Already in the whirl
The new director of the J. Paul Getty Museum has a thing for art in its own place.
Michael Brand was just 12 when he first visited an art gallery outside his native Australia. He was with his family, on the way to Washington, D.C., for his father, Lindsay Brand, to become a director of the International Monetary Fund. They stopped in Tahiti, and young Michael visited the Paul Gauguin Museum, where a sampling of the Postimpressionist’s work was on display in the place he had created it. It was “a tiny little place” that made a big impression.
Then as a teenager, Brand spent summers abroad: He saw villas in Italy, the Taj Mahal in India. He learned French, one of seven languages with which he is acquainted. But if the intent of his travels was to broaden his linguistic skills, the result was to convince him that art is a function of the culture that produced it.
“When I look back, the real difference is most of my experiences were looking at art in its original place,” he said in an interview earlier this week with The Times, speaking from his berth as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which he joined in 2000. Hearing the music in Italy, going to temples in India, eating the food in France -- those formative lessons helped shape Brand’s philosophy, his view of art.
People who approach art purely through art history and European paintings, he said, might tend to look at paintings as two-dimensional things, of another time, to be purchased and put on a wall. But “my first experiences were more in places where there are rituals going on and there are people and sculptures and temples and sound.”
This perspective may make the 47-year-old Brand a unique choice to run the Getty, a place where the setting sometimes overshadows the art, and the art could not be more removed from its place of origin. It is an irony not lost on Brand, as he gives a visitor a tour of a museum where a $150-million expansion is underway to demolish unwieldy additions, integrate new ones and reorient the museum toward the city, to ensure that the Virginia museum too has a sense of place.
“It’s sort of funny in a way, having been involved in planning a campus here and trying to talk about the shift from being a building with parking to being a campus,” he said. Moving to the Getty is “cheating, in a way,” he added, because the Getty “is the ultimate campus and is one of the most beautiful places on the Earth, really.”
A specialist in Indian art -- he jokes that he will have to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when he needs a dose of his passion -- Brand is married to an Australian woman of Indian descent who was born in Malaysia, Tina Gomes Brand, and they have two daughters, ages 13 and 10. “I always joke with her that she might be the Indian, but I’ve got the PhD in Indian studies,” he said.
In Richmond, the family lives in a stately home owned by the museum for its director. Tina is “a very, very good cook,” said her husband, and writes about food, much as her husband does of art, in its organic place. They enjoy entertaining -- particularly on the scale of a museum director, with catered affairs and an eclectic guest list -- and hope the Getty will provide housing so that they can continue the tradition.
“The museum is looking at the possibility of a house, which actually does make much more sense,” he said, noting the “shock” of the L.A. housing market. “We can entertain people; my wife and I can bring people from different parts of the community together.”
Brand said that he is especially eager to reach out to Asian and Latino communities, though he is “impressed by the mixture of people” who already visit the Getty.
And he hopes to add Spanish to the list of languages he speaks and reads, not because the job requires it but because “it would be a wonderful way of experiencing what Los Angeles is and what it is becoming, and also to experience what Mexico is becoming.”
At the Getty, Brand will be the first museum director to oversee the public operation of two sites, the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Villa in Malibu, the latter of which is scheduled to formally reopen in early 2006.
He will be in charge of acquisitions, education and outreach, as well as exhibitions, and he envisions shows that, like California, look to Mexico and to China.
“The Getty is almost like the MoMA of pre-modern art,” he said, speaking of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “MoMA has a period it looks at; it looks at it from New York, but it does it in such a brilliant way that it is of international relevance and significance. With the Getty, we collect Greek and Roman art, Renaissance painting, decorative arts, the Enlightenment. I believe those are subjects everybody should be interested in, not just Americans or Europeans or Greeks or Italians. China has no collections of that sort; Japan has no public collections of that sort really; India, none.”
Brand is well aware that the Getty, where he takes charge Dec. 1, has an advantage over almost any museum in the world, a $5-billion endowment -- one reason he thinks his appointment has garnered what seemed to him a surprising amount of attention.
“Clearly, it’s more than just the actual size of the museum -- the Met is miles bigger, the National Gallery is bigger,” he said. “People have a feeling that the Getty is a pure institution, which is so well funded privately that it can do almost anything. It’s like everyone’s dream of a museum, where you don’t have a capital campaign, where within reason an idea can and will happen because funding’s not the issue.”
Even so, in 1998 Getty Trust President Barry Munitz announced that the Getty would begin to raise money, seek corporate sponsors for exhibitions and solicit gifts of art. The news prompted colleagues at less wealthy institutions to wonder why so rich an organization needed more, and how they could compete.
Although Brand will be charged with developing avenues of financial support for the museum, he said he does not anticipate a fundraising campaign. Instead he envisions community outreach.
