Monday, February 13, 2006
Note to the image: Velazquez, The Pope´s Barber, 1650, Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
link to the image source
February 13, 2006
The resignation last week of Barry Munitz, the embattled president and chief executive of the Getty Trust, the country's biggest art philanthropy, is the latest proof that there's a problem built into the whole enterprise. It's been there since the trust was founded nearly a quarter of a century ago to administer the estate that J. Paul Getty left behind.
Call it a failure of institutional will.
The trust was a posthumous invention of the moneymen and politicos who took over the estate, knew next to nothing about art and distrusted a museum to handle hundreds of millions of dollars. Things were set up so that the Getty Museum had to compete with other divisions of the trust for resources — a research center, a conservation institute and a grant program, which acted as a meal ticket for innumerable institutions and scholars, who in turn became noticeably reticent to second-guess the Getty.
I recall a while ago finding a Velázquez on loan at the museum, whose trustees were contemplating its purchase. It was a portrait of the pope's barber from the period when Velázquez painted "Juan de Pareja," the Metropolitan Museum's great portrait. This one wasn't so sublime, but it was very fine, and the Getty had no Velázquez.
Later, I wasn't surprised to hear that the museum didn't buy it — the Prado did. Evidently it was good enough for a museum with the world's greatest collection of Velázquez paintings, but not good enough for the Getty — just as the Getty didn't end up buying a supreme Rubens that came up for sale recently, or the divine little Duccio that the Met just acquired, not to mention that it never landed Norton Simon's collection, which was floated as a possibility early in the Getty's history.
Museums win some, lose some. But over the years, the Getty has lost more than makes sense. The sports analogy for New Yorkers is the Knicks: rich, plagued by internal conflicts, infuriating, forever failing to meet sky-high expectations.
But change is opportunity. The Getty should now go on a mission. Notwithstanding the brouhaha over looted objects, the wide acclaim that has greeted the just-reopened Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty's original building — refurbished, reconceived as a spanking new center for Greek and Roman antiquities — proves what can happen when the Getty actually does what it should always have done, and what the public has always expected of it, which is do everything possible to be a great museum.
Is it too late to be great? That was the mantra 150 years ago, before the creation of all the great American museums, from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago to Baltimore, Minneapolis, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth. Even the Met's founders figured it was too late to compete with the royal and aristocratic European collections.
So the Met showed plaster copies at first. Modeled after the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and in a mid-19th-century progressive spirit of cultural welfare and social improvement, the Met conceived its mission as the advancement of middle-class taste and the improvement of local art and design. For a while the museum taught plumbing.
But by the turn of the last century, partly thanks to voracious and uncompromising trustees like J. P. Morgan who obsessed about art, the Met realized that collecting was still very much possible, that the museum could aspire to be among the world's greatest.
The Met of the 20th century is what the Getty should be for the 21st. J. Paul Getty left behind his kitschy, weirdly lovable villa, an uneven, tendentious art collection and a fortune. The choice for his successors was whether to keep the focus of the collection only on his interests (antiquities, old masters, European decorative arts) or to broaden out.
Typically, the trustees equivocated. The museum branched into areas like photography and illuminated manuscripts but stayed clear of modern painting and sculpture and non-Western art. The new collections were sublime, but there was no logic or consistency, no clear mission that the public could grasp, in the absence of which, and with all the money the Getty had, there arose, and came to stick, a perception of mediocrity, confusion and missed opportunities.
Meanwhile, with its Orwellian, disconnected administration, the Getty, at staggering cost and at little or no obvious benefit to the general public, directed millions to new programs.
Similar programs exist at other American museums yet don't need a parent trust to run them. Fellowships, lectures, symposiums, performances, libraries, conservation departments: they're all part of the mission of a place like the Met, which operates under a director whose clear priority is the collection and the public.
There never really was any good reason at the Getty to make the museum just one division competing for money with other divisions. Trustees' suspicion of curators, born of ignorance, unease about the costs of all-out collecting, misplaced reticence about being perceived globally as too aggressive in the marketplace (but how else have great collections ever been built?) and pandering to academic fads partly explained it.
In retrospect, maybe the main factor was a desire to wield power, separate from the power of the museum, which derives from public interest. The museum, lurchingly, almost covertly, improved through the will of its best curators and in general got much better than people generally thought. But with all those billions, the question was still, inevitably, shouldn't the Getty be even better?
And the answer is yes. If you're an executive, it's easy to enshrine your authority in a billion-dollar-plus corporate-village hilltop of travertine buildings, more costly than all the art the museum has ever bought — a campus that conspicuously allows no room for the museum to expand, no space for big exhibitions. It all speaks to administrative hubris and hostility to the power of art. Tourists love the tram and the views, whose distractions symbolize the way the institution is cut off — has cut itself off — from the city below it.
In The Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight, the paper's art critic, has lately suggested that the Getty think more globally by acting locally, starting with a town hall meeting for people to vent and dream.
So here's what I might ask. Why doesn't the Getty think big?
Next time get the Rubens. Pay whatever it takes, and competitors might not bother to compete in the future. Broaden the collection. Los Angeles doesn't have Byzantine art to speak of. It also doesn't have a place with enough room and firepower to import landmark exhibitions like the Met's Byzantine extravaganzas. The Getty could provide both.
And why not broker an all-out merger with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which while using the Getty's deeper pockets would provide a perch downtown, not on a fancy Westside hilltop? MoCA's collection, exhibitions and expertise would instantly add luster and zip to the Getty and move it decisively into the 20th and 21st centuries of art.
It's a start. A fresh one.
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