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Don’t Hate Him Because His Museum is Filthy Rich : John Walsh Has Run the Getty Since 1983. What Has He Learned About the Art World That He Didn’t Know Before? Not Much About the Art Part

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

John Walsh pulls his green Volvo station wagon into the subterranean garage at the base of the Getty Center’s massive construction site in Brentwood, switches to a four-wheel-drive vehicle and drives a guest up a steep hill. With the flair of a tour guide who has his routine down cold, he points out the sleek monorail that will speed visitors to the new J. Paul Getty Museum. Navigating through ruts when the paving runs out, he parks on a plot of crusty dirt. Donning a hard hat and orange safety vest, he leads the way up a flight of concrete stairs strewn with wire, metal and gravel.

Lurching along to accommodate a chronically sore knee and grumbling about being an aging athlete, Walsh insists that walking the site wouldn’t do further damage. “It thrives on pain,” he says with a rueful smile. And as he approaches the entrance of the new museum, his misery melts away. “Ahhhhh,” he says, sucking in his breath while surveying the spectacular view behind a confusing array of cranes, foundations, partial walls and piles of dirt. “Every time. Every single time I come here, it’s hair-raising.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 30, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 30, 1995 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 4 inches; 122 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty Museum--In today’s Los Angeles Times Magazine, a caption appearing in a profile of Getty Museum Director John Walsh incorrectly states that he oversees the construction of the entire Getty Center in Brentwood. Stephen D. Rountree, director of operations and planning, oversees the construction of the Getty Center complex. Walsh is the director of the Getty Museum. The table of contents states that the museum will cost $733 million. That is the building cost of the entire center. In addition to the new museum, the center will house five other programs administered by the J. Paul Getty Trust: the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Getty Art History Information Program, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts and the Getty Grant Program. Harold M. Williams is the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

In a beige suit, crisp white shirt and snappy tie instead of his customary tweedy blues and grays, Walsh is looking nattier than usual. But the 57-year-old scholar of 17th-Century Dutch paintings bears no resemblance to the slick corporate type who might be expected in today’s art world to lead one of the world’s wealthiest museums. He’s a soft-spoken Easterner who likes nothing better than divulging the mysteries of an Old Master painting to a student or soul mate, but these days, Walsh’s job is explaining the Getty Museum’s big picture to the entire world.

Walsh met his Los Angeles future nearly 12 years ago on this same pinnacle of prime Westside real estate, where the J. Paul Getty Trust is building the $733-million Getty Center, designed by architect Richard Meier. On that day in 1983, Getty Trust President Harold M. Williams was trying to persuade Walsh to leave his job as curator of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and take charge of the Getty Museum, known in those days as a filthy rich upstart with a spotty art collection and an image problem.

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That day, standing on the proposed site of the Getty Center, Williams swept his arm across a commanding view of greater Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. As he pointed out distant landmarks and talked about the trust’s plans, the magnitude of his proposal began to sink in for Walsh. “I thought, ayeeee, who else is going to offer me the chance to build a new museum, please, let alone a staff and a collection? This isn’t going to come again soon,” he recalls.

He was probably right, and not merely because there is only one Getty Trust. Although Walsh’s Ivy League education and experience would have made him an obvious contender for a director’s position a few decades earlier, he didn’t fit the image for the 1980s and beyond. As art museums became increasingly public institutions that packed in crowds for blockbuster exhibitions funded by corporate sponsors who wanted a lot of bang for their bucks, ideal museum directors were thought to be crack fund-raisers whose social skills were more valuable than their art expertise. “John knows a lot about art. That’s rather quaint these days,” says Martin Friedman, a dean of American museum directors who became director emeritus of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center in 1990.

Williams, who heads a trust munificently endowed by an oil baron and now worth about $4.1 billion, didn’t need a fund-raiser. He was looking for an old-fashioned scholarly director to shape up the museum’s collection, recruit a first-rate staff, plan a new museum and--most important--win respect and gain credibility for an institution that the art world loved to denigrate, if not hate.

