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My Q&A with Timothy Potts: Reinstalling the Getty Museum’s Antiquities (and more on the Getty Bronze)

Timothy Potts, director, J. Paul Getty Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Timothy Potts, director, J. Paul Getty Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The inscrutable Italian courts may have once again delayed their decision on the Getty Bronze case, but that doesn’t mean CultureGrrl needs to hold off any longer from reporting about Getty Museum director Timothy Potts‘ plans to thoroughly overhaul the installation of his institution’s antiquities holdings in the Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, where the contested “Victorious Youth” is a signature work.

When I was at the Getty researching my Pollock piece for the Wall Street Journal, I took the occasion to find out what Potts has been up to since assuming his current post in September 2012.

First, here’s our brief interchange about the Getty Bronze case:

Rosenbaum: Regarding the Getty Bronze, is it your position that even if the Italian courts decide it should go back, you’re not legally required to do that and you will not do that?

Potts: Our view is that legally, we own it and it isn’t Italian patrimony. Obviously, we hope and believe that will be the final outcome. [The Getty contends that the sculpture, which is Greek, not Italian, was found in international waters.]

Now let’s get to what, for me, was the more interesting part of our conversation:

Rosenbaum: What changes have you wrought or have begun to work on since you’ve been here?

Potts: We will be reinstalling the collection in the Villa on a more historical basis, but that’s a long-term project. The current installation allows you to teach and understand social history and themes and subjects, because the groupings are by subject matter.

But they don’t allow you nearly as easily to understand the progression of cultures historically—why Archaic art looks the way it does, stemming from what was happening in the Orientalizing period in context with Egypt, and all of that sort of thing. You can’t understand that, when things of all different periods are shown together.

Rosenbaum: That’s a huge change.

Potts: Huge, but that’s how things are normally done. This [the current installation] was a huge change. It served its purpose. It was a great way to show the collection and to shake it up and do it differently. But I think that if you really believe that the purpose of the museum is educational, and you want the presentation to serve as many educational needs as possible, I think the historical display allows you to tell more stories.

We still will have pockets that are thematic—about the iconography, or vase painting, or a medium. But you’ll also be able to see the progression of culture and why styles evolve the way they do. You can’t jump from the Archaic to the Hellenistic without going through the Classical. It doesn’t make sense.

Rosenbaum: Is this change already being worked on?

Potts: Only the early stages of thinking—that’s as far as we’ve gotten. It has to dovetail with the exhibition program, other priorities here at the Center, and so on.

As you can tell from my own harsh critique after my 2008 visit to the Villa, I feel strongly that this shakeup of the Getty’s dumbed-down antiquities installation can’t come soon enough.

Here’s part of what I wrote back then:

Janet Grossman, associate curator of antiquities, told me during my visit that Marion True [the Getty's former antiquities curator] was the “guiding force” behind the move from a chronological installation to a thematic one, because it was deemed “very popular with the public” when a simllar approach was tried for the 1994 show of the Fleischman Collection, before those objects (some of which have now been relinquished to Italy) were acquired by the museum.

Grossman added: “Basically, if you’re a curator and you have your ear tuned to your visitors, you know that most of them do not have a background in ancient Greece or Rome. Could they really care less if something is from the Archaic Period or the Iron Age or the Geometric Age?”

Apparently Potts does care, and he’s determined to lead the Getty’s visitors to a deeper level of understanding.

Speaking of Marion True, I’m beginning to see the Getty Bronze Follies through the lens of her tortuous journey through the Italian legal system. True’s legal battle ended with the case’s being dropped after five inconclusive years, because the statute of limitations had run.

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the Italian prosecutor in the True case, Paolo Ferri, told me (when we met at an Athens conference where we were both speaking) that he “used to worry about how long it [the True case] was taking. But the more it lasts, the more will be the shame.”

In other words, the modus operandi for prosecutors in Italian patrimony disputes may be: When you’ve got a losing case, torment your adversary as much as you can, by prolonging the matter as long as possible.

For the Getty Bronze, that may mean at least another year in legal limbo, according to what the Getty’s general counsel, Stephen Clark, told the LA Times today.

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