LOS ANGELES — When Timothy Potts became the director of the Getty Museum in September, he knew he was stepping into an anomaly of a job, unusual within the ranks of America’s most prestigious museums.
Other museum heads, bound by tight budgets, must essentially beg private collectors for donations of money and artwork. Potts, thanks to the $5.3 billion endowment of the Getty Trust, is under pressure to spend money instead of raising it.
So how is his wish list for acquisitions coming? “I don’t have one,” said Potts, 54, in his first interview on the job. Or believe in them: “You need to be opportunistic when pursuing works of the highest quality.
“One thing we don’t have and probably never will have is a Leonardo, at least a painting. We don’t have a Caravaggio. Of course we’d really like to acquire works by those artists.
“But if you have a rule or set of priorities and you decide you’re going to wait until a great Caravaggio comes along, you are going to miss 20 other extraordinary opportunities which could end up never being repeatable and the Caravaggio still won’t come along, and you’re left holding nothing.”
Getty Trust President James Cuno, who oversees the museum, chose Potts in part based on his track record as the erudite and ambitious director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Cuno had said his highest priority was finding a museum director with the appetite — and the nerve — for big acquisitions.
Now other arts leaders are curious to see what sort of team Potts and Cuno will make, knowing that the previous museum director quit in 2010 amid a power struggle with the previous trust head. And they’re watching to see what sorts of acquisitions Potts will pursue.
“I wonder whether the Getty can continue to acquire major paintings now that they’re so expensive — in the stratosphere that only Russian billionaires can afford,” said Emily Sano, art advisor to Larry Ellison and former director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. “I wonder whether they will diversify.”
“Why don’t they collect all kinds of art? Why don’t they collect 20th and 21st century art as well?” asked Laguna Art Museum director Malcolm Warner, who worked under Potts at the Kimbell and called him a “natural” at “building great collections.”
Potts spoke about his plans over coffee at the Getty Villa, home to the museum’s antiquities, on a brilliant fall afternoon. He said he was getting to know his staff, about 200 people in all between the villa and the Getty Center in Brentwood.
Then there are the museum’s three sister programs (a conservation center, foundation and research institute), known for their fierce sibling rivalry. He discounted the tensions as the result of “personality conflicts” more than an insurmountable structural problem. “I can tell you already, the other program heads are truly collegial,” he said.
He also talked about adjusting to L.A. — “much easier than adapting to Fort Worth,” he said, flashing a smile.
But most of all he talked about his vision for collecting. Historically, the Getty has focused on fields like Greek and Roman antiquities, manuscripts, photography, and 18th and 19th century European paintings.
In the case of antiquities, Potts made an argument for going beyond Roman and Greek works to follow new scholarship that crosses geographic borders.
“Our collecting guidelines aren’t definitive on that. We have in the past and certainly could in the future collect things from cultures beyond Greece and Rome or chronologically beyond the parameters of what we consider the classical period.
“If you want to understand a culture like the Greek one or Roman one, you have to remember that Rome famously conquered the whole Mediterranean rim and all the way through to the borders of Iran, and Alexander the Great conquered all the way through to central Asia.”
Is there also room for modern art at the Getty, which stops collecting around 1900?
“I would not rule out a donation of major 20th century works,” he said, noting that Cuno and the board would have to approve, as they do for any acquisition of more than $1 million.
But he suggested that starting up in this area today would not be practical: “We could use up our entire budget on half a painting each year,” he said — the closest he came to disclosing his acquisition budget. (Cuno also declined to disclose it.)
In contrast, Potts identified the field of manuscripts as ripe for relative bargains and has already made one major acquisition in this area. The Getty paid $6.2 million at Sotheby’s this month for an illuminated manuscript by Lieven van Lathem — whom Potts called “the greatest illuminator of the Flemish high Renaissance.”
He last pursued this masterpiece-driven approach a decade ago as director of the Kimbell, famous for being a collection of great works that like the Getty does not try to be encyclopedic in scope. It too was founded in the 1970s by a private collector and has a hefty endowment — now around $400 million.
Under director Ted Pillsbury in the 1980s and ’90s, the Kimbell snapped up paintings by Caravaggio, Velazquez, Picasso and Cezanne.
Under Potts from 1998 to 2007, the focus shifted to sculpture, with notable acquisitions including Michelozzo di Bartolomeo’s bronze figure of St. John the Baptist, a bronze Greek or Roman head of an athlete from the 2nd to 1st century BC and a 1653 Bernini terra cotta figure of a sea god.
“I didn’t set out to do this — at no point did my acquisition strategy state that we were going to focus on sculpture,” he said. “We just found more sculptures than paintings at the level we could afford.”
Sometimes Potts paid market value — as in the case of the bronze head, for which he paid $4.5 million at Sotheby’s to beat out other bidders, including the Getty. But insiders say the Bernini (purchased through a private gallery deal) was a steal, since its authenticity was not fully established at the time.
Warner called the Bernini “a major coup” for the Kimbell that shows how Potts had the “courage of his convictions.” Potts called it a triumph of scholarship, noting that it took a year to determine the work’s authenticity before buying it.
Cuno, who got to know Potts during this time through the Association of Art Museum directors, said he was struck by Potts’ intelligence and power of analysis. “I was convinced he was trained as a lawyer — he was so precise about his language and ideas,” Cuno says.
