May 1, 2013
Autry president embodies American complexity
W. (Walter) Richard West Jr., the new president and CEO of the Autry National Center, believes that a key job of this country’s museums is to interpret the complexity of the American heritage, and he embodies this mission both in his work and in his personal background.
West spoke to a reporter as the opening of the museum’s massive exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” approached, the Autry’s first major project to open since his arrival last December.
The founding director for two decades of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., West had formally “retired” before being convinced to lead the Autry, whose Western focus originated with the late cowboy film actor, Gene Autry, and Autry’s wife, Jackie. West’s background in American Indian culture adds new depth to a collection that now houses the former Southwest Museum’s holdings.
While West brings extensive museum experience, and a depth of knowledge of American Indian culture to his new position, he also has a special appreciation for the Jewish contribution to this city and country, rooted both in his own work and outlook.
[Related: How the Jews changed Los Angeles]
Born in in 1943 in San Bernardino, but raised in Muskogee, Okla., West is the son of a master Cheyenne painter, the late Walter Richard West Sr. His mother, Maribelle McCrea West, the daughter of missionaries, was of Scottish-American Protestant descent.
During his law career in Washington, D.C., West identified closely with his father’s ethnic and cultural heritage, representing numerous American Indian tribes.
He also received significant insight into the Jewish tribal culture while working as an attorney and partner in the Washington office of the predominantly Jewish law form of Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson, and he remembers the association warmly.
“I attended my first seder in 1973,” West recalled during an interview in his Autry office. “The evening held a special resonance for me, and I loved it.”
He also learned about the finer distinctions within the Jewish community, and that it shared one common concern with his own Cheyenne tribe. “Both worry about their children intermarrying,” he observed.
Drawing on his own personal and professional experiences, West spoke of his formula for a museum’s primary mission.
“An American museum, including the Autry, must serve as a touchpoint between the country’s various cultures and explore the points of engagement among them,” he said. “That’s not how histories are usually told.”
Putting it another way, West spoke of lateral or horizontal connections between different cultures and ethnicities through “crosshatching” and “stitching together” different communities through economic, political and civic ties.
Beyond that, West views museums as “civic centers for discussions” and “safe places for unsafe ideas.”
A graduate of the University of Redlands, Harvard and Stanford Law School, West remains trim and fit at 70. He is married to Mary Beth Braden West, formerly with the U.S. State Department.
The couple has two adult children, Amy, a clinical psychologist and medical school professor, and Ben, a screenwriter.