko and to Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross.” Powell has also overseen projects less buzzworthy but just as essential.
Six years and $19.3 million were spent renovating more than three acres of leaky skylights in the West Building, part of a deferred maintenance disaster once considered so dire it inspired a local TV news series titled “Gallery of Shame.”
Powell’s tenure has also been notable for something it lacked: controversy.
“He’s had that balance between being able to make decisions and yet not offend everybody,” said John Wilmerding, the former National Gallery deputy director who later served as chairman of its board of trustees.
Powell would never use words such as “consummate leadership,” as his supporters do, to describe himself. He can be witty, have strong opinions, but these often come as asides, spoken softly and without naming names. He is not one to call out other museum directors, even though he does note that he doesn’t agree with everyone in the field. About what? With whom? He won’t say.
This is in contrast with J. Carter Brown, the blue-eyed impresario he replaced in 1992. Brown loved blockbusters, mingling with royals — he brought Prince Charles and Princess Diana to the National Gallery in 1985 — and tended to spend less time on issues such as infrastructure.
Wilmerding remembered that when Powell started, he noticed a stiffness when Powell had to speak in front of groups.
“He relied too much on his notes,” Wilmerding said. “I remember saying to him, ‘You’ve got the personality — do more. Wing it. Tell jokes. Be yourself.’ That awkwardness rapidly began to change.”
Born in South Carolina, Powell was just 4 when his father died of injuries sustained during World War II. The family moved to Rhode Island, and his mother eventually remarried. Powell went to Williams College, where he played linebacker and, after struggling to conquer chemistry class, found himself studying art history.
As a boy, he had fond memories of hanging around his grandfather’s lithography business. In college, he found inspiration in S. Lane Faison Jr., a legendary professor who would help train many members of the “Williams mafia,” a group of graduates that included future museum directors Glenn D. Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art; James Wood of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Powell’s onetime roommate, John Lane, who led the Dallas Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Other Williams graduates to become directors include Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Joseph Thompson of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Powell credits his next stop — three years in the Navy, from 1966 to 1969 — with helping him develop the skills to become a leader. Lane also went from Williams to the Navy. The time served helped them step into directorships while only in their mid-30s.
“We had already had the happy burden of being responsible for a huge piece of machinery and a lot of fellow shipmates,” Lane said. “And in what were particularly dangerous circumstances. You were well equipped to take on responsibility.”
The service also, unexpectedly, led Powell to Harvard. One afternoon, Powell stopped by the art history department at Harvard to ask for a course catalogue. Professor Seymour Slive, a World War II veteran, noticed he was wearing his Navy whites, struck up a conversation, and then urged him to attend graduate school in Cambridge. This started a long list of opportunities that opened up for Powell, who noted that “I’ve never had to apply for a job.”
In 1976, not long after Powell earned his PhD, Brown hired him for his first stint at the National Gallery as a curator and special assistant.
And in 1980, Powell took his first trip to California to interview for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s top job. At 36, he began a 12-year tenure marked by tremendous growth, with the museum’s budget jumping from $8.5 million to $31 million and attendance more than doubling to close to a million visitors a year.
Comedian Steve Martin, who served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s board of trustees, marveled at Powell’s ability to embrace a wide range of art, his cordial nature and his ability to understand how to manage the many perspectives on the board. What’s more, Martin found it notable that Powell’s tenure was conflict-free.
“I never heard anybody say an unkind word about him,” said Martin, an art collector.
Powell, when asked about his leadership style, gives credit to others — curators, other administrators, staff — for making him feel comfortable delegating authority. He uses email but says many of his meetings are informal, taking place as he walks from his car to his office in the morning.
“I’ve always believed in a collegial, organizational structure,” he said. “I think communication is a really important thing. I learned to look at the big things. Not get bogged down with the little things. We make collective decisions about most of the things we do here. Our exhibitions program. It’s not ‘Rusty says we’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ We talk about it. We meet and discuss things rather than do things from the top of it.”
Powell can be so understated, it’s hard to know when he’s asking for anything. Even millions.
That’s what longtime board president Victoria Sant found when the National Gallery was raising money for the renovation of the East Building.
“You sort of don’t know when Rusty’s put the touch on you,” she said. “He’s not an aggressive fundraiser. He tries to bring things to people that they want, that was in their interest area. And I think one of the things that Rusty has stressed is that when you give a gift to the National Gallery, you’re really giving a gift to the nation.”
Sant and her husband, Roger, ultimately gave $10 million to the East Building project, which added more than 12,000 square feet of gallery space and an outdoor sculpture terrace overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.
That was just one of the most recent accomplishments during Powell’s tenure. The list of art acquisitions, exhibitions and building projects that have taken place since 1992 runs for pages, from the construction of Dutch cabinet galleries in 1995 to the endowment campaign launched last year after a $30 million matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Powell’s announcement means there will no longer be a director who spent time with Paul Mellon, the late philanthropist who stood next to President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the family’s money and art collection sparked the National Gallery’s opening in 1941.
It was in Powell’s first week as director that Mellon invited him for lunch. Later, the philanthropist shared his passion for a proposed sculpture garden. Powell remembers showing Mellon the plans.
“How big are the trees?” Mellon asked.
“We’re going to have them as big as we can get them,” Powell said.
“Good, because I don’t have that much time left and I’d really like to see this,” Mellon said.
“Mr. Mellon, we’re not going to give you a starter kit for the sculpture garden,” Powell said.
The garden, in fact, opened in May 1999, four months after Mellon’s death at the age of 91.
Powell said he never considered leaving the National Gallery, even when headhunting firms called to see whether he might be interested in other jobs. (Powell’s total compensation was comparable to those at other major institutions. He earned $1.17 million in the most recent public filing available, compared with the $1.44 million earned by then-Met Director Thomas Campbell.) He appreciated not having to spend so much time trying to raise money, as is the case when you’re running the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Nearly three-quarters of the National Gallery’s $200 million annual operating budget comes from the federal government.
He also feels a deep connection to the District.
“If you do what I do, it’s the best job in the field,” he said. “The standards are very high. The collections are exemplary. The programs are great. You’re not out with a tin cup raising money to keep the building open. The federal funding obligations are to keep it maintained. It’s got a center for advanced study. I came out of the academic side, and this is the most academic place that can exist. It’s a unique place in the context of American museums.”