In fact, Potts was originally trained as an archaeologist, and touring the Getty Villa with him is a crash course on the real meaning of amphitheater (the Getty Villa does not have one) and the key features of Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns.
Walking along the Getty peristyle, he also talked about his visit to the real Italian villa on which the Getty Villa is based: the Roman seaside estate of Villa dei Papyri, which was buried and preserved under tons of volcanic ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.
“It’s in a very sad state today,” he said of the Herculaneum site, in southwestern Italy. “That’s the problem with excavating architecture: You expose these buildings to the weather and climate, and now you have entire houses to preserve with plaster falling off or bricks crumbling.”
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Potts said he wanted to be an archaeologist for as long as he could remember. Raised by a father who was a urologist and a mother with “interests in fashion,” his passion for archaeology came mainly from books.
“I still have these books from my 11th birthday that I asked for,” he said. “Books on Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, the great civilizations of the old world.”
Then, in his first year at the University of Sydney, where he studied philosophy and archaeology, he was invited to Jordan on his first dig.
“It was a chalcolithic (or Copper Age) site — houses and temples and refuse of daily life, everything from pottery to wall paintings,” he said. “We were living on the site in tents. You get sand in your belongings and every part of your body. That’s all part of the fun.”
But it’s not quite an Indiana Jones-style adventure, he added. “Hollywood archaeology bears no relation to the real, slow, painstaking, in some ways tedious activity of excavation.
“In the movies you’d jump down into a cave and clear sand away with your hands — things that really take weeks and months.”
For graduate school Potts went on to Oxford, earning a doctorate in art and archaeology of the Middle East. For field work he served as co-director of the excavation at Pella, also in the Jordan Valley, describing his role as “organizing the team, doing all the finances and administration, paying workmen, hiring or firing the cooks.”
After his doctorate, he tried his hand at organizing a museum exhibition. He curated a major show for the Australian National Gallery showcasing 100 pieces from the British Museum: “Civilization: Ancient Treasures From the British Museum.”
It was the first time he worked in the museum setting, and he saw his future in it. “It seemed to me that museums offered the best of both worlds, putting your academic background and knowledge to use in exhibitions and publications that have a much broader audience and impact. That was an exciting revelation to me.”
He chose an unusual path to get there, taking a job in investment banking at Lehman Brothers, working in New York and London on mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance. He said his goal was to gain “some real world experience of the kind that would somehow apply to running a small or medium-sized business, as most museums are.
“I suppose it was a high-risk strategy,” he said. “If you stay too long you begin to look like an ex-archaeologist or ex-art historian who has become a banker.” He left after five years, landing a job as director of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 1994 before moving to the Kimbell.
At the Kimbell, Potts became known for his unpopular stance in the heated debates over cultural patrimony. In 2004 he worked with Cuno on a committee of the Association of Art Museum Directors to draw up guidelines for museum acquisitions of antiquities — guidelines many felt were too lax considering the volume of potentially illicit material pursued by museums. At the time, he was one of the youngest voices joining old-guard museum leaders like Metropolitan head Philippe de Montebello in arguing for museums’ rights (and responsibilities) to collect.
But today Potts sounds more moderate in keeping with the changing museum climate and the Getty’s stricter guidelines. “It’s important to strike a balance between preventing acquisitions of works (that) would encourage further looting of ancient sites and providing an appropriate home for these objects,” he said.
“It’s tough. Today we are losing a lot of information on objects that are artistically and historically important but not finding their way into collections, not being preserved. But we must stop the looting.”
In 2007, he left the Kimbell to become director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, which has a more established collection and less of an emphasis on acquisitions.
Instead he worked on developing a robust exhibition program, including a 2009 show on Charles Darwin’s influence on visual artists and this year’s “The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China.”
Even Christopher Brown, director of the Fitzwilliam’s great rival museum — the Ashmolean at Oxford — credits Potts with shaking things up. Brown said that the Fitzwilliam was not previously known for its exhibitions.
“I think he brought a series of extremely successful and impressive exhibitions to the Fitzwilliam,” Brown said. “They did these high-profile exhibitions that involved major loans from China among other places.”
One of the other places happened to be the Louvre. Potts tells how the Paris museum wanted to borrow a Titian from the Fitzwilliam, one that was not allowed to be lent. But Potts persuaded trustees to make an exception because he knew that in exchange he could essentially have his pick of works from the Louvre.
He asked for Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker,” then built a 2011 show about Vermeer and Dutch interiors around it.
“We called it ‘Vermeer’s Women,’” he said, “and we had 170,000 people visit, double the number we ever had.”
Potts says that these scholarly sort of blockbusters interest him for the Getty.
“Think about the big overview exhibitions that the Metropolitan does on subjects like Byzantium. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be doing them just as effectively.”
Would he curate shows for the Getty himself?
“Very rarely would it be me as a principal curator,” he said, mentioning previous museum experiences. “More likely I would play a role to help the principal curator in the conception of exhibition and then layout and publication.”
Or, as he put it at another point, “You can’t be a true specialist in everything. You always try to strike that balance between learning enough to be useful, but not so little that you become a nuisance to what people are doing.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services