“He was a brilliant choice,” Edmund P. Pillsbury, director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, says of Walsh’s appointment. “I don’t know if he’s liked, but he is certainly respected. And in this field it is more important to be respected than to be liked.”

Walsh says he has no regrets about uprooting himself from Boston, but the last 12 years haven’t been easy. The reason, of course, is all that money. Having a vast fortune has put the Getty Trust under an unusually intense spotlight. And, as the trust’s most public program, the museum has taken much of the heat. Feared by competitors for its art-buying potential, the museum has been criticized both for collecting too aggressively and too timidly. It also has been accused of buying fake antiquities and smuggled treasures. When plans began to shape up for the Getty’s acropolis in Brentwood, there were public outcries about desecrating a hill (which had already been zoned for development) and critical snipes against Meier’s architectural design.

“It’s taken a lot out of me,” Walsh says as he walks amid the rising walls of his dream museum. In a complex of rooms designed to house the Getty’s burgeoning collection of European sculpture, he pauses pensively in an unfinished chamber. “This is the gallery we would have called the Temple of the Graces, but we’ll have to think of something else,” he says.

The gallery was meant to hold “The Three Graces,” a marble carving of three life-size female nudes by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. In 1989 and again in 1993, the Getty offered to buy the neoclassical statue for $11.8 million from a Cayman Islands company that had purchased it from an impoverished British estate. But the usual six-month waiting period for an export license--intended to give local interests time to raise funds to preempt foreign bids for important artworks--evolved into a five-year drama that Walsh dubs a “sorry saga.” The Canova affair concluded last November when a consortium of British museums and private donors finally marshaled sufficient funds to purchase the sculpture, but only after repeated delays and a revelation that the British government had declined to accept the sculpture from its former owner in 1979 in lieu of less than $2 million in back taxes. Walsh won the Canova public-relations war when British critics who normally delight in Getty-bashing took their culture ministers to task for making a mockery of the export laws and ridiculed spending so much money on an artwork that had been rejected earlier at a fraction of the cost.

But the Getty lost what Walsh calls “one of the great sculptures in private hands.” True to form, he evaluates the setback in terms of its artistic value, not as a competitive acquisitor. The marble statue “sums up a lot of the ideals of the neoclassical period,” he says. “Not the heroic ideals, but ideals of feminine beauty and harmony. It also has a certain chilly, neurotic element that artists of the time permitted themselves. As part of our museum’s collection, the sculpture would have been a 19th-Century link between the two worlds we deal with, the Greek and Roman and the modern.”

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It was a bitter and unusually public defeat for the Getty Museum, which generally buys art in secrecy. But less than three months after the Canova debacle, the museum announced a coup--the purchase of two early paintings by Rembrandt: “Abduction of Europa,” a mythological landscape, came from the estate of New York collector L.H.P. Klotz and “Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel,” a dramatic interpretation of an Old Testament story, was purchased from British collector Lord St. Germans--and it was granted an export license. The Getty has declined to reveal the price paid, but experts estimate the combined value at more than $30 million.

You win some and you lose some, even when you have about $60 million a year to spend.

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Walsh took over an institution viewed by the art world with varying degrees of suspicion, fascination and disdain. The museum’s building in Malibu--a re-creation of a 1st-Century Roman villa in Herculaneum--had survived a period of ridicule after opening in 1974 and had even acquired the status of a beloved hideaway. But the art collections were uneven and quirky. While J. Paul Getty had bought wisely in decorative arts and had built a significant cache of Greek and Roman antiquities, he had little knowledge of paintings and even less inclination to spend the money it would take to acquire good ones. “They’ll never get the picture galleries right,” Kenneth Clark, the late British art historian, moaned in private during a visit to the museum in 1978.

