The Autry Museum of the American West announced Tuesday that current President and CEO W. Richard West Jr. will retire next June and be succeeded by UCLA history professor Stephen Aron, who was the founding executive director of the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry.
West, who was previously a Native rights lawyer and founding director and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., was recruited out of retirement by the Autry’s Board of Trustees in 2012 to relocate to Los Angeles to head the museum in Griffith Park, which was founded in 1988.
“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,” according to a statement issued by museum officials. “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 of West’s tenure include overseeing 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.
“In all truth, Rick West breathed new life into this institution,” said David Cartwright, chair of the Autry Board of Trustees. “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,” Cartwright said. “On that note, I am very excited to have Stephen Aron rejoin the team, and look forward to experiencing his vision for the Autry.”
Aron, a past president of the Western History Association, 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,” Aron said. “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, who will retire from UCLA and become a professor emeritus next June, most recently teamed 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,” Aron said. “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.” e
In the months before he retires, West will host a series of 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.
“I am honored to have made the journey to Los Angeles to lead the Autry,” he said. “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.”