Powell Cherishes National Treasure; during Earl A. Powell III's Stewardship, the National Gallery of Art Has Embarked on Expansion Plans and Held Some of the Most Popular Exhibitions in Its History

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Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

In the last 60 years Washington has gone from a cultural backwater to a world center of the arts, and the National Gallery of Art (NGA) has played a major role in that change. A gift to the nation from financier Andrew Mellon, the gallery opened in 1941 and has continued to expand as a result of the largesse of other great benefactors, including Mellon's son Paul. It is now the repository of one of the world's greatest collections of art, a national treasure indeed.

Earl A. Powell III is the NGA's fourth director. Accessible and genuinely affable (staff and friends refer to him as "Rusty"), it comes as some surprise that he's an art historian with a doctorate from Harvard University who wrote his dissertation on British influences on American landscapes, with a focus on Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. But then the whole staff of the NGA is accessible to the public, press and scholars in ways that the staffs of art institutions often aren't. And that's very much in keeping with the kind of institution its founder envisioned.

It was Andrew Mellon's wish, his son Paul said in 1941 on the occasion of the gallery's opening, that "the National Gallery would become not a static but a living institution, growing in usefulness and importance to artists, scholars and the general public. ... His building is the product of many minds intent on giving America their best."

During the decade Powell has presided over the gallery, a handsome and very popular Sculpture Garden has been added, new sculpture rooms have been opened and great exhibitions have been held - among them the enormously popular Vermeer show. Insight interviewed the director in his office in the NGA's East Building.

Insight: First things first. How did you become interested in art?

Earl A. Powell: I really didn't know I was interested in art until I went to college. At Williams [College] I took the Art History 101 course and got very interested. Part of it was that there were some great professors.

There is a wonderful Williams College Museum, and the Clark Art Institute nearby is a great resource. For a small town in the mountains [of Massachusetts], Williamstown has an abundance of visual cultural opportunities. It clearly made a difference to be able to go look at wonderful things and be involved with them as a student.

But my grandfather played an important part, too. He was a photographer and he used to develop other photographers' work. When I was young he dragged me in from time to time and let me hang around the darkroom. That experience was visually very important to me, and I've always been interested in photography as a result of it.

Q: Your field then is art history?

A: I went into the Navy after college and served for three years. While I was in, I began thinking about what would be interesting to do afterward and went back to talk to some of my professors at Williams.

It was suggested that since I seemed to enjoy art history and was good at it, why not follow through. So I went to graduate school, did a master's, did a Ph.D. and taught a couple of years. Then Carter Brown [then-director of the National Gallery] brought me here.

The East Building was in construction, programs were ramping up. I was put in charge of the King Tut exhibition [one of the most popular in the museum's history] and [laughs], I guess I ought to say that the rest is history.

But my background was pretty much a formal one. I double-majored in art history and European history in college. At the time, I never much thought about a career in art. I was interested in it and I enjoyed it, so I majored in it.

Q: Now you're director of one of the world's great collections. When you contemplate that pleasant and impressive feat, what's your reaction?

A: First, I think if you do what I do it's the best thing you could do. …

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