Lawrence Looks to History to Imagine the Future

Photo courtesy the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens Karen Lawrence addresses donors at the dedication of the Chinese Garden, which was recently renovated and expanded. The Botanical Gardens are open for scheduled visits, available online at

After rounding out the Centennial celebration at the Huntington Library in 2020 — a momentous year for the museum amid cascading, calamitous events beyond its walls — President Karen Lawrence has renewed veneration for historical narratives and their diverse, ongoing interpretations and revisions.
This, she said, is how the Huntington will remain vibrant and relevant for centuries to come.
And perhaps, in another 100 years, the recent pandemic, historic marches for racial and social justice, and unprecedented political turmoil will also be explored as interdisciplinary displays at the world-renowned institution, much as it presented the “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibition, an exploration of the tumultuous year the museum was founded.
“We focused on important concepts during the centennial, asking the questions: How does a 100-year-old institution round the corner and still matter in people’s lives? How do the collections tell stories and compel people to be interested in them and what we have? And how do you make those collections available for reinterpreting to an increasingly diverse audience?” said Lawrence. “Our collections are here to be mined for new information and understanding; they’re not static, they’re not dead. But if these materials aren’t used by scholars, by artists, students and classes and through partnerships, then they’re not relevant. We are trying to build the emphasis on why they matter now and why they belong at the Huntington.”
Lawrence, who assumed her position as the ninth president of the Huntington in 2018, recently sat down via Zoom to discuss her vision for the storied institution and experience of navigating it through the pandemic. Though the library and art museum have been closed to the public since March, its 130 acres of botanical gardens reopened in July and feel more dynamic than ever, she noted. The gardens have attracted some 3,000 visitors per day through online reservations.
“It has been important to our mission to stay open, both to our members, but also to the public because we are such a great place for people to move about and be outside. I think we’ve developed very good protocols for visitors coming to the Huntington and also in protecting our own staff,” she said.
Though steering the nonprofit organization during the tumultuous and ever-changing requirements to stop the spread of COVID-19 hasn’t been easy, the Huntington has worked hard behind the scenes to strengthen its core, she noted. That has included an accelerated move to make its collections and programs more accessible online, including expanding its educational offerings of historical, literary, and art curricula. Teachers from across the U.S. can now access a variety of programs on the web for students in kindergarten through high school. In-person conferences and lectures also have gone online, enhancing access. One program on the science fiction collection by Octavia Butler, one of the most sought after by scholars in recent years, was shifted to an online format and garnered an audience of some 600 people, many more than could have visited in the auditorium which holds just under 400.
“This was an awesome result. Although we desperately want to go back to being open and having a room full of people, there’s no way to duplicate the energy of a room full of hungry people engaged in discussion, performance or lecture — I do think that we will never go completely back to just in-person programs,” she said. “The acceleration of digitalization and online programming has given our collections so much more visibility in that many more people [around the world] can tune in and access something they wouldn’t have otherwise, who couldn’t have traveled here to begin with.”

If Lawrence slips into a professor-like dialogue, posing questions and laying out conundrums before tactically prompting solutions, it’s because she is one through and through. The well-respected English and Irish literature scholar has continued to write and teach about literature while at the Huntington and throughout her entire career, writing widely on higher education, 20th century literature, particularly on the works of James Joyce, women and travel and experimental writing.
Before arriving at the Huntington, Lawrence spent a decade as president at Sarah Lawrence College, a tenure that was also rife with challenges during the Great Recession of 2008. Despite enormous financial challenges, she focused on increasing student diversity and scholarships. Previously, Lawrence also served as dean of humanities at UC Irvine, where she became a forceful advocate for the liberal arts.
To this day, one of her favorite artifacts at the Huntington Library (out of the some 11 million library objects) is a handwritten piece of manuscript from the last chapter of Ulysses: “It was a real thrill to see this manuscript and a few postcards in James Joyce’s handwriting,” she said, beaming. While it’s difficult to choose a favorite child, she admitted, her second most coveted piece might be the “Gutenberg Bible,” a rare Bible produced by Johann Gutenberg between 1397 and 1468.
Those who work with Lawrence said her blend of professor, scholar and business acumen have made her the perfect leader at the Huntington. She’s known for making thoughtful, meaningful changes and does her homework to gather facts, data and best practices, said Cris Lutz, assistant vice president of gift planning.
“Karen is a strong, bold, visionary leader — I think of her as one of principled integrity, but also very empowering and nurturing to everyone around her. And of course our leader is a James Joyce scholar,” said Lutz, with a laugh. “It is really part and parcel and embodies who we are. She has the mind of a scholar but the presidential leadership of a world-class institution in the 21st century. The scope and impact of what we do here is so broad and deep, it takes a real scholar like Karen to come in with a fresh perspective and mission to leave the Huntington better than when she found us.”
Christine Bender, longtime volunteer and Huntington board of governors vice chair, also praised Lawrence’s interpersonal skills and warmth in creating a positive team dynamic: “She’s very outgoing, very much a people-person and a connector, but also an excellent listener,” said Bender, who has seen the Huntington grow and evolve since first volunteering 28 years ago. “Karen seeks out multiple points of view and steers the ship with a calm demeanor and excellent sense of humor.”