There will be “some developmental work,” he said, “in terms of potential donors of works of art, or support groups to get people to feel a bit more committed to the museum, but no out-and-out fundraising, no annual giving campaigns.”
Ideas animate Brand, and he generates them with ease: perhaps an exhibition that links India and Greece, a small show of 25 works, like the Getty’s “mind-blowing” “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” which includes only 16 paintings. Or projects with Mexico and the Spanish New World. Projects that link what’s in the Getty collection with works from China or India or the Islamic world, to “share ideas across the cultures.” He knows that at the Getty, “we can organize shows that don’t have to rely purely on ticket sales,” he said. “Obviously we want to do shows that people want to see. In some ways that’s the greatest freedom the Getty has.”
In mid-sentence he points out the Art Deco furniture from the collection of French couturier Jacques Doucet that is part of the Virginia museum’s permanent collection. Brand said he believed that Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” as well as Van Gogh’s famous “Irises” painting -- the latter belonging to the Getty -- both hung in Doucet’s apartment. “Ideally, of course, you’d get the Picasso and you’d bring it all together and the ‘Irises,’ ” he offered. “These things and the two paintings are all part of a cultural moment, and one of the goals of museums is to bring these things together.”
He said he doubted that MoMA could lend the Picasso, “but I always thought even if you could send our show to New York and put it together, that would be fantastic.”
That ability to translate idea into exhibition, he said, is precisely the Getty’s advantage. “You could say, ‘Great idea, it’s on.’ ”
Brand once collaborated with MoMA’s Glenn Lowry on a catalog about Indian art. The two attended Harvard’s Fine Arts School together in the 1980s -- Brand has both a master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard -- and Brand credited Lowry with teaching him the benefits of collaboration. “He’s intellectually generous,” Brand said. “I credit him for the way I’ve worked since.”
Brand said he is looking forward to working with the Getty’s other programs -- the Getty Foundation, the Conservation Institute, the Research Institute. “I like that idea, the fact of a collegial atmosphere, half museum and half university.”
But he has clear views of a museum’s responsibility, distinct from a university. “I’ve always said that it’s not just about giving access to objects, it’s the ideas of the objects,” he said. “The major responsibility is to preserve, because even if you have no time for scholarship, the next generation could come along and apply scholarship.”
His idea of success, he added, is “to have an exhibition where people walk around and actually talk to each other, strangers, saying, ‘Can you believe that ... ' or ‘I never realized the artist
He envisions for the Getty “a museum beautifully integrated into its campus ... the public streaming in, the staff doing wonderful new research, a force for good, internationally and nationally.”
Lowry notes that Brand’s visions have a way of turning into reality. “People often misread Michael because he is soft-spoken and quiet, when in fact he is a very forceful, highly focused and driven man,” Lowry said. “His gentle demeanor should in no way be misunderstood.”
Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, agreed, calling Brand “a quietly authoritative scholar” with a great sense of humor and “an understated manner that belies a very facile and strong intellect.” He approaches art with infectious enthusiasm, Davies said, adding that he discusses African and 20th century work with as much passion as Indian art, his specialty.
In Australia, Brand’s 1996-2000 tenure as assistant director of the Queensland Art Gallery was a “particularly productive period,” said Director Doug Hall. “I was very keen to get him here. He is a well-organized scholar. One of his great strengths is working with people. He is completely unflappable.”
As for the Getty appointment, it didn’t surprise Hall. “Michael has a quiet ambition, not the flashy kind. Sometimes good, solid work gets noticed,” he said.
Brand has told friends that he would have stayed in Virginia to oversee the museum’s expansion -- due to be completed in 2008. (“If I don’t get an invitation I’m gate-crashing.”) Then, he might have gone home."We never made a decision to migrate or move to America,” he said. “We definitely regard ourselves as Australian. The presumed move at some point would have been to go back to Australia.”
But the Getty, in a California setting that shares some cultural similarities with Australia in climate, food and friendliness, came calling.
“This is such a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “California has a similar culture, it’s closer to Australia and the whole Asian rim. To us, it’s the best of both worlds.”
For a man who has a Hindu Ganesh hanging on his office wall to give spiritual benediction, the lure of the West Coast was strong. He is aware that the museum faces controversies -- although he questions a visitor’s description of the California attorney general’s investigation into the museum’s finances as constituting a tempest -- and he seems unafraid to try big ideas and risk more controversy.
His reading tends toward the big idea -- “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,” by Gordon S. Wood, is on his bedside table now -- and he likens a museum’s task to that of an editor, selecting the best of the art to make a point.
On the wall of his office is a 1972 painting by John Salt, called “Pontiac in a Deserted Lot,” of a bashed-in front end of a sedan.
“Some people suggested it was bad feng shui for the director to have a car crash on his wall,” he said.
“I put it up as a capital campaign inspiration,” he added, to remind myself “what happens if it goes wrong.”
Times staff writers Suzanne Muchnic and Louise Roug contributed to this report.