Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun

The longtime director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery is stepping down from her post. Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, who shepherded both of those museums through tip-to-tail overhauls, is retiring at the end of the year.

Broun, who came to the Smithsonian in 1983, is currently the longest-serving museum director in the Smithsonian system. Her career in exhibitions has been marked by intense scholarship and controversy alike, while her work as a director can be measured by millions in major fundraising drives.

Most recently, Broun steered the $30 million renovation of the Renwick, during which the crafts museum was closed for two years. The Renwick reopened last November with “Wonder,” a splashy contemporary-art exhibit that has drawn crowds and criticism. To highlight the reopening, Broun put up an animated LED sign over the entrance of the Second Empire building. The sign still hangs there today, much to the chagrin of the federal government.

Broun guided the American Art Museum through an even larger renovation. She raised millions toward the opening of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the building that American Art shares with the National Potrait Gallery. When it opened its doors in 2006, the institution served as a critical cultural anchor for a reviving Chinatown neighborhood (and for downtown D.C. more broadly). The $283 million renovation of the Old Patent Office Building included the construction of the widely adored Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, which opened the following year. Featuring a glass canopy by Norman + Fosters and a courtyard designed by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the courtyard earned its status as an essential D.C. place almost overnight.

The building didn’t happen without a fight. In 1999, Broun petitioned the Smithsonian to eliminate the National Portrait Gallery and roll up its collection into that of the American Art Museum (then the National Museum of American Art). While Michael Heyman, Secretary of the Smithsonian at that time, denied her request, he decided to dedicate most of the space within the Old Patent Office Building to the American Art Museum.

All told, private support for the building’s renovation and reopening (including the courtyard construction) totaled $117 million. Among the gifts secured by Broun were $10 million for the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, $10 million for the Lunder Conservation Center, and $10 million for the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium. She also raised half of the $30 million for the Renwick renovation.

Broun’s record as a curator and exhibitions director is a mixed one. She is responsible for significant, award-winning scholarship on 19th-century American painters, most notably Albert Pinkham Ryder. She has championed George Catlin, a painter of American Indian portraits whose work could be construed as Columbusing. Under Broun, American Art has assembled a groundbreaking show on American art during the Civil War (curated by Eleanor Jones Harvey) as well as a cynical display on video games.

Perhaps the lowest moment in American Art’s history came in 2010, when the museum hosted a show of Norman Rockwell paintings owned by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. As critic Tyler Green has pointed out, that show was entirely dictated by its celebrity collectors, with no history or scholarship added. Museums that mount collector-driven shows run the risk of damaging their reputation. “Museums such as the Smithsonian should not be exhibiting private collections unless they have been or will be accessioned, and even these kinds of shows don’t usually have much focus,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott, regarding the recent controversial show of Bill Cosby’s art collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

Yet under Broun, American Art has also advanced crucial shows on folk art (Mingering” Mike, William H. Johnson) and contemporary media arts (“Watch This!”). In 2009, the museum acquired the estate of Nam June Paik, an artist the museum has tirelessly supported with critical (yet sensational) exhibits and installations.

While Broun’s service with the Smithsonian is at an end, she may still make several decisions that will guide the future of the museum. According to an internal memo (obtained by Green and confirmed by the American Art museum), before her departure, Broun plans on “meeting or exceeding our campaign goals, putting in place a new strategic plan, filling key vacancies, and rounding out our exhibition schedule.” Decisions regarding appointments and programming might typically be left to a departing museum director’s successor.

Broun casts a long shadow. According to the Castle, she is in fact the second longest–serving museum director in Smithsonian history, after Spencer Fullerton Baird, who led the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum for Natural History) from 1850 to 1878. (That’s 28 years; when she leaves, Broun will have been at her post for 27.)

“I am grateful to Betsy for her superb leadership of the museum,” says Secretary of the Smithsonian David Skorton, in a statement, noting that the institution will begin a nationwide search for Broun’s replacement. “We are indebted to Betsy for her commitment to overseeing the nation’s premier collection of American art.”

Photo by Tony Powell/Smithsonian