Rethinking a Think Tank

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Thomas Crow has taken charge of the Getty Research Institute at a propitious moment. Nine months into his job as director of the J. Paul Getty Trust's art history think tank and research library--with views to die for--he is at the helm of an enterprise that's old enough and rich enough to be a rising star in the international galaxy of cultural resources, but still young enough to be malleable.

"It isn't like any other place," Crow says of his new professional home. "There has never been quite the venue or the mechanism we've got here to make the humanities come alive."

Founded in 1984 as a center of interdisciplinary scholarship in the arts and humanities, the institute operated out of temporary facilities for 13 years--amassing a vast collection in record time but forced to keep most of it in storage while the Getty Center was being planned and constructed. In December 1997, when the Brentwood hilltop complex opened, the institute made its public debut in a spectacular circular building, adjacent to the Getty Museum and just across the plaza from offices housing the Getty Conservation Institute and the trust's grant program.

More than three years have passed since then, but--like his predecessors, Kurt Forster and Salvatore Settis--Crow still finds himself explaining the institute. "It's very new," he says. "Under earlier directors, the special collections were gathered and the library was enhanced, but it wasn't all in one place. It wasn't easy to get people into the old quarters. Now we are up here and very visible, and we've got fantastic facilities. And that, I think, is so unprecedented that it has taken the profession a little while just to understand what we are."

As for the public, the institute "remains somewhat mysterious, even for visitors who come across from the museum and look at our building and exhibitions," Crow says. "But I think they are happy they came because they see amazing materials from our special collections, presented in a very intimate and compelling way--from the early Mexican photographs that we are showing now to past exhibitions such as 'The Edible Monument.' Without seeing that show, would you have known that we had all those treatises and illustrations on courtly banquets and the use of food as a kind of baroque symbolism?"

Yet another part of the institute's collection--its extensive holdings of architectural drawings, photographs and printed materials--can be seen in "Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937," at the Getty Center's temporary exhibition galleries through next Sunday.

Revealing as they may be, these shows merely represent one aspect of the institute, which is just beginning to come into its own as an organizer and presenter of public programs, as well as a research center that serves scholars through residencies, fellowships and online resources.

Crow oversees a staff of 200, a library of nearly 1 million volumes, and special collection materials on art history, archeology and architecture from antiquity to the present. All this is lodged in a Richard Meier-designed building that's equipped with 331/2 miles of shelves, 30,288 square feet of vaults (including facilities for cold and frozen storage), 85 offices for staff and visiting scholars, 130 work stations, 182 carrels for readers, eight conference rooms and a gallery.

The institute obviously needs a director with a wide range of experience and interests--not to mention administrative skills. Crow, 53, who gave up his position as chairman of Yale University's art history department to join the Getty, is a scholar of unusual breadth whose work spans 18th century France to 21st century America, but his appointment took some observers by surprise.

That's because the Getty is primarily known for the museum's collection of historical art, while Crow has made a name for himself in contemporary art circles. A contributor to Artforum and other up-to-the-minute journals, he is also the author of two provocative books, "Modern Art in the Common Culture" and "The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent."

His appointment seemed to signal change--or at least an increased emphasis on modern and contemporary art--and that perception has been borne out this spring with a round of institute-sponsored conferences on 1960s multimedia artists. The first, "Media Pop," explored the relationship between Pop art and mass media. Next came "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular," which assessed the significance of Smith's work as a filmmaker, painter and musicologist. "The Art of David Tudor: Indeterminacy and Performance in Postwar Culture," to be held May 17-19, will examine the work of the pianist and composer in the context of the postwar American and European avant-garde.

Crow says the conferences reflect the institute's significant, if little-known, holdings of 20th century material and "signal that we are open to the way culture changes and moves." But the spring programs shouldn't be interpreted as a new direction. They are just part of the mix that characterizes the institute's activities and his professional life, he says.

"Recently, we had a daylong conference organized by one of our visiting scholars, Malcolm Baker, on bronze casting, so there the emphasis was on the 16th through the 18th century," he says. At the same time, Crow was preparing to give a lecture to the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in New Orleans on French artists Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and Jean-Honore Fragonard and religious conflicts of the 18th century.

"It's kind of a whipsaw effect, but that's what makes it interesting," says Crow, who is a firm believer that lessons learned from one historical period can enrich knowledge of another. "The way you think about art and culture of the recent past is bound to change when you go back to look at earlier periods because human life hasn't changed in its fundamentals," he says.

In coming to the Getty, Crow has returned to a city he knew very well in his student days. Born near Chicago in 1948, he and his family moved to San Diego in 1961. He got his introduction to art at Pomona College in Claremont, where he began as a major in social sciences but soon became immersed in an environment that spawned artists James Turrell, Chris Burden, Hap Tivey, Michael Brewster and Peter Shelton. As Crow developed friendships with artists, he decided to try his hand at studio classes and got swept away by an exhibition at the college gallery, which was directed by Hal Glicksman, an influential curator who was acutely tuned into the local art scene.

"I remember so vividly a piece by Michael Asher, where he occupied the whole gallery space and made it so that it was open to the outside," Crow says. "He built this sort of hourglass-shaped architecture that went into a dark, narrow alcove."

