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My Antiquities Q&A with the Getty’s Michael Brand: Life after the Givebacks

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Michael Brand

While I was in Los Angeles last month for the opening of the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, I also spent an entire day at the Getty Museum’s two campuses (the Center and the Villa), and got to sit down for a candid chat with the museum’s director, Michael Brand, about the new phase in relations between American museums and source countries: What happens next, now that claimed objects have been relinquished?

Rosenbaum: Now that the agreements have been made with Italy and Greece, and objects
have gone back, do you have any sense as to whether you will now have closure, or is
this just the beginning of claims by source countries?

Brand: It seems much more on the side of closure than
not. We’ve been talking for two years, and now we’re talking about loans coming
from Italy. But we’ve always said that if any further information should turn up
about something from anywhere, we would review it and discuss it. We had a meeting at the American Academy in Rome at the end of November. [Italian Culture
Minister Francesco] Rutelli spoke. That was all about this [givebacks] being in the past.

Rosenbaum: Your acquisition policy states that “no object will be acquired that, to the knowledge of the Museum, has been…illegally exported from its country of origin or the country where it was last legally owned.” Why does that not apply in the case of the Getty Bronze? Was there no reason to suspect that the bronze was, according to Italian law, illegally exported?

Brand: That
wording is for NEW acquisitions. You can’t apply an acquisitions policy
retrospectively. The reasons why we have it in our policy is that,
while we use 1970 as the bright line, we are still concerned with the
provenance of the objects. If you can prove something was out of country before
1970, but there are some giant question marks out there and there are rumors and
suspicions, that would also be taken into account.

Rosenbaum: Is it
fair to say, though, that had the Getty Bronze come up for acquisition today,
it would fail that criterion?

Brand: I wouldn’t
comment on that.

Rosenbaum: How do
you answer the questions about the “orphaned object” [an object
lacking any provenance information] and AAMD’s rolling 10-year rule for antiquities acquisitions?

Brand: Our policy
does not solve the problem of the orphan. There IS a problem with the orphaned object. But there are all sorts of
orphans. What we’re trying to do in our discussion at AAMD [the Association of Art
Museum Directors] is either deal with the orphan problem or get to the point
where we can have a more productive discussion about the orphaned object. Our
acquisiton policy doesn’t deal with this.

You can look at it in two ways. For a particular orphaned
object, you could argue that one acquisition is not by itself going to
encourage illegal excavation. But if you were to acquire every single so-called
orphaned object, that WOULD have an
effect. You’ve got to somehow find a way of fulfilling two desires—one is to
not encourage illegal excavation and illegal trafficking; but, on the other
side, recognizing that it is good if objects come into public collections.

I don’t think any of us know what the perfect answer is. For
me to contribute to that debate, I had to sort out things at the Getty first.
Then I’m in a much better position to talk about orphaned objects and to talk
about the benefits of some sort of a licit market for antiquities.

Rosenbaum: How
would this work?

Brand: I’d prefer
not to talk more about that. AAMD is in the midst of that very sort of
discussion, so to give a personal opinion would be counterproductive.

Rosenbaum: What
have you been discussing with Italy, in relation to loans of objects to the
Getty?

Brand: We are
talking of a situation where, for the moment, the maximum is four years. Four
years is not quite long enough to work really well….Ultimately I think it would
be nice if you could have a category where things could be on almost permanent
loan, but whenever the Italians wanted to get them back, they could. You could
then build educational programs around them. You could build exhibitions around
them….Sending them backwards and forwards every four years has some good
points—you get other objects—but there’s wear and tear.

I think the point you want to get to is where some of the
objects could be on so-called permanent loan. Those would be objects that may be of lesser importance but could serve our purposes brilliantly—perhaps a lesser vase with a particularly interesting image that might relate
to some particular drama…Thematically, it’s useful to us but it’s not one of
the most important vases in the world.

You would also want to be able to ask, “Would
you consider lending for two years this fabulous object that it would be great
to have at the Getty Villa for this symposium? We recognize that
you couldn’t part with it for four years, but a loan for longer than the usual
10 weeks for an exhibition would be fantastic.”

Rosenbaum: What
do the Italians and the Greeks say about this?

Brand: The
discussions are further down the path with the Italians, because they’re
already doing it at the Met. We’re at the beginning stages in talking about
objects. There are bright people on both sides. But on the Italian side, they
have to work within their current laws. If they’re going to lend for more than
four years, someone’s got to change the law.


Rosenbaum
: Have
you started those discussions with them?

Brand: Yes. When Jim Wood [the Getty Trust's president]
and I were in Rome in late November for the American Academy conference, part of that
trip was starting this new relationship and introducing the Getty’s staff to Italian
colleagues….We are talking about one particular loan as the first loan, which
would be fantastic. The better the loan, the more disucssion it requires.

Rosenbaum: Does
it have to be one-for-one [one loan from Italy corresponding to each of the 40 Getty
objects being relinquished]?

Brand: One thing
you had to consider: If you went out and got [a list of] one-for-one [exchanged
objects] when the agreement was signed, would you get the best ones, or would
it be better to have a bit of a breather and to think about what you might ask
for?

Rosenbaum: How far
along are you in identifying specific objects?

Brand: We’re just
starting the process. We have to consider the impact on our displays of the
objects going back. I thought the last calendar year was the one where you
nailed down the really contentious issues and learned who the players are….This is the year when
we start pursuing things. There are some really interesting ideas.

Rosenbaum: Such
as?

Brand: There’s
the one particular object we’re looking at as a potential first loan. You can
do the loans in various ways. You can have object-for-object. You can have all
for four years. You can have some for a shorter amount of time, some from a longer
amount of time. You can have loans from all over the place or you can build up
a link with one or more particular institutions, where maybe 10 objects come,
as part of building a relationship with an institution.

Rosenbaum: Can
you say anything about the specific objects or institutions?

Brand: Not yet.
But you know you’ll be the first person I’ll tell. We’re trying to make it a
really intelligent, interesting process. If we can have an ongoing relationship
with certain individuals, we know that something good is going to come out of
it. By having a little patience, I think we’ll get an even better result.

This year, we expect to see some objects here. We have some
really good partnerships. I want to get this out of my office, so it’s a
curatorial matter—for a particular project, for a particular display. That’s
the way it should happen.

Michael, can I hold you to the “You’ll be the first person I’ll
tell” part?

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