Autry President announces retirement; Successor named

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Autry President announces retirement; Successor named
UCLA professor Stephen Aron will become President and CEO.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Autry Museum of the American West announced today that current President and CEO, W. Richard West, Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), will retire in June 2021, with UCLA professor Stephen Aron becoming President and CEO at that time.

At the request of the Autry’s Board of Trustees, West will stay with the Autry until next summer to ensure a smooth transition through what is expected to be the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the Autry has been able to adapt successfully to the hard realities of the current crisis while creating a robust and imaginative programming presence for the public virtually. Highlights have included the “Collecting Community History Initiative: The West During COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter Protests,” a project by Associate Curator Tyree Boyd-Pates that collects and preserves posters and other ephemera from the current moment.

Appointed in 2012, and previously a Native rights lawyer and Founding Director and Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., West was essentially recruited out of retirement and to Los Angeles by the Autry’s Board of Trustees. Over the past eight years, West expanded the museum’s team with nationally recognized and diverse new hires, led a successful campaign that has raised over $70 million, and firmly placed the Autry on the map as a culturally relevant destination.

During West’s tenure, the Autry has produced numerous successful exhibitions—including Empire and Liberty, Play!, Route 66, LA RAZA, and The Art of Harry Fonseca—along with acclaimed public programs such as Native Voices, its resident theatre company. He oversaw the construction of the Autry’s Resources Center, a state-of-the-art collections, research, and education facility in Burbank, as well as a process with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to find a sustainable future for the historic Southwest Museum of the American Indian. His successor, Stephen Aron—who in addition to serving as Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, was also the Founding Executive Director and (then) Chair of the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry—will continue the trajectory that West has set.

“In all truth, Rick West breathed new life into this institution,” said David Cartwright, Chair of the Autry Board of Trustees. “When he arrived in 2012, he brought with him a clear vision for success and the abundant leadership skills to go with it. Thanks to his unique experience founding and then running the Smithsonian’s NMAI—not to mention his background as an attorney, and as the son of a prominent Native contemporary artist to boot—Rick proved to have the foresight and acumen necessary for the museum to flourish. I am grateful that the Autry is on such spectacular footing for the next chapter of its story. On that note, I am very excited to have Stephen Aron rejoin the team, and look forward to experiencing his vision for the Autry.”

A past president of the Western History Association, Stephen Aron has been on the UCLA faculty since 1996. For many of those years, he held a concurrent appointment as Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the American West and then Chair of Western History at the Autry Museum. “I’ve spent more than three decades researching and writing about the confluences and confrontations of peoples and cultures that shaped the history of North American frontiers and borderlands, but it was my time at the Autry that truly transformed how I think and teach about the American West,” commented Aron. “At the Autry, I learned the power of arts and objects, the joy of collaborations, and the imperative of public history. I’m so honored now to rejoin the Autry family, and I’m excited to embrace the challenge of making our museum matter more to more people.”

Aron will retire from UCLA and become professor emeritus in June 2021. He most recently teamed up with the Autry on its “Collecting Community History Initiative: The West During COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter Protests,” partnering on a grant for the initiative from the UCLA History Department’s Luskin Center for History and Policy. “That project speaks so powerfully for the museum’s mission, and the grant will help the Autry collect the stories of all peoples and connect the present with past pandemics and protests. The Collecting Community History Initiative 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," explained Aron.

In his final year before he retires, West, who will be named President Emeritus and Ambassador, Native Communities, will host a series of capstone events that draw on his tenure as a museum director in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and his background as a Southern Cheyenne peace chief and son of a Native contemporary artist. These events will reflect upon current trends in museology, how cultural institutions can best survive during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and broader considerations for presenting history in a divided society.

“My life as a museum director has been a double-rainbow—leading not one but two world-class cultural institutions,” said West. “I am honored to have made the journey to Los Angeles to lead the Autry. We have vastly expanded notions of the importance and relevance of the American West in this nation’s vibrant and complex arts and culture tapestry. This event series offers a unique opportunity to reflect on what it has meant to me, especially as a Native person, to lead both. I will be able to leave with a welcome level of comfort, knowing the museum will be in the good hands of Steve Aron. I cannot wait to see the bold new directions he will take this institution that we both love.”

West, by dint of his future role at the Autry, will also help ensure that the museum’s strong ties to the Native community continue to grow. “Our relationship with a great number of tribes, both local and national, have improved immeasurably thanks to Rick and his profile, as well as our work toward fulfilling our obligations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” said Marshall McKay, Yocha Dehe Wintun, Tribal Elder and Autry Museum Chair Emeritus. “Rick’s personal background as a citizen of a Native nation and his experience founding and running the NMAI, and his years of good work at the Autry, have all resulted in meaningful events, programs, and exhibitions by and for the Native community. We look forward to continuing and building upon this progress, both with Rick in his new role, as well as with Steve’s knowledge, thanks in large part to his scholarship, of important issues to our community.”

The Autry Museum was co-founded in 1988 by Jackie and Gene Autry and Joanne and Monte Hale, and has grown to encompass a broad and inclusive representation of art, artifacts, cultural materials, and library holdings. The Autry's collections of more than 600,000 objects, historic and cultural materials, and art reflect the interconnectedness of peoples and communities in the American West. From inception, the museum was intended as a place for deep cultural exploration—epitomized by West’s tenure and Aron’s future presidency.

“I deeply appreciate everything Rick West has done for the Autry during his tenure. I know Gene would be proud of the Museum and all that has been accomplished,” said Jackie Autry, Founding Chair and Life Trustee. “I especially want to thank Rick for ensuring the stability and survival of the Museum during the challenging times brought about by the pandemic, and for his willingness to ensure a smooth turnover to Steve Aron, who will be taking over as President of the Autry Museum. Steve has a long association with the Autry. As a highly-respected student and scholar of the American West, I know he will guide the Autry ably in the years to come.”

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