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The paintings collection still isn’t up to specialists’ expectations, according to Walsh, but multimillion-dollar purchases of Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” Jacopo Pontormo’s “Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici,” Titian’s “Venus and Adonis,” Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,” Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “La Promenade” and James Ensor’s “Entry of Christ Into Brussels” have gone a long way to transform a rich man’s folly into a connoisseur’s jewel box. Meanwhile, the museum has built highly regarded collections of Old Master drawings, illuminated manuscripts, European sculpture and photographs and greatly enhanced its core holdings of decorative arts and antiquities. “John started with odds and ends,” Friedman says. “Now he has high points he can build around. His acquisitions are quite extraordinary. He goes for quality . . . and the example has certainly resonated throughout the community and the art world.”

At the same time, Walsh has allayed fears that the Getty would go on a buying blitz and wipe out the international art market. While the museum has repeatedly made headlines by paying record prices and upped the ante in such fields as Old Master drawings, it hasn’t snatched up everything that might have been expected. At Christie’s 1984 auction in London of Old Master drawings from the Chatsworth collection, the Getty bought only six of the 71 items offered, and the two most expensive works--by Raphael and Vasari--went to other bidders. A medieval German manuscript known as the Gospels of Henry the Lion, which came up for auction in 1984, would have been a fabulous addition to the Getty’s manuscripts collection, but the museum didn’t compete against a German consortium that considered the rare document a national treasure. The manuscript had been taken out of Germany under dubious circumstances, according to Walsh, and he didn’t want to stand in the way of its recovery.

“John has to tread a very fine line between being responsible and careful but sufficiently bold to justify good use of the Getty’s resources,” Kimbell Director Pillsbury says.

Walsh has also learned to take controversies in stride. In 1988, when the Getty purchased a 5th-Century BC Greek sculpture of Aphrodite for $20 million and installed it in Malibu, the museum was accused of smuggling the massive statue out of an excavation in Morgantina, Sicily. Thomas P.F. Hoving--a flamboyant art-world character who had tangled with Walsh in the mid-1970s when Hoving directed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Walsh was a curator there--pursued the investigation in Connoisseur magazine during his tenure as editor. The allegations were never proved.

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In a case involving the Getty’s Kouros, an archaic Greek sculpture of a nude male youth, authenticity is the issue. And--after years of international scholarly debate and scientific testing--it has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, the museum has turned the ordeal into an educational experience by displaying all the evidence in an exhibition, which continues indefinitely.

“A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art From the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman,” a special exhibition staged last fall to celebrate a New York private collection, also had its down side. Although the show was a critical and popular success, Boston University archeology professor Ricardo Elia lodged complaints in the press, saying that collecting antiquities should be discouraged and charging that some of the objects on view probably had been illegally removed from excavation sites.

Because of its wealth, the museum and other programs run by the Getty Trust are also besieged with requests for help with everything from saving Victorian houses in Los Angeles to providing art education in impoverished elementary schools. “When you are working at the Getty you have the problem of dealing with other people’s unrealistic expectations,” Walsh says. “Everybody out there expects you to be able to do everything. You are not only capable of anything, but anything you elect to do, you’d better do flawlessly. This is not an easy climate to live your daily life in.”

Still, somehow, he manages to make it look easy, as though he has all the time in the world. He runs the Claremont Graduate School’s Academic Affairs Committee, pitches for the Getty’s softball team, contributes photographs to staff art shows, briefs the museum’s guards about new acquisitions, follows Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene and indulges his passion for opera. He also has a “hobby project"--writing a catalogue and organizing an exhibition on Sheridan Lord, a landscape painter who is little known outside a coterie of collectors, for the Parrish Museum in Southampton, N.Y.

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But there’s never any question that his prime focus is the new museum, which will display the Getty’s holdings of European paintings, sculpture, drawings, manuscripts, photographs and decorative arts. (The collection of ancient Greek and Roman art will remain at the villa in Malibu, which will become the nation’s only museum and study center exclusively devoted to antiquities.) Walsh is planning a museum that will show the Getty’s collections to the best possible advantage and provide visitors with user-friendly information about the artworks. It will offer places for visitors to refresh themselves by stepping outside, taking in the view and having a cup of coffee. He wants a trip to the Getty to be the antithesis of taking an all-too-typical “death march” through endless corridors of mute treasures.