From the start of her presidency (even in the interview process), Lawrence’s strategy of bringing the Huntington into the 21st century is one she began to hone at Sarah Lawrence College: focus on relevance, create more meaningful access and diversify from the top down to attract a broader audience and locally, reflect the changing demographics of the San Gabriel Valley and Greater Los Angeles.
Known among her colleagues as “Karen’s RAD Priorities,” the strategy is a multifaceted strategic plan that is broad in scope, focusing on “relevance,” “access,” and “diversity,” and involves developing exhibitions, community partnerships, social media presence, and the employee pipeline and fellowship opportunities through the lens of diversity and inclusion. She turned an ad hoc committee on diversity into a standing staff committee of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which has quickly taken strategic shape.

Photos courtesy Sarah M. Golonka
Karen Lawrence is pictured with Carla Hayden, librarian of Congress, the featured speaker in February 2020 at the Huntington’s centennial series, “Why It Matters.”

“Before she even started here she really catapulted these priorities, to be innovative and forward-thinking,” Lutz said. “That has included strengthening ties to schools and the children who come on field trips so that they someday might come back as curators or donors or members. Diversifying our reach is not just good for the Huntington, but it’s good for the world and good for the bottom line.”
Lawrence, for her part, recalled developing the goal to diversify as dean of humanities: “In my own work, in literature, I think developing a diversity of perspectives and diversity of life experiences has long been part of what I have tried to support.”
The Huntington’s comprehensive DEI plan launched in July 2020: “There is diversity in our staff and our visitors, but there could be more diversity and attention to cultural equity, access to the institution, the stories that we tell, and the perspectives that we have,” she said. “We are on our way, but we have much work to do. We have an implementation plan to get there which is what matters most.
“We also have a commitment to building on our collections and in acquiring collections. It becomes important to make sure that certain stories are told, not buried,” she added, noting the museum recently acquired a collection of accounts from the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement.
Diversifying exhibitions is also a part of Lawrence’s plan: The Huntington has recently partnered with the Hammer Museum to present “Made in L.A. 2020: a Version,” an exhibit of the work of 30 L.A.-based artists, installed at both the Hammer and the Huntington (but not yet open to the public because of COVID) — “in two versions that make up the whole.”
The collection of contemporary art (“which might raise some eyebrows,” Lawrence wryly noted) is an effort to bring L.A.’s East side and West side together, broadening viewership and expanding perspectives for both museums.
Christina Nielsen, director of the Huntington’s art museum, said working with Lawrence to expand the art museum’s profile and trying new things has been creatively inspiring.
“Karen calls what we’re doing not a revolution but an evolution,” Nielsen said. “If you have a brain that can handle ‘Ulysses,’ you have a flexibility and knowledge of classical references, a real grounding in the past, but one that can envision multiple perspectives and come up with a cohesive synthesis like she does.”
Though the exhibition has been in place since September, the museums are awaiting clearance from public health officials before they can open, a day, Lawrence emphasized, that cannot come soon enough.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens was represented at the 2020 Rose Parade with this lovely float.