Autry Museum President
and Chief Executive W. Richard West Jr., pictured at the museum
in 2015(Richard Vogel / AP)
The man credited for transforming L.A.'s Autry
Museum of the American West and championing contemporary Native
American artists has announced plans to retire.
President and Chief Executive W. Richard West Jr. will retire in
June 2021, the museum said Tuesday. UCLA history professor emeritus
Stephen Aron, who has a scholarly history with the Autry dating
to 2002, will succeed him.
West, who is a citizen of the Cheyenne
and Arapaho Tribes, has led the Autry since Jan. 1, 2013. Previously
he was founding director of the Smithsonians National Museum
of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and prior to that he
spent nearly 20 years as a Native rights attorney.
During his 7½-year tenure at the Autry, he is credited with
transforming the institution founded as the Autry Museum of Western
Heritage in 1988 by actor-cowboy Gene Autry and his wife, Jackie,
along with another singing cowboy, Monte Hale, and his wife, Joanne.
My life as a director of museums is a double rainbow,
West said in an interview. Ive had the honor and the
pleasure of directing two of the finest museums, but I made a vow
to myself that I would not be directing a museum when I turned 80!
West, 77, grew annual attendance at the Autry by more than 25%,
to an average of nearly 200,000 visitors a year before the museum
closed in March because of the pandemic. In 2015 he launched an
$80-million fundraising campaign (of which $71 million has been
raised so far) to expand exhibitions, programming and educational
initiatives. West also grew the collection, adding about 3,600 items
to whats now more than 600,000 objects art and artifacts
as well as a library and archives that include rare books, old maps
and sound recordings. In 2019 he oversaw completion of the Autrys
Resources Center, a collections, research and education facility
in Burbank that will open to the public in early 2021.
West who was born in San Bernardino and whose father was
an artist also shaped exhibitions and programming with an
eye toward making the museum more relevant and diverse. That has
included the Autry on the map as a destination for contemporary
Native American art.
The museum has presented traveling exhibitions featuring contemporary
artists including Rick
Bartow and David Bradley. The museums group show When
I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California
will open virtually this fall.
West is particularly proud of the 2019 Autry-produced exhibition
Leaves the Res: the Art of Harry Fonseca, centered on
the California-born artist whose estate the museum acquired in 2016,
and La Raza, the Autrys 2017 offering for the
Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative organized by the Getty.
La Raza was about a Chicano rights movement publication
of the same name that was active from 1967 to 1977.
West diversified the
Autrys curatorial staff with the goal of expanding whose
stories are told in the American West. This past December, the museum
announced two high-profile hires: Minnesota-based curator Joe D.
Horse Capture as vice president and curator, and California African
American Museum curator Tyree
A. Boyd-Pates as associate curator of Western history.
Tyree and Joe, because of their own experiences and their
own work, West said, will bring voices of the African
American communities and the numerous contemporary native communities
across the U.S. that then have impact on the life of the museum
and making the museum a resource for those communities.
Wests tenure at the Autry was not without its difficulties.
He inherited a controversial conversation over the future of the
historic but financially troubled Southwest
Museum of the American Indian, the 100-plus-year-old museum
in Mt. Washington that is L.A.s oldest. The Autry assumed
ownership of it when the organizations merged in 2003. The Southwest
Museum holds one of the countrys most important collections
of indigenous art and artifacts, for which the Autry cares. But
groups such as Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition and residents
of the area have argued that the shuttered 1914 building and grounds
should reopen as a museum unto itself. The Autry has said the cost
of updating and operating the building, including seismic structural
improvements, would be prohibitive.
In Spring 2019, together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation,
West began the complicated process of seeking to
transfer ownership of the Southwest Museum. Conversations between
the city, L.A. County and the Autry about the Southwest Museums
still in progress.
In 2015 West changed the museums name from the Autry National
Center of the American West a name it had gone by since 2004,
representing the Autry, the newly-acquired Southwest Museum and
a new research arm, the Institute for the Study of the American
West, for which Aron was founding executive director. Autry Museum
of the American West was more streamlined and Google-friendly, whereas
the old name, West told
the Los Angeles Times in 2015, is a bit of a misnomer
and out of date.
During the COVID-19 crisis and nationwide protests sparked by the
killing of George Floyd, the Autry launched collecting initiatives
to document the pandemic and the protests for future generations.
Boyd-Pates is curating the Collecting Community History Initiative:
The West During Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter Protests in
the West, acquiring and preserving ephemera handwritten
journals, photography, recipes, protest posters, face masks and
other PPE from this moment in history.
Aron, who joined UCLAs history department in 1996, helped
to secure a grant for the initiative from the UCLA History Departments
Luskin Center for History and Policy.
The project, Aron said in the announcement Tuesday, exemplifies
the ways in which Rick West and the Autry staff have tackled the
diversity and complexity of the American West, blazing a trail that
I intend to follow.
West will stay on at the Autry for such an unusually long time,
until next summer, because he feels its important to guide
the museum through what he hopes is the worst of the pandemic.
In something of a programmatic exit ceremony, West will host a
series of events, virtual to start, over the next year that touch
on museum trends, COVID-19, and contemporary Native American art,
among other topics.
I have great confidence in Stephen Aron, Im thrilled
hes my successor, West said. As for myself, I
dont play golf, Im not heading in that direction. Im
still involved with a number of Native-connected or museum-connected
organizations, and I will just continue to do these kinds of things,
the elements that always inspired and drove me.
Joe Horse Capture's Facebook Tribute to Ric West
Today we celebrated and honored Rick Wests museum career on
his last day of being a director. His multi-decade leadership has
transformed how institutions think and present Native American culture.
He, as they say,decolonized the museums he led long
before the term was invented. In fact, his perspective, hard work,
and dedication, have influenced our current thinking regarding museums
and how they should operate. Always a gentleman, Ricks gentle
but determined efforts will have a legacy that will last generations.
My family has been fortunate to call Rick a dear friend. Two generations
of Horse Captures have worked under Rick, and we are very
fortunate to be guided by his wisdom. One can say so many more words
about Rick. Thank you Rick for making us better.
||Here the man of honor holds a gift from the The Autry staff
for his service. This drawing, created by Holly Young, shows
Rick in his regalia with his traditional name shown in a glyph.