It’s his obsession and he sweats the details. During a session with architect Meier, interior designers and landscape architects at Meier’s office in Westwood, Walsh sits at a long white table with a dozen advisers, perusing charts of the growth spans of trees and discussing the virtues of water elements that might be used around the 360,000-square-foot building and central courtyard. It is tedious business and Walsh periodically betrays his restlessness by walking around the room or sliding down in his chair, but he is engaged in every matter at hand.

He approves of breaking up a clump of camphor trees to provide museum visitors with a wandering pathway and a shady place to sit. The notion of a shallow pool with rocks also wins his approval, but he is skeptical of a proposal to install mist-ejecting jets for a cooling effect. “When you talk about mist, the only image in my mind is a New York City manhole cover. I’m a city boy,” he says. A decision is deferred, but at a later meeting, they’ll decide against the mist.

A few weeks later, there is another session, three hours long, with Meier and a team of interior decorators in a West Los Angeles warehouse, where samples of wall coverings and moldings are installed for inspection. Working his way through a lengthy agenda, Walsh considers paint colors named for artists--Bernini gray, Veronese brown, Boucher blue, Pontormo green--and examines swatches of fabric.

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The group ticks off one item after another, but a gallery with a ceiling that slopes dramatically up to a skylight proves to be a sticking point. Everyone agrees that the room would look best if the walls and ceiling were painted the same color, but Walsh, in deference to the Renaissance paintings that will hang in the gallery, argues for fabric on the walls and paint on the ceiling panels. “There will be some terribly important pictures in this room,” he says. “It’s got to be as well crafted as the pictures themselves. This is a big, old-fashioned traditional picture gallery. It says fabric to me. It says, ‘Give me fabric.’ ” Walsh eventually prevails.

Musing on the dilemma after the meeting, he says: “We want rooms in which the first reaction will be, ‘Ah isn’t that beautiful,’ not ‘Oh, isn’t this a great room,’ What counts is the art, the individual works looking their best and setting up a relationship between you and them.”

Planning the new museum consumes much of Walsh’s time, but he has the same responsibilities as any chief executive running a 225-person organization. Presiding over a staff picnic on the museum grounds, he jokes about “the aging process” while presenting certificates to 10-year employees, clocks to 15-year veterans and engraved silver plates to those who have worked at the museum for 20 years or longer. At the opposite end of the Getty’s personnel spectrum, he welcomes a batch of 18 interns to the museum in his cozy office--a self-styled environment of rose-colored walls and couches, Oriental carpets, dark wood furniture, brass lamps, Old Master paintings, contemporary artworks, books and family photographs. The interns inquire about the future of the scholarly museum director. “It’s an endangered species,” Walsh says, “but we are not hopeless as managers, and I have never found a substitute for knowing how to speak about a work of art . . . or for having taste and judgment about how things are shown.”

When an intern requests a job description, he responds: “I’m a conductor. I recruit the musicians, pick the music and tell people what I’m after, set standards, beat time and cross my fingers.”

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Walsh retreats from the pressures of his job at his rambling log cabin home in Rustic Canyon, where he works one day a week and resides with his wife, Jill. Their three children are on their own now. Anne, 32, a CalArts-trained artist, teaches studio classes, art history and theory at UC Irvine. Her twin brother, Peter, is an actor and entrepreneur based in San Francisco. Frederick, 28, lives in New York, where he is establishing himself as an actor. Space once occupied by the Walsh children has long since been filled in with an ambience that resembles a live-in scrapbook compiled by discriminating pack rats who love art and music, read voraciously, study broadly and travel widely.

Every object on display has a story behind it. A painting in an upstairs bedroom by Boston painter Susan Belton portrays a lake in the Adirondacks, where the Walshes go canoeing in the summer. Artworks in the entry hall, living room and dining room bear testimony to John Walsh’s passion for everything from Elsa Rady’s pristine ceramics and Ron Griffin’s abstract paintings to old Dutch paintings rescued from auctions.