Writing about Asher's work many years later in his book "Modern Art and the Common Culture," Crow said the artist "reproduced the classically pristine, white-walled gallery to the point of fetishism" but then canceled the effect by perpetually exposing it to the outside world.

"I had never seen anything like that before," Crow says now. "I kept returning to it, and it worked its spell because it was a way to think. Regular classes weren't quite so successful in doing that then, certainly not the ones in social sciences."

Crow graduated cum laude from Pomona College in 1969 and entered graduate school at UCLA. He intended to take studio classes but was told he had to make up art history requirements. "I found I was more a natural writer and researcher than a practitioner," he says.

As a budding art historian, he developed an infatuation for theoretical writing that led him from the contemporary art world to 18th century France. "I was captivated by a book by Roland Barthes called 'SZ,' in which he takes a story by Balzac and analyzes it line by line," Crow says. "It had certain thematics that I thought could be applied to [Jacques-Louis] David's painting 'Death of Marat.' I thought doing a microscopic analysis of its semiological [symbolic] structures and so on would be great. I was passionate about this new way of looking at things and I still think you could do it. But I got directed by my advisor to know a little more about David, which was very sensible. I became an art historian of the 18th century and never quite got back to the 'Death of Marat' project."

UCLA granted Crow his master of arts degree in 1975 and his doctorate in 1978. He began his teaching career, in critical studies, at CalArts in 1977, then taught art history at the University of Chicago, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, the University of Sussex in England and Yale University.

His first book, "Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris," published in 1985, won the Eric Mitchell Prize for best first book in art history and the College Art Assn.'s annual Charles Rufus Morey Prize for the most distinguished book in art history. That was followed by "Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France" in 1995, "Modern Art in the Common Culture" in 1996, "The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent" in 1997 and "The Intelligence of Art" in 1999.

In announcing Crow's appointment, Getty Trust President Barry Munitz described him as "a dynamic scholar, teacher and administrator" whose "original thinking and fresh insights have invigorated the field of art history." Now that Crow has been on the job for nine months, Munitz says that he has not only provided the expected intellectual leadership, but also turned out to be "a glorious colleague" with a spirit of camaraderie. "I am very pleased with his strength and skill and the speed with which he has settled in," Munitz says.

Crow seems to have connected with Southern California's intellectual community as well. Variously described as "a soulful guy" and "a great surfer," Crow is praised by his colleagues at other institutions for a cooperative approach that has already smoothed the way to collaborative ventures--including this spring's round of conferences on the 1960s, which involved UC Irvine, UCLA and CalArts. He also has initiated talks about graduate-level seminars at the Getty to be offered to students at various Southern California universities.

"His goal is to make this a vibrant intellectual community," says Nancy Troy, who chairs USC's art history department and, with her colleague Richard Meyer, will teach a seminar on writing and art history at the Getty. By making its resources available to local educational institutions and acting as a catalyst for collaborative projects, the Getty Research Institute can help universities attain "a degree of excellence and national prominence that individually we couldn't have," she says.

"I'd like to get away from the old competitive department culture that I know very well from my days at Yale," Crow says. "I think it might be good to have another model and to use what stimulation we can, to get the best students from the area and give them an extra push, an extra sense of possibility by being up here around the scholars and all the resources on a regular basis." That approach also characterizes his view of the visiting scholars program, which brings two dozen scholars to the research institute each year. "I don't want this place to function as just another think tank, a kind of perk for big-name scholars to just come here and do what they do," he says. "My idea is that this is all a community, permanent and temporary, and that the more the scholars interact with each other and with our curators and collections people, the better."

Crow doesn't view himself as an agent of change in the field of art history, but he credits his California education with fostering free thinking. "Having worked on the East Coast, including being department chair in the Ivy League, I have realized how inhibiting the cultures of those programs and the traditional art historical mind-set has been," he says.

In an ongoing debate among art historians about the value of fine art versus popular culture, Crow has weighed in on the side of fine art, but what interests him most is the "circuit of exchange" between so-called high and low art. "The highly self-conscious professional circle of art learns from what goes on out there in the world and needs its nourishment, its vividness and vitality," he says. "But that larger [popular] culture stagnates unless it can draw on the lessons of the best specialists in visual expression and communication from the people we call fine artists. You've got to keep the two in play, but distinct, and recognize them for what they are and aren't."

He also believes that "a fully realized history of art" will take into account the kinds of photographs, documents and archival materials to be found in the research institute's collections. The idea is not to elevate primary study materials to the level of fine art, but to "move in a bigger orbit" and gain "a greater understanding of where these things fit," he says.

As he continues to shape the institute's direction and order its priorities, Crows says he always tries to think about "what the Getty can do that nobody is doing, or what we are already doing that nobody else is doing as well and that we can push further."

In addition to developing a role for the Getty in the graduate study of art history, he would like to develop the Getty's already extensive Web site, and coordinate and streamline the art-history databases at the institute. He also has plans for publications, including new scholarship and translations of recent works of art history that haven't been published in English.

"It's just a matter of doing things and talking to people, getting your mind around a problem and coming to decisions," he says. Nonetheless, he admits that the possibilities are daunting: "It makes your head spin sometimes because there is just so much you can do."

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