The Huntington’s Foundations and Futures

Posted on Tue., March 12, 2024 by Sandy Masuo
Two people sit in chairs on a stage in front of a large screen.

Lori Bettison-Varga (left), president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, joined Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence to celebrate Founders’ Day and the fifth year of Lawrence’s tenure. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Founders’ Day is observed annually at The Huntington in honor of Henry E. and Arabella Huntington’s roles in envisioning and establishing the institution.

During this year’s Founders’ Day event, Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence characterized Henry E. Huntington as a futurist who believed in the potential of Southern California, and The Huntington today reflects that vision. “The mission, the goals of education and research and public welfare,” Lawrence said, were all there at the inception of the institution that Henry and wife Arabella Huntington founded. “But I think the breadth, depth, and magnitude [today] would floor [them]. … They would be surprised, walking in the gardens, seeing so many different people, such diversity and different ages.”

The program, titled “Founders’ Day 2024: Foundations and Futures,” explored the remarkable evolution of The Huntington from San Marino’s “well-kept secret,” the domain of the fortunate few who were in the know, to a world-class institution of learning and discovery. Leadership has been key to that growth, promoting expanded access to the collections and implementing management decisions designed to welcome diverse communities and individuals—both as guests and staff.

Two people sit in chairs on a stage.

Bettison-Varga interviewed Lawrence about the remarkable evolution of The Huntington. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The evening was also a celebration of Lawrence’s fifth anniversary as president. In a twist on the customary Founders’ Day tradition of speakers illuminating the continued relevance of The Huntington’s collections, Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, interviewed Lawrence. The format was similar to the Why It Matters series, in which Lawrence interviews distinguished guests about the enduring relevance of the arts and humanities.

During the lively exchange, Bettison-Varga and Lawrence noted points of connection in their personal and professional lives, discussed the challenges of achieving work-life balance, and compared their experiences leading small liberal arts colleges (Lawrence at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College and Bettison-Varga at Scripps College in Claremont) before assuming the helms of storied cultural institutions.

Two people sit in chairs on a stage in front of a large screen.

Bettison-Varga and Lawrence engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that illuminated many shared aspects of their careers and lives. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A literature professor and scholar of James Joyce, Lawrence emphasized the significance of language and communication in her leadership at The Huntington. She recounted the decision to change the name of one of The Huntington’s governing bodies, formerly called the Board of Overseers. After being asked to consider the historical implications of the term “overseers,” the board voted unanimously to change its name to Board of Governors. “It’s symbolic,” Lawrence said, “but language and symbols matter.”

That symbolic change was matched by actions that would address the need for broader representation at The Huntington, both in staffing and community connections. “We created a standing committee [in 2019],” Lawrence said, referring to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, “which is monitoring … and really continuing that work. When the twin crises of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd occurred in 2020 … we were in a much better position because we had tools to deal with that.”

A person stands behind a podium on a stage.

Gregory Pieschala, chair of The Huntington’s Board of Trustees, summarized Lawrence’s many achievements during her first five years as president. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Bettison-Varga, who grew up in Long Beach and recalled visiting and admiring The Huntington as a child, agreed with Lawrence about the importance of such work. “Our responsibility is to look at these hard questions and issues about our past, why we have collections, thinking about decolonizing and what that means to our institutions, and how we become places of belonging for everyone,” she said.

In his introduction to the program, Gregory Pieschala, chair of the Board of Trustees, praised Lawrence for broadening the reach of the collections and championing cross-divisional synergies among the Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. He also commended her ability to leverage a setback into a comeback, using the pandemic closure as an opportunity to move forward on a project that had been under consideration for many years: the renovation of the Rose Garden Tea Room. “We serve lemonade at the Tea Room,” he said. “So, she literally made lemonade out of lemons.” Other pandemic solutions—virtual access to the Library and online programming—continue to extend The Huntington’s reach.

A large garden fountain stands in front of an open pavilion dining area.

View of the Shakespeare Pavilion at the Rose Garden Tea Room. Photo: Joshua White / The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.  

The evening was punctuated by appreciative applause and laughter, such as when Lawrence joked about how Henry Huntington might have responded to The Blue Boy’s 2022 exhibition at the National Gallery in London, held a century after its departure from England. The Blue Boy was “a painting that [Henry] cared about so much,” Lawrence said. “He tried so hard to bring it from London to California that he might not have wanted to take the chance that it wouldn’t come back again.” On a more serious note, she surmised Henry and Arabella would be surprised to see Kehinde Wiley’s A Portrait of a Young Gentleman in the Thornton Portrait Gallery. Lawrence described Wiley’s 2021 work, which was inspired by The Blue Boy, as a wonderful example of how generative The Huntington’s collections can be.

When Bettison-Varga asked about The Huntington’s future, Lawrence highlighted two capital projects: one to expand access for researchers and the other to provide more resources for staff. The first, Scholars Grove, will provide nearly three dozen temporary residences for visiting scholars at affordable rental rates. The second, the 90,000-square-foot Library Art Building, will bring together Library and Art Museum staff, provide storage space for works on paper, include a conservation lab, and much more.

Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman

Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 2021, oil on linen, canvas: 70 1/2 × 49 1/8 in. (179.1 × 124.8 cm), frame: 87 × 64 × 5 1/4 in. (221 × 162.6 × 13.3 cm). Collection of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; Commissioned through Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; Gift of Anne F. Rothenberg, Terry Perucca and Annette Serrurier, and the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation. Additional support was provided by Laura and Carlton Seaver, Kent Belden and Dr. Louis Re, and Faye and Robert Davidson. | © Kehinde Wiley.

Lawrence also announced that a memorandum of understanding is currently in the process of being crafted with the Smithsonian Institution to bring together the expertise and collections of the two institutions in a multidisciplinary way over the next five years. Discussions about the collaboration began in April 2022, when Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was the featured guest for a Why It Matters event hosted by Lawrence.

A question from an audience member brought the Founders’ Day evening full circle when Lawrence was asked about how her experiences as a James Joyce scholar connect with her role as the president of The Huntington. (The 2019 Founders’ Day event featured Lawrence speaking about “James Joyce, or: How Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Steal.”)

Two people sit in chairs on a stage in front of a large screen.

In addition to revisiting the past five years of her tenure, Lawrence also spoke of promising future projects. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Lawrence emphasized the power of literature to broaden the way we see the world around us and how we connect with others. “I spoke before about paying attention to language,” Lawrence said. “What is between the lines is as important as what’s on the page.” She described how Joyce’s Ulysses, a 700-page novel about a 24-hour period in the lives of three Dubliners, reveals the interior lives of ordinary people and demonstrates an empathetic way of thinking about the lives of others—a valuable skill for a compassionate leader.

And, certainly, such a leader will continue to make connections between The Huntington and the public that will inspire and inform the institution’s continued evolution.

Two people stand together in front of a wall of framed artwork.

Lawrence recalled that Bettison-Varga had been among the first to welcome her to Los Angeles and The Huntington. Their collegiality underscored the evening. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Watch a video of highlights from the Founders’ Day event as well as the event in its entirety.

Sandy Masuo is the botanical content specialist at The Huntington.