“This is a picture I love,” he says, stopping in front of a 17th-Century seascape purchased at auction more than a decade ago. “It’s by the Dutch marine painter Jan Porcellis, who really invented the big sky and the landscape laden with atmosphere. It didn’t exist before. Somebody had to dream up the idea that if you raised the sky very high and you lowered the horizon and you filled the picture with big clouds and you grayed down the atmosphere with salty air, you could make a picture that was not about heroism at sea, it was about the look and feel of a place and the circumstances.

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Despite his love of talking about art, Walsh describes himself as an unlikely candidate for the position he holds. “I had zero involvement with art in my early days,” he says. “My father’s family has a kind of fey Irish streak in it. I have an aunt, Mary Jane Walsh, who was a famous musical comedy star in her time, so there was a certain flair in the family, but that’s all.”

A panoramic black-and-white photograph hanging in his home office portrays his inauspicious birthplace in Mason City, Wash. “There’s the hospital,” Walsh says, pointing to a fuzzy image. “I was born on the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam. My dad was a young executive of the Walsh Construction Co., which was a big international heavy construction firm, a family company. “It meant that we traveled around,” he says. “We went to Trinidad during the war where dad’s company was paving the island over to serve as an airstrip for I don’t know what--the Nazi invasion of Venezuela? I can’t imagine what they were doing there, but there was a lot of construction. The company built ships in Providence, Rhode Island, when I was 7, 8, 9 years old or so. And then we came to New York, where I was planning to spend the rest of my life.”

Walsh attended private Catholic schools in suburban New York until the 10th grade, when he went off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Yale University was the only college he even considered, but he ran out of steam during his sophomore year there. After a a two-year break in the U.S. Navy, from 1957-59, he returned to Yale and was graduated in 1961.

He had vague literary aspirations at Yale and, for lack of a better idea, briefly considered going to law school. But his English professor, poet and critic John Hollander, steered him toward an art career. “Hollander said, ‘You love art history. You’re good at it. Don’t be afraid. Go to New York. Do it. And here are the names of some people you should talk to,’ ” Walsh recalls. “Then he put me right on to the people who turned out to be my sponsors and mentors at Columbia University.”

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Walsh fell under the spell of Julius Held, a Rubens scholar, who was married to an art restorer. “Their apartment was absolutely magical,” he says. “It had a tincture of varnish smell, and I found Julius Held to be an ideal example of someone who was both a serious, rigorous, intellectual art historian and interested in subject matter, the intellectual history of patronage and issues on the context of art. He talked better than anybody I had ever encountered about the particular properties of pictures and insisted that you be able to figure this out for yourself.”

Upon leaving Columbia, Walsh spent a year in Leiden, Holland, on a Fulbright fellowship. Then he went to work as a lecturer and researcher at the Frick Collection in New York, a museum of European art in the former residence of Henry Clay Frick. “It was wonderful because I had to know everything in that collection, and it was worth knowing,” he says. “I found myself responsible for a lot more than I had planned on doing, including beginning to get a feeling for what the general public was experiencing at museums. That’s not an issue that graduate school prepares you for.”

Moving on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under Hoving’s administration, Walsh served as an organizer of educational programs from 1968-71. “In the first few years there was a lot of energy and a lot of belief that the Met could open up and attract a much bigger, wider audience who needn’t be put off by its palatial air,” Walsh says. “My assignment was to make the museum a lot more welcoming to undergraduate and graduate teachers. It was completely wonderful.”

He joined the Met’s curatorial ranks in 1971, upon completion of his doctoral dissertation on Dutch painters Jan and Julius Porcellis. “I learned a lot,” he says, organizing exhibitions, conducting research, working with the conservation department and teaching graduate courses. “But the Met changed a good deal in the early and mid-70s . . . and I thought not for the better. These were not Tom’s finest years . . . I had some very specific disagreements with him, which had to do with what I took to be the misuse of the painting collection, irresponsible loans of certain fragile pictures to exhibitions outside the country and with the fact that I didn’t think curators were being adequately consulted about plans being made for their collections and galleries.”

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Hoving is the closest thing Walsh has to an enemy in the art world. During his 1981-91 tenure as editor of Connoisseur, Hoving used the now-defunct magazine’s pages to publish criticism of the Getty Museum’s collections, purchases and policies. Hoving also has been quoted as saying he doesn’t think Walsh is the man for the Getty director’s job. But these days Hoving says that press reports of his having a vendetta against Walsh “don’t hold a great deal of water.” Walsh “doesn’t have an eye for collecting art and never did, even at the Met,” Hoving says, but he gives Walsh credit for hiring former Getty curator George Goldner, who was in charge of the museum’s paintings department in 1989-93, when many of the Getty’s major art purchases were made. The collection has improved, Hoving says, while withholding further judgment “until the place opens up on the hillside.”

Walsh resigned from the Met in 1975 and became a professor of art history at Columbia and Barnard College, taking over a position left vacant by Held’s retirement. But two years later, an offer to become curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was irresistible. The museum was on the move, and Walsh grabbed an opportunity to build its departments of painting and conservation and organize major international loan exhibitions. After a couple of years on the job, he was asked to consult with directors of the Getty Trust, as they deliberated about how to use its fortune. He agreed and consulted with Getty leaders eight or 10 times in 1982-83, meeting them in various cities and occasionally traveling to Los Angeles, with no thought of leaving Boston.

“I was happy in my job. And the Getty was a very unproven thing, to put it mildly,” Walsh says. “You didn’t know who was going to be in charge or what they were going to decide to do, and there was this general fear about it. But after Harold Williams was made president and after he had a chance to sort things out a bit, he and I started talking. I still wasn’t interested in changing, but we kept talking . . . and I got sort of roped in a bit, more than a bit.

“Besides,” he admits, “I was kind of liking it in Los Angeles a little bit.”

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Leaning forward on his living room couch and adopting a conspiratorial tone, he recounts an epiphany than had occurred a few months before he accepted Williams’ offer: “I remember one day when I was on my way to this session with Harold and some others. I had come from the airport in my rented car, in my Boston suit. It was February and 72 degrees, and I pulled over at an ice cream shop because I was a little early. I strolled into this shop where these two beautiful girls in T-shirts were behind the counter. And over in the corner was a family in full Sikh gear, white turbans and puttees. Their two little children were playing a Space Invaders machine. And as I walked in the door, all eyes turned to me.

“I was the alien,” Walsh says, his face lighting up with glee. “And I thought, ‘I think I like it here.’ I thought, ‘I need this.’ I had arrived as the exotic Easterner.”

Now a seasoned resident of Los Angeles, Walsh has seen “amazing things” happen since his arrival. “Think of the Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA is wonderful. How could we have had L.A. without MOCA? And look at the L.A. Opera. It’s really good by any international standard and at times it’s absolutely blindingly great. My timing was perfect,” he says.

Now that he is a fixture in Southern California, Walsh wins accolades from his peers for “professionalizing the Getty,” while his employees invariably call him “a real human being” who encourages them to do their best work. is colleagues frequently note that during his 1989-90 reign as president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, Walsh rallied support for Dennis Barrie, then-director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, who came under fire for exhibiting the sexually explicit photography of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

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“He never sees himself as insulated from the profession. Quite the opposite,” Friedman says. “Even though he rests on a lofty perch, he never hesitates to stand up for issues that matter to the community and the life of the arts.”

Any sort of praise makes Walsh uneasy, if only because he knows his greatest day of judgment lies ahead, when the new museum opens. “We fall into the danger of portraying the new Getty as somehow a finished product,” he says, stretching his long legs as he leans back in the wicker couch in his living room. “It’s a work in progress . . . The collections are only partly formed. We’re only partly formed as an organization for public education. And when we move in and open in 1997, we won’t be perfect, not close. We will be able to show that for some years now we have been doing certain important things--and this is true of all the trust’s programs, not just the museum--but most of our life is ahead of us. So it would be wrong of us to pretend that we have somehow done more than passed a milestone.

“We can’t be the museum with the best collection in the world. It’s too late for that,” he frequently tells audiences in public lectures about the facility. “But we can be the museum that does the most with its collection. That’s our goal.”


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