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Antiquities Antics in Davos: Whatever Happened to “Kinder, Gentler” James Cuno?


James Cuno [left], president and CEO, J. Paul Getty Trust, striking a repatration deal in 2011 with Pavlos Yeroulanos, Greece’s Minister of Culture and Tourism
© J. Paul Getty Trust

When you’re speaking to a general audience far from home, you sometimes tend to be less guarded and more candid in your observations than you might be on your own turf. I know this firsthand, from my own speaking engagements.

It appears that James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, dusted off his provocative, anti-repatriation rhetoric when discussing source countries’ antiquities claims at the recently concluded annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland—an exclusive international conclave of leading business executives and government leaders, which also includes some prominent cultural figures.

What’s more surprising is that what happened in Davos didn’t stay in Davos: Cuno chose to share his off-key rhetoric with all of us, in a post on the Getty’s Iris blog—The Arts on the World Economic Stage. He reported on the panel he had led at Davos, composed of an all-star cast—Julien Anfruns, director-general, International Council of Museums; Thomas Campbell, director, Metropolitan Museum; Neil MacGregor, director, British Museum; Hermann Parzinger, president, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz; Mikhail Piotrovsky, general director, State Hermitage Museum.

I’ve highlighted in dark black Cuno’s catchwords that seem calculated to make cultural-heritage activists see red:

We discussed the fate of encyclopedic museums and the pressure put on them by nation-states calling for the repatriation of what they define as their cultural patrimony. While acknowledging that national governments have the right to restrict trade in their self-defined cultural heritage, we noted that in doing so they were denying their citizens—or subjects—access to cultural objects from different parts of the world, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes of foreign peoples and foreign cultures, and working against the promise of encyclopedic museums to promote the understanding of and respect for difference in the world.

At a time when the Getty’s actions have demonstrated a cooperative and conciliatory stance towards source countries, this tired refrain strikes a gratingly discordant note. I wonder whether Cuno’s co-panelists all regard this as an accurate characterization of their own takes on this complicated, sensitive issue.

an ArtsJournal blog