Will James Cuno change the Getty, or will the Getty change James Cuno?


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No issue has consumed the American art world over the last two decades like the collecting of ancient art.

In recent years, museums, collectors and dealers have been linked to the black market in recently looted antiquities, forcing the return of hundreds of ancient objects to Italy and Greece.


As described in Ralph Frammolino’s and my forthcoming book, ‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum,’ the J. Paul Getty Trust was scarred worse than most in the ensuing scandal. The museum’s former antiquities curator was criminally indicted in Italy, and it returned about 40 ancient masterpieces after its history of shady collecting practices came to light.

But the Getty emerged from that scandal as a leading reformer, showing that loans and cooperation with foreign governments can successfully replace a reliance on a corrupt antiquities market.

So it was a surprise to many when Getty board members announced Monday that they had hired James Cuno to be the Getty’s new president and chief executive officer. The previous CEO, James Wood, died last June.

Cuno, currently director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been an outspoken critic of attempts to curb the trade in antiquities. In two books and in his public lectures, he has labeled the efforts of foreign governments to control their ancient heritage ‘nationalist.’ And he openly laments the legal limits museums face when buying ancient art with murky ownership histories.

In an interview with the Times, Cuno struck a somewhat awkward pose, vowing to enforce the Getty’s strict collecting guidelines while standing behind his public criticism of such policies.

The dissonance between Cuno’s past and future leaves many wondering: Will the Getty change Cuno, or will Cuno change the Getty?

-- Jason Felch

Upper photo: The Getty Center campus. Credit: Robbin Goddard / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: James Cuno at the Art Institute of Chicago. Credit: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune