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Meet the man who brought the valley the Palm Springs Art Museum

Jun 23, 2009 By Jamie Lee Pricer
Before 1976 the Coachella Valley lacked any large, modern cultural buildings. That year, thanks in part to the vision and fundraising skills of Frederick W. Sleight, the public welcomed the opening of the 75,000-square-foot Palm Springs Desert Museum (now the Palm Springs Art Museum).

Sleight (1918-1980), born in Corning, N.Y., became director of a much more modest Palm Springs Desert Museum on East Tahquitz Canyon Way in 1965. At the time, his choice of jobs might have been surprising; he had been offered the assistant directorship of the then new multimillion-dollar Milwaukee Public Museum complex.

Frederick W. Sleight, director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum for 15 years, has been remembered as the mover and shaker behind the creation of the museum in its present location. A multi-discipline scholar, at the time of his death in 1980 he was writing a book about the geology of the Coachella Valley. (Desert Sun file photo)
A graduate of the University of Arizona in 1941 - his major field was anthropology with an emphasis on primitive art and he held minors in structural geology and astronomy - World War II interrupted his graduate work at the University of Michigan. He was a reserve office in the Navy during the war and, in conjunction with his Naval training, completed graduate work at the Graduate School of Administration at Harvard.

After the war, he did anthropological field work in Mexico, Guatemala, the West Indies, Alaska, South America, Spain, Morocco and the United States, and held interpretive posts in museum technology.

He held a post at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's department of Egyptian Art. He served as consultant in museum technology for the National Park Service and for the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and specialist in exhibit preparation at the Arizona State Museum.

Later he served as a consultant in museum development for the international Oceanographic Foundation in Miami and at the Atmospherium-Planetarium in Reno.

He was director of Central Florida Museum in Orlando and at the same time taught anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park.

The author of many published works in archaeological journals and periodicals, Sleight lectured in Latin America, Europe and the United States. He was also a guest lecturer for World Explorer Cruises for four years.

In his first 10 years with the Palm Springs museum, Sleight guided its growth and expansion, including construction of the complex at the base of Mount San Jacinto.

His leadership was acknowledged at the opening ceremonies of the new Desert Museum. Leonore Annenberg, then president of the museum's board of trustees, described Sleight as "the spark plug" behind the museum's $5.5 million dollar facility.

He died at age 62 on Nov. 20, 1980, 62, after suffering his third heart attack in about a year.

News of his death was carried on the front page of The Desert Sun, with remarks from some of the community leaders who worked with him, including H. Earl Hoover, museum board of trustees president.

"He left us a professional (organization)," said Hoover. "He was creative, a superb fundraiser.

"He took a relatively small operation and turned it into a large one. He trained the staff professionally. And the museum will go on as a tribute to him."

The files of The Desert Sun and Palm Springs Historical Society

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