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Archaeologists’ Red Flag: James Cuno Named Getty Trust President

James Cuno, speaking at the May 2009 inaugural ceremony for the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

While most of the New York art press was gathered at the Metropolitan Museum yesterday to ingest the highly anticipated chicken and salad at that museum’s spring press lunch, Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Trust lobbed this bombshell into our inboxes:

James Cuno, recognized both nationally and internationally as a noted museum leader and scholar and an accomplished leader in the field of the visual arts, has been named president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Dr. Cuno, who comes to the Getty after serving as president and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago since 2004, will assume his position August 1.

Three years ago, when Cuno was being mentioned as a possible successor to retiring director Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum, I thought that was a very bad idea.

But naming him as president of the Getty is even worse.

In recent years, the Getty Museum, thanks in large measure to the enlightened leadership of its then director, Michael Brand, did a 180-degree turnaround from being arguably the most avid institutional acquirer of dubiously provenanced and/or looted antiquities to becoming a conciliatory repatriator of such objects and a resourceful initiator of cooperative, collaborative agreements with Italy, its chief antagonist in the antiquities wars.

With Cuno, that hard work to repair relations with former adversaries may go out the window. Currently director of the Art Institute of Chicago (from which the previous Getty president, the late James Wood, also hailed), Cuno has made no secret of his contempt for source countries’ efforts to secure their cultural patrimony. Denigrating their point of view has been a constant refrain in his writings and talks.

This passage from Cuno’s now out-of-print 2008 book, Who Owns Antiquity?, says it all:

I question the premise of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws: that it is the right of sovereign nations to legislate the protection of and access to whatever they consider to be their cultural property, that which they claim to be important to their national identities and self-esteem….Antiquities are ancient artifacts of times and cultures long preceding the history of the modern nation-state. And in all but a very few cases, they have no obvious relation to that state other than the accident of geography: they happen to have been found within its modern borders.

This intemperate rhetoric, presuming to tell other countries that they have no “right” to enact their own cultural-property laws and suggesting that they also have no right to derive a sense of national identity and self-esteem from the rich cultures that historically flourished in their lands, is waving a red flag in front of archaeologists and officials from the source countries for antiquities—the very people with whom the Getty has been conscientiously trying to reach a rapprochement.

Maybe Cuno is the right man to further the Trust’s get-tough policy regarding the still contested Getty Bronze. But what I stated three years ago in my review of his Princeton University Press-published cultural-property screed still pertains:

I then wrote:

By taking an extremist stance that belittles the deeply felt and legitimate concerns of archaeologists and source countries to preserve archaeological sites and national heritage, he undermines efforts by reasonable people on both sides of the cultural-property divide to arrive at mutually beneficial compromises.

And he self-destructively undermines any role he might personally have played in working cooperatively with foreign governments to forge mutually beneficial sharing arrangements.

I’ll tell you who might have been a better choice for the Getty: the man who took the opposite side of the cultural-property debate in a videoed conversation with Cuno that occurred at Indianapolis Univerity-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Maxwell Anderson, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s director, expressed the philosophy of sharing and stewardship (rather than ownership) that has been the hallmark of recent Getty policy.

If Cuno runs true to form, that policy could soon change. With the museum’s top spot still in play, due to Michael Brand’s departure in January 2010, the question now becomes: What director would want to serve under a president with such a reactionary position on an issue that has been of utmost importance to the Getty Trust and Museum?

And how will Cuno and his yet-to-be-named director respond to questions that will doubtless be posed after the May 24 detonation of Felcholino‘s bombshell exposé, Chasing Aphrodite, a detailed investigation of the Getty antiquities mess?

: The original version of this post said that the Cuno-Anderson conversation took place at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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