For Gary Garrels, it took just one look to change his direction in life.

The new senior curator of UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center said his passion for contemporary art began with a visit to a show of Mark Rothko's paintings in 1974. "I was awestruck," he said. "It stayed with me."

Garrels started graduate work in sociology at Princeton a year later, but art quickly became his focus. In 1976, he left Princeton to study art history at Boston University while working at the Hayden Galleries at MIT (now called the List Visual Art Center).

From there, Garrels took curatorial positions at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and did a seven-year stint as chief curator of painting and sculpture at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.

Most recently, Garrels was chief curator of the department of drawings and the curator of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His survey show, "Drawings From the Modern, 1880-1945," is one of the first exhibitions at the museum's remodeled facility.

The Iowa native is most excited about participating in the art scene in Los Angeles. "L.A. has matured as a city and there is now a critical mass of institutions and museums like MOCA, LACMA the Getty and the Santa Monica Museum," he said. "It's a good ecology of institutions."

Besides overseeing the planning of exhibitions, Garrels' focus at the Hammer will be building the contemporary collection. "The Hammer is an artist-oriented museum. I'll be looking for new artists to buy," he said.

In their spare time, Garrels and his long-term partner like to look at art. They'll also be enjoying the "light and vegetation" of their new Southern California home.

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