James Cuno, 60, does not consider himself a marathoner. He has finished only one full-length race, the 2009 Chicago Marathon. But he is, in other circles, known for his endurance -- a museum leader who in one job after another has tirelessly and tenaciously worked to improve the reputation of some of this country’s great museums, most recently the Art Institute of Chicago.
This is also one of the challenges facing him in his new job as the CEO and president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, an organization with a staggering $5.3-billion endowment. While his new job involves overseeing all four branches of the Trust, including conservation, research and grant-making arms, his biggest challenges clearly center on the Getty Museum. Not only is its collection seen as uneven compared with other (and generally older) institutions, but it has been without a leader since early 2010, when museum director Michael Brand abruptly tendered his resignation to Cuno’s predecessor, the late James Wood.
Cuno sat down this week, his first on the job, to talk about his vision for museums in general and for the Getty Museum in particular. Above all, he signaled a strong commitment to future acquisitions.
“Making major acquisitions is without doubt one of our greatest opportunities and challenges,” Cuno says, acknowledging that the Getty is one of very few buyers, private or public, that can afford to pay top prices for prized Old Masters or Impressionist paintings (or $45 million for a landscape by Turner, to use a recent example).
The Getty is also one of few museums that does not rely on private collectors for donations. “Seizing opportunities as they come to the market has to be one of our priorities,” he says.
To this end, he seeks one very unusual attribute in a new museum director, a search that he is now beginning. (“I would be hugely frustrated if I weren’t able to make this hire within a year.”) Beyond the usual grounding in art history and leadership skills, his candidate should have “an appetite for risk in acquiring extraordinary works of art” -- not a given among leaders in the field.
“It could be frightening for some people,” he explains. “There is a big difference between spending $100,000 on an acquisition, which many museum directors are used to doing, and spending tens of millions of dollars.”
Museum masterpieces were not so much on his mind growing up as a military brat who spent high school years in Fairfield, Calif., home of the Travis Air Force Base. He got the bug, rather, as a 19-year old studying in Europe who stumbled into the Louvre.
“It was the first museum I ever went to, and it was extremely influential for me. I knew nothing of what I was looking at, I was just wandering among all these arresting objects.”
He remembers being especially moved by Jacques-Louis David’s 1784 painting “The Oath of the Horatii,” of a ceremony preceding a legendary Roman sword fight. “The painting was so big and the figures were, I now know to say, so classical in derivation, they were so strong and muscular in presence, it was just astonishing.”
It was a passion that became a career. Shortly after getting his PhD at Harvard, where he specialized in French prints, Cuno took a job in 1986 running the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at UCLA. Then came jobs overseeing the art galleries at Dartmouth and Harvard, the latter lasting a decade. After that, he took the helm at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London briefly before assuming the top job at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. In a parallel that highlights the small pool of major museum leaders working in the U.S. these days, Cuno’s predecessor at Chicago was also James Wood.
Cuno’s most visible accomplishment at the Art Institute was realizing Wood’s plans to build the 264,000-square-foot Modern Wing, and raising the lion’s share of the $420 million needed for this expansion and related renovation. But another, more subtle, contribution has been his advocacy for museums. In talks and books he’s emerged as a leading spokesman for the value of the encyclopedic museum, which has been attacked by academics, much like the Western canon in literature, for being imperialistic and forcing its own power structures on users.
Cuno sees encyclopedic museums, which bring objects from many nations and time periods under one roof, as just the opposite: places for self-directed exploration by visitors of “any background and all levels of preparation.”
“Looking at a work of art from a distant time and place can be a profound experience -- one feels connected to generations who have been awed by the work before and who have cared enough to protect it,” he said. “That’s a profound thing: that this piece of metal, stone, terra cotta or wood has survived the centuries.”
In his new book due out this December, “Museums Matter,” he compares the museum visitor to a world traveler primed to encounter “new and strange” things. And he argues that a key benefit of encyclopedic museums is their ability to promote tolerance and understanding of foreign cultures in an age of “resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence.”
The Art Institute of Chicago figures in the new book as a prominent example of an encyclopedic museum. So does he consider the Getty Museum one as well? “It really isn’t one,” he says, noting that “the collection is overwhelmingly European -- there are no East Asian, African or South Pacific departments for example.”
Still, he suggests that the diversity of objects there -- photographs, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and more -- give the Getty a similar appeal. “When one’s at the [Getty] Villa looking at antiquities, for example, one is engaging with a distant time,” he says. “I think people are drawn to old things because they are amazed, especially in our current throwaway culture in which there is such a high rate of obsolescence.”
The acquisition of antiquities by museums is a hot topic for Cuno. His defense of encyclopedic museums often leads to a more controversial argument: that various “cultural patrimony” claims made by foreign governments for antiquities that now reside in other countries are motivated by narrow political agendas and undercut the benefits of a more open exchange of goods.
The argument has made him extremely unpopular in the anti-looting archaeological community, where many were surprised by news of his appointment to the Getty. Archaeologists expressed concern that the museum, which has recently struggled to repair its reputation for aggressively acquiring undocumented antiquities, would start to backpedal.
But Cuno stresses that he will support the Getty’s current antiquities acquisition policy, designed to deter looting: “The policy is to only acquire objects that can be shown to have left their presumed country of origin before 1970.”
“It’s the right thing for the Getty, not only because the Getty has had complicated relationships with foreign governments in the past but because the Getty is more than a museum,” he says. “The conservation work and foundation work that we do internationally can’t be compromised.”