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Trusty Rusty: Powell to Retire from Longtime Gig at National Gallery

It’s entirely in keeping with Rusty Powell‘s self-effacing nature that the National Gallery’s homepage today is all about the art, with no hint of its big news: The museum’s longest-serving director, who assumed that post in 1992, has announced his plans to retire in early 2019, when he’ll be 75. As did Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum, he’s giving his institution a long lead time to search for his successor. With the Met’s directorship again open, these two preeminent institutions could be going head-to-head for top candidates.

Powell’s style of leadership was to appoint distinguished curators, encouraging and supporting their efforts and letting them take the credit. He spoke briefly at the press preview for the museum’s sweeping re-do of its East Building (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal), then promptly relinquished the podium to his curators.

Earl (Rusty) Powell III, speaking at the Sept. 27, 2016 press preview for the renovation and expansion of the East Building
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In what amounted to a well deserved paean to Powell’s character and achievements, the Washington Post‘s Geoff Edgers wrote that “Powell’s tenure has…been notable for something it lacked: controversy.”

Well, not entirely: In his zeal to acquire top works for the National Gallery’s collection, he showed little compunction about stepping on the toes of other institutions to get what he coveted. He struck a controversial deal with Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum to snap up Eakins‘ “Gross Clinic” when Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia decided to sell it. That plan incurred the wrath of the governor of Pennsylvania and the extreme displeasure of Philadelphia’s art museums, which regarded it as one of their city’s cultural treasures. (It was ultimately jointly acquired by the Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.)

And then there was the Corcoran Gallery deal, in which he opportunistically seized works that were in the weak hands of a foundering institution. That said, the National Gallery has been an admirable steward of that D.C.-based collection. While covering the East Building for the WSJ, I also toured the ex-Corcoran works that had been seamlessly integrated with the collections in the West Building’s galleries (as shown in this CultureGrrl post).

Powell presided over a well-managed bastion of excellence, worthy of his curators’ and the public’s respect and gratitude. The museum’s press release recounts his long list of accomplishments. He’s deserving of the same kind of send-off accorded to Philippe by the Met’s curators—a comprehensive exhibition of his institution’s greatest acquisitions on his watch, entitled: “The Rusty Powell Years.”

Earl (Rusty) Powell III

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