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CultureGrrl Q&A with Incoming Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts—Part I

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

[Part II is here.]

My comments on last night’s KCRW public radio segment, analyzing the designation of Timothy Potts as the J. Paul Getty Museum’s next director (effective Sept. 1), were informed by a detailed discussion that Timothy and I had by phone last week. Still in England as director of Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, Potts intends to visit the Getty within the next six weeks to two months, to meet the staff and prowl the campus.

In the meantime, below are some of his thoughts on his new post, excerpted from our recent conversation.

We discussed the Getty’s unusual and sometimes problematic administrative structure, in which four constituents—the museum, the research and conservation institutes and the grant-making foundation—are overseen by the Getty Trust’s president, whose priorities may not always be in sync with the museum director’s. In a quote that has been picked up in recent media reports on the Getty’s future under Potts, Michael Brand, the former Getty director (who left, in part, because of differences with the trust’s late president, James Wood), told me that “there is indeed a major structural problem at the Getty that transcends any individual personalities.”

Here’s what Potts thinks about the Getty’s administrative complexities:

ROSENBAUM: How are you going to break the curse of the four-headed Getty—the fact that it seems to have created a dysfunctional situation in the past. In particular, I think that both you and [Getty Trust president] James Cuno are very strong museum leaders who have very strong ideas. I wonder how that dynamic will play out.

POTTS: Well you call it the curse of the four-headed Getty. I don’t see it as a curse. Part of the great attraction to me of the Getty was precisely the fact that it does have these other dimensions right next door. If you’re interested in understanding the world of art in all its dimensions, it doesn’t get any better than the Getty. This is certainly not a curse. To me it’s the great attraction of being there.

Then it just gets down to the question of the individuals who are running these different parts of the Getty: Is the structure and are the individuals collaborative and are they working well together in developing projects that take advantage of those elements? I can’t speak for the Getty three years ago or 10 years ago, but my clear impression now is that those elements are working very well together. There is an entirely cooperative and collegial relationship and I just don’t see a problem.

It’s early days. though, to see if there’s a truly “collegial relationship” at the Getty under the reign of its new president. Cuno’s brief tenure (since August) has coincided with museum staff upheavals—the recent departure of its acting director, David Bomford, and the just announced elimination of two museum administrative positions. The trust will be taking over certain financial and administrative functions that were formerly under the museum director’s purview.

While it’s not unusual for a new chief executive to want to name his own team, it remains to be seen whether Cuno’s personnel and governance changes will create additional challenges for the incoming director.

Here’s what the previous director, Michael Brand, told me today about this latest restructuring:

These changes are clearly a significant new stage in the evolving relationship between the roles of the Getty Museum director and the trust president, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on details. Nevertheless, I would like to acknowledge the contributions of my two departing former colleagues.

Tom Rhoads [the museum’s associate director of administration] was my first senior appointment as I rebuilt the museum’s leadership team in 2006 and he played an invaluable role in helping us achieve the 25% budget cut in 2009 without resorting to mass staff layoffs or permanently damaging the integrity of our programs. Guy Wheatley [museum manager at the Getty Villa] played a highly important role in the renovation of the Getty Villa and then continued to ensure a creative interface between the operational team there and the curatorial voice.

Also possibly changing under the Getty’s new regime may be the scope of its art collection. Here’s what Potts had to say about what I have called a possible “sea change” at the Getty—new collecting areas that are under consideration (which Cuno also alluded to on Warren Olney‘s Which Way, L.A.? radio show):

ROSENBAUM: You recently told the LA Times that you were impressed by James Cuno’s willingness to “think afresh, almost from the ground up,” what the Getty should be doing. What are some of the things that ought to be thought afresh?

POTTS: We have talked about an opportunity to think afresh the way the collections have been built in ways that were and weren’t within [J. Paul] Getty’s original collecting interests. [The museum, like its founding collector, focuses on European old master paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture; illuminated manuscripts, decorative arts, Greek and Roman antiquities.]

Is the collection developing in the ways that it would be interesting and meaningful and fruitful to develop? Where are the markets in these areas? It’s also a matter of where the great works are still available and more affordable. So it’s a question of both opportunistic and in-principle thinking about how the collection as a whole hangs together and where do there seem to be gaps or ways it could grow that would be most meaningful.

In the ancient world, to take an obvious category, it [the Getty’s collection] is basically Greece and Rome plus a bit of Etruria, but it’s not the other cultures that they grew out of that or influenced them—I mean, all the connections in the late antique period between Byzantine art, Islamic art and others. There are whole civilizations that are not covered.

But there are real practical issues: Is it too late to develop collections in those areas of the world? Is there enough funding to seriously address those other opportunities?

ROSENBAUM: Are we talking about Egyptian art, Ancient Near East [Potts’ specialty], China?

POTTS: There are the cultures you’ve mentioned. And there are continents! There’s pre-Columbian art. But I’m just picking names out of the air here.

In addition to the question, which I raised on yesterday’s radio broadcast, about whether it’s still possible to find a critical mass of important, available objects in these areas at this late date, an ambitious collection-expanding gambit would raise the question of how the Getty will navigate the risks of acquiring antiquities with questionable histories of ownership—a problem that in the recent past had compromised the museum’s reputation and its collection.

Most museums have stopped or dramaticallly diminished their acquisitions of antiquities in recent years, due to the difficulty of finding objects with well documented histories of ownership that go back at least to November 1970 (the widely adopted museum standard). Should the Getty dive back into these perilous waters?

That’s a topic for another day:

COMING SOONTimothy Potts’ past and present views on antiquities collecting.

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