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Jewish Journal

Beyond the Cowboy

An interview with John L. Gray, executive director and CEO of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

by Tom Tugend

August 1, 2002 | 8:00 pm

In the office of John L. Gray, executive director and CEO of the Autry Museum, a large poster of Gary Cooper as the frontier lawman in "High Noon" hangs on the wall.

Above his sheriff's badge is a small card imprinted with the name of Poland's Solidarity Party, and in his right hand, Cooper holds a ballot instead of a gun.

During an interview with The Jewish Journal, Gray discussed the poster and the museum's exhibit on "Jewish Life in the American West."

Jewish Journal: What's the meaning of the Gary Cooper poster?

John Gray: The poster was used by Solidarity in 1989, when Poland held its first free election since the Communist takeover. I think it illustrates the image throughout Europe of the hero in American Westerns, who fights oppression and stands up for the rights of the individual.

Polish voters understood instinctively that they were asked to respond to their own country's "high noon" -- their critical moment of decision. In a sense, the image evoked by the poster helped change the face of Europe.

JJ: How and why did you decide to present an exhibition on Jews in the West?

Gray: Last year we had an exhibit on Chinese immigrants settling in the West, and before that on African Americans and Mexicans. My predecessor, Joanne Hale, always wanted to do an exhibit on the Jewish contribution, and when I took over three years ago, we continued her project.

JJ: Did you get any input from the Jewish community in creating the exhibit?

Gray: Yes, we have an advisory committee of Jewish scholars and community leaders. They provide oversight and have used their influence to obtain loans of objects and artifacts from other museums and families. We're trying to tell the story through the experiences of individual families.

JJ: What are the economics of putting on an exhibit like this one?

Gray: Daunting.

JJ: Can I quote you on this?

Gray: Yes.

JJ: What is the primary mission of the Autry Museum?

Gray: To tell the real story, which is often contradictory and complicated, of the American West. On the most profound level, we want to show how people who were often in conflict in the past, learned to live together and together built the West.

JJ: How does the Jewish exhibit fit in?

Gray: As in other exhibitions, we want to challenge common assumptions through careful scholarship. We hope the exhibit will be important, not only to the Jewish community, but to others who are not aware of the role Jews played in the history of the American West.

JJ: How large is your staff?

Gray: We have 120 full-time staff and 110 active docents. For the Jewish exhibit, we will increase the number of docents because we expect a very large attendance.

JJ: How are you financed?

Gray: Gene and Jackie Autry conceived the museum to show the real West, not the movie version. They originally gave $55 million for the building and collection, and recently Mrs. Autry added an endowment of $100 million. We have received grants from the federal government and rely on endowments and public support for 99 percent of our income. Our site is on city-leased land.

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