The Getty Museum has a new director but an old problem

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Ten days ago some Australians were speculating in and out of print that countryman Timothy Potts, erstwhile director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas and now in that job at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, would take the helm at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. In no time flat the Sydney job went to Michael Brand, another countryman and erstwhile director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Today, the Getty Trust announced that Potts would become director of its museum, filling a vacancy created by Brand’s departure more than two years ago.

Confused? Don’t be. That’s why art museum directorships are often characterized as a game of musical chairs.


At the Getty, the game is not necessarily fun. With Potts now coming aboard (he starts work in September), four talented museum people will have occupied the director’s office in the last 12 years. The turnover is not hard to explain. Alone among major art museums in the United States, the Getty’s director reports to a paid president, not to a board of trustees.

As I’ve written before, that means the Getty director has full responsibility for the museum -- but not full authority. It’s a recipe for friction, and sparks have flown during the tenure of each of the prior three directors. Other large museums that have tried it finally abandoned the scheme.

The Getty Trust explains the setup by analogy: Like a university, it has multiple programs. The museum is just one. With the largest budget, the museum is first among equals, but the Getty’s research and conservation institutes and philanthropic grant program -- each with its own director -- are not to be sneezed at. The four branches make the place unique.

Historically, they’ve also made it a nest of competitive jockeying, backbiting and discontent. The setup is also not what the late benefactor, J. Paul Getty, originally envisioned. But the Getty Trust continues to push the university analogy, and nowhere more than in today’s Potts announcement.

“He knows and believes in the values of the Getty Trust and the combined strengths of its four programs,’ says trust President James Cuno at the top of the news release. ‘[The] Getty represents a uniquely well-rounded ‘university of the arts’,’ goes the relevant quote from Potts.

At least they’re both on the same page. Potts has no direct experience with this administrative structure, even though the Fitzwilliam is a university museum. Like most American universities with significant art museums, Cambridge has its own governance structure while the Fitzwilliam director also reports to a separate museum board (they’re called syndics rather than trustees). These things get complicated, but there’s no doubt as to who leads the museum’s professional staff.


The question now is whether or not the adminstrative plan, which hasn’t worked anywhere else, will somehow succeed going forward at the ‘unique’ Getty. Fourth time a charm? RELATED:

Getty Museum hires Timothy Potts as director

The Getty board ignores its donor’s intent

The Getty Trust presidency needs to be abolished

-- Christopher Knight