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Patt Morrison Asks: James Cuno, guiding Getty

Arts and CultureArtCultureMuseumsThe GettyConservationEnvironmental Issues

Along the 405 is L.A.'s version of a shining city on the hill -- a castle of culture in all its incarnations. The Getty Trust is more than its collections and museums; it's about worldwide research, preservation and philanthropy. Its new chief, James Cuno, blew in four months ago from the Windy City, where he headed the Art Institute of Chicago and, before that, Harvard's art museums. Cuno regards himself as something of a California kid, spending his teen years at Travis Air Force Base and later heading the Grunwald Center at UCLA. Now he's got a world-class arts complex, the world's biggest arts budget and big hangovers from the Getty's time of troubles.

How hard has it been for the Getty to get back on its feet after the financial controversies, the acquisition scandal and the sudden death of Getty Trust CEO James Wood?

It's not been easy. My narrative of this is that the Getty is for all intents and purposes only 30 years old. The first 15 years it was defining the trust, investing resources, building the Getty Center. The next 15 was bringing elements of the trust together in one place, to build a common culture. These bumps along the road, and you've identified them -- it's been an unstable time, and the challenge is to bring stability while advancing its mission.

Your book "Who Owns Antiquity?" offers a nuanced answer to those who want to press claims for artworks in collections like the Getty's.

I'm committed to the preservation and presentation of what I hold to be humanity's common artistic legacy. I question the premise [of] modern political jurisdictions over bits of geography in or on which one finds cultural [art] forms -- ancient cultural forms in particular. Works of art have never known boundaries. And there is no national art; there is art that has been identified by others to be national; scholars might [talk about] Italian painting or French painting. Or governments might want to claim an essentialized national identity [for] their works of art; but every identity, human or artistic, is hybrid.

I want to encourage people's understanding of the truth about culture but also for them to have access to things distant in time and space, [to] learn about the diversity of the world's cultural development. Encyclopedic museums do two things, especially in big cities: Those cities are made up of populations of the world, who can see works of art that in some way [are] part of their identity. But they can also be introduced to things that allow them to think [of] a larger sense of humanity. The encyclopedic museum encourages curiosity, which breeds understanding, which breeds tolerance.

You don't necessarily agree with some of the new laws.

People have said, "What right do you have to be critical of these foreign ownership laws?" I say every nation through diplomacy can be critical of other nations, whether [it's] how the value of a currency is kept artificially low, [or] that they suppress freedom of dissent. So it's perfectly reasonable to tell other countries [that] we don't think that law needs to be as strict; that there ought to be some way of loosening it without putting at risk the integrity of the archaeological record.

But don't non- la-ed-getty-20111113 essentially say you've still got too much of the good stuff.

We have to think about why the encyclopedic museum is principally in the West, and the reason is that's where the Enlightenment left its mark, with this curiosity about the world generally, the understanding that by bringing together representative examples of the world's cultures we derive truths from them, and then test those truths with disinterested critical inquiry and ultimately improve the lot of humanity.

But first one has to be curious about the world, and there are parts of the world that are not curious about the world's artistic legacy.

If you believe in the encyclopedic museum and its promise, and I do, then you want to protect them where they are currently and encourage them where they are not yet. It means establishing trustful relationships. This is one of the great things the Getty does, and a great reason why I've come to the Getty. I wouldn't have left a museum I loved [just] to go to another museum. I came to the Getty for all it does: the foundation, the conservation, the research institute.

What is going on in the lawsuit over the medieval Armenian manuscript pages that an Armenian church group here contends were illegally obtained?

They're concordances, like a table of contents for sections of the Bible. They were acquired by the Getty in 1994; they are known to have been published since 1945 and known to have been the property of an Armenian family since the 1920s. We claim therefore that [the provenance was] known to church authorities all this time, so we claim clear title to these four sheets of manuscripts, bringing them into a collection [that includes] contributions of Armenian manuscript painters, not to mention having them here to be enjoyed by the great Armenian population of Southern California.We said look at the legal principle of statute of limitations; there's no case here. The judge said we'd rather have you mediate with the claimant, so we are in the process of mediation.

The Getty is in some ways so different from where you've been before.

