Portrait Gallery Chief Alan Fern to Retire
By Jacqueline Trescott
National Portrait Gallery Director Alan Fern, who recently lost a bitter public battle over how much space his museum would have in the building it shares, announced yesterday that he will retire in June.
Fern, 69, has headed the museum since 1982. The gallery, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, is the country's only museum dedicated to using art to tell the history of people and events. Under Fern's direction, the gallery's collection doubled to more than 18,000 works and injected its stately presentations with popular cultural and sports figures. Last year it had 432,000 visitors.
Right now the gallery, which is in the historic Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and F streets NW, is closed for a $60 million renovation. Fern tied his retirement to that development, not to the dispute over space that will be allocated when the building reopens in 2003.
As one of his final decisions in December, I. Michael Heyman, the outgoing Smithsonian secretary, gave the Portrait Gallery one-third of the exhibition space in the sprawling building and two-thirds to the National Museum of American Art. In the past, the Portrait Gallery had about 40 percent of the building's exhibit space.
Because some offices are being moved to other locations, the Portrait Gallery will actually have substantially more space than before, but fans of Fern and the museum thought the decision shortchanged the unique gallery. Despite pleas to the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the decision was not overturned by the new secretary, Lawrence M. Small, the former Fannie Mae executive who took over last week.
"I'm not making any more statements" about the space allocation spat, Fern said. "I would turn 70 no matter what had happened."
It was widely known among museum officials that he was unhappy with the outcome and an early suggestion that the two units be merged. Two weeks ago, both Fern and Elizabeth Broun, the director of the National Museum of American Art, were called on the carpet by Smithsonian management and ordered not to talk publicly about the allocation dispute.
A native of Detroit who holds a doctorate in art history from the University of Chicago, Fern worked at the Library of Congress for 20 years before joining the Smithsonian.
"Now that we are closed to the public, it is easier to make a transition, and the programs in the future should be the responsibility of my successor," he explained. "I will not be as vigorous in 2003."
In recent years the gallery expanded the strict definitions of portraiture to include photography and caricatures, and brought to life the faces on the walls with plays, readings and concerts. Shows were developed around themes such as "Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II" and "Red, Hot & Blue: A Salute to American Musicals."
Fern said one way he wanted to be remembered was as a specialist who took care of the museum's traditional needs as well as branching into the contemporary interpretations. "As far as acquisitions, I am very proud that we got the Degas portrait of Mary Cassatt in 1984. It is a masterpiece, and it is very important to have pieces that are destinations in themselves," Fern said. "Yet as the 20th century got long, more of it was expressed in photography, and to give an account of what was going on, we had to expand our photography holdings."
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