Getty Research Institute’s Thomas Gaehtgens makes his mark

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It’s fair to assume that Getty trustees will look far and wide in their search for a new president to replace the late James Wood. But will they also consider someone closer to home, a leader already inside the Getty Center’s travertine walls?

In his three years of running the Getty Research Institute, Thomas Gaehtgens has gained the admiration of his staff for making the institute a more open and collaborative place. His employees even wonder whether trustees are looking at him for the top job once held by Wood.

“I know that people are talking, but I have not been officially asked about it,” Gaehtgens says, adding quickly: “I’m an art historian — I’m not interested in the job. I’m not leaving the GRI.”

Gaehtgens, who founded the German Center for Art History in Paris, was handpicked by Wood to head the Getty Research Institute in 2007. A Leipzig-born scholar, he made his name with writings on 18th- and 19th-century French and German art. (His publications list runs a staggering 19 pages.) The German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine wrote a tribute to him in June, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

But locally his accomplishments have gone largely unremarked, much as the Research Institute remains the scholarly, publicity-shy engine behind many of the Getty’s most unusual activities. One of four arms overseen by the J. Paul Getty Trust (the others are the museum, conservation and the foundation), the institute focuses on scholarship: using and developing a library stocked with nearly a million titles and Special Collections holdings rich with artist archives, gallery business files, photographs, prints, maps and more.

“If you could imagine an ideal director for the GRI, Thomas would be it,” says Louis Marchesano, the institute’s curator of prints and drawings. “You would want someone with a wide range of scholarly interests and intellectual curiosity to deal with a collection of this scope and size.”

“He’s also a people person and a great administrator,” adds Marchesano. “The Getty is a big, complicated place and we have our own politics, so his ability to make allies and not enemies has been essential.”

These skills have been put to the test as Gaehtgens has implemented a number of changes over the last three years. Most date back to early 2009, when he had to define priorities and slash his budget by 25%. (His annual budget is now $20 million, with a yearly acquisition budget around $2 million.)

Gaehtgens laid off about 25 employees, closed some open positions, and made plans to unload a leading art publications database, an offshoot of the Bibliography of the History of Art, to a private party. (The initial controversy over this decision has died down now that ProQuest has taken on the indexing project.)

He also took the opportunity to make sure that most of his 175 employees — about half of whom have advanced degrees beyond college — had the chance to do real research, not just shelving books or shepherding other scholars’ projects.

“Last year 70 people got new job descriptions,” Gaehtgens says. “Internally the atmosphere has completely changed.” As Andrew Perchuk, institute deputy director says, “Thomas has put research back at the core of the Research Institute.”

One example is the launch of the Getty Research Journal, an annual arts publication that includes articles by Getty staff. Then there’s the creation of formal research projects, meant not only to make use of the institute’s deep holdings but also of its staff expertise.

The dozen or so projects now underway are all over the map, including the history of alchemy in medieval Europe, a look at German art sales from 1920 to 1945 and a study of Latin American Surrealism. Meanwhile, the mother of all research projects is the institute’s work on “Pacific Standard Time,” a study of art-making in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980, which has grown to involve exhibitions planned for next year by more than 40 partner museums and nonprofit galleries.

The research projects often begin with scholars digging through the archives and result in talks, publications, exhibitions, or all of the above. Of the Latin American Surrealism project, the subject of a two-day symposium at the Getty in June, Gaehtgens says the goal was to invite foreign scholars to consult the institute’s holdings — such as the papers of Peruvian poet Emilio Westphalen and the Chilean Surrealist journals Mandrágora — “to see if they could find anything of value.”

Gaehtgens says the finds have been illuminating. “We’re learning how Surrealism in Latin America, more than in France, was about national identity,” he says. “In Mexico it was linked to the Mayans and Aztecs and their own mythology.”

He hopes to encourage more of these cross-cultural exchanges. “My key word is ‘encounter’,” he says. “The institute is more and more becoming a think tank where we try to open up new fields of research.”

A program evolving under Gaehtgens’ leadership is the guest scholars residencies: providing housing in Brentwood for some 40 scholars each year to visit and explore a chosen theme. Gaehtgens himself got to test drive life in L.A. as a visiting scholar in 1985, when the program was in its infancy. Since then, annual themes have included “religion and ritual” and “markets and value.”

This year, the theme is “the display of art” and the group joining the Getty includes, for the first time, an art historian from Beijing, along with scholars from the U.S. and Europe. (Gaehtgens’ desire to learn more about the discipline of art history in China came up in conversation more than once.)

Also joining the Getty in October for the academic year is the German photographer Thomas Demand, who introduced himself to Gaehtgens at one of the scholars’ talks in Berlin. Famous for photographing manufactured sets instead of real-life situations, he seemed a natural for the theme of “display.”

In the past, the guest scholars’ talks or “seminars” were so exclusive that not even institute staff were invited. Gaehtgens has since opened it up to any Getty employees. “I am not interested in being a ‘hotelier’ of scholars,” says Gaehtgens, casually using the French word — and pronunciation — for hotel manager. “I want to run a research institute where scholars can come to join us, and where scholars, institute staff and museum people all work together.”

The issue of the institute’s collaboration with the museum is a big one, as historically the two Getty branches have acted more like rivals than siblings, and rather distant rivals at that. Each pursued its own exhibitions and acquisitions with remarkably little collaboration.

Gaehtgens says the situation is improving. “Since I come from Berlin,” he says, “I’m used to pulling down walls. There is no wall between the institute and museum any more. We talk to each other. We like each other. If we are considering an acquisition at the institute, I invite the museum curators to my meetings about it.”

Still, he stresses that the independence of the two Getty branches is healthy, dismissing as “ridiculous” lingering suggestions that they merge. “Anyone talking about a merger doesn’t know about the beauty and uniqueness of the four institutions. They don’t understand what we do here.”

He believes the Getty is “in very good condition now, probably the best condition it’s ever been in. Even with Jim’s loss, we will not fall into a crisis,” he says. “That’s why it’s so sad that Jim passed away, because after his few years of leadership he earned the possibility of enjoying this.”

As for the search to replace Wood, Gaehtgens says he has no inside information. “I expect like everyone else,” he says, “that it will take several months.”