In Chicago I was in charge of the museum. Here I'm in charge of the trust itself. My professional career, with the exception of the Art Institute, has been in universities. It feels much more like that here; the four programs [museums, research, conservation and foundation] are like four schools of a university.

Then is it hard to move further from art and acquisitions into a more managerial role?

The way I've been a museum director, my job has always been one of helping find the resources to help [the curators] live out their dreams. What has been of greatest delight is learning from people who know more than you and then the process of making the acquisition. So I'm making acquisitions here no differently; which is to say, it all generates from the curators.

How different is the L.A. museum consumer?

The difference between Los Angeles and Chicago: [Chicago] museums are downtown; there's a sense that the cultural institutions -- the library, the art museum, the natural history museum, the aquarium, the symphony orchestra -- [are] at the center, really, of its cultural identity. Los Angeles is much more spread out. You've got three developing nodes of cultural concentration -- downtown, LACMA and the Westside. That distributes the cultural audience in ways Chicago doesn't. I think we learn from "Pacific Standard Time" that however broadly distributed, these cultural agents attract attention and remind the world of the richness of cultural life in Los Angeles.

Geography can be an obstacle.

It's true, but have you ever been in a cab going crosstown in Manhattan?

Are there different principles for a museum with free admission?

One needs to minimize the obstacles between visitors and works of art. Some obstacles are physical. Some might be attitudinal. Some might be financial. If you can afford to, one should minimize or remove the admission prices. We can afford to. We would like anybody interested in the works of art to come here, so we need to reach those people with marketing campaigns, with social media. We have about 150,000 [school] kids here every year. This is not just a place where you go into a building and look at works of art; it's a place where you [also] walk in the gardens, look down at the vistas of the city of Los Angeles

Make the case for people coming to the Getty Center or the villa to see the object, not just looking at it online.

Whenever [art] has been reproduced -- whether by engravings in the 17th century, photography in the 19th century or online in the 21st century -- it whets the appetite to see the real thing. The pleasure of confronting the size, scale, texture, the authenticity of it, the fact that it has survived the stress of time over centuries -- you realize you're looking at that which compels a desire to preserve it, the same sense that the first person [who saw it] had. You're becoming aware that you're part of this great human experience.

There was a time when it seemed as if the Getty couldn't spend endowment money fast enough. Now you have to raise money?

Yes, we do. We are 99% dependent on the endowment, which is hostage to macroeconomic conditions. When it's good, it's good; when it's bad, it's bad. We don't have admission fees. We have sponsorships of scholars, programs and maybe someday substantial gifts so we can have endowed scholars and curatorial positions.

Isn't it hard going to people for money, silk hat in hand? And less-wealthy museums must be thinking, go to the back of the line, buddy.

I don't think it's going to be that hard. People like to be associated with institutions of consequence. Having a large endowment hasn't been a problem for Harvard [or] Stanford. I also think the different institutions in town have seen times when our raising money benefits everybody. It's equally the case that we will be raising different kinds of money from different kinds of people because we are a different kind of institution.

How much does the Getty have to fulfill J. Paul Getty's vision. Isabella Stewart Gardner's wishes are so strict that after thefts from her museum, blank spaces were left on the wall because nothing could be moved!

We don't have any such restrictions. He gave his wealth to the creation of a trust that would advance human knowledge. It was quite general. It was the trustees who determined what programs to develop that would fulfill that mission.

As you walk around the museum, is there some object that leaves you gob smacked?

There are so many.… Let me just think about this. The Dieric Bouts "Annunciation," just distemper on linen. It's really quite graceful and sincere.

Is there any artist who just makes you turn the page or turn the corner and keep walking?

I don't think so. There are artists who mean a great deal to me and I've got friends who can't see in those works anything. Cy Twombly was a good friend, and he's one of our generation's greatest artists. His pictures are filled with rich visual incident and literary allusion, and I think he's spectacular. [Some] friends can't see a thing in 'em, and there's nothing I can say to convince them otherwise.

Do you remember the first piece of art you ever acquired?

Whooo. It would have to be -- I'm going to say it was a Jasper Johns lithograph of a target. It was a black- and-white lithograph, and it was probably made in 1958 or '60, and I purchased it at auction in 1982.

Did spending someone else's money make you nervous?

It's a whole lot easier when it's someone else's money!

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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