The J. Paul Getty trust named a new museum director Tuesday, filling a job that had been open for more than two years and signaling its renewed commitment to acquiring world-class works of art.
Timothy Potts, 53, will begin as director of the Getty Museum on Sept. 1, leaving the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in England, where he has served as director since 2008.
In the U.S. he is best known for directing the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth from 1998 to 2007. Like the Getty, the Kimbell has a sizable endowment and is one of the few museums that can afford to compete with private collectors for masterpieces. Potts made several high-profile purchases for the museum, including Donatello, Michelozzo and Bernini sculptures.
Potts joins Getty President James Cuno as the second major hire the Getty has been forced to make in two years. Former museum director Michael Brand resigned abruptly in January 2010, and James Wood, the Getty Trust president, died six months later. When Cuno joined the Getty from the Art Institute of Chicago in August 2011, he said his top priority was hiring a museum director — one with “an appetite for risk in acquiring extraordinary works of art.”
Speaking from Cambridge, Potts said he was excited to start at this stage in the Getty’s history, under a new trust president. “I was impressed by Jim’s willingness to think afresh, almost from the ground up, about what the Getty is doing and could be doing,” he said. “The great attraction of the Getty is that it’s a place where you can think big, frankly more than any other institution.”
“Hiring Timothy is like winning the trifecta — art historian, administrator and business person,” said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “He’s widely admired by his colleagues and will doubtless bring distinction to the Getty. He and Jim Cuno have worked together closely in the past, so this was well thought out.”
Malcolm Warner, the new Laguna Art Museum director who once worked as senior curator under Potts at the Kimbell, praised his “high standards, his respect for artistic quality, his desire to always acquire the best works for the collection.”
“His instinct is building great collections — that’s what he’s a natural at,” Warner added. Potts was known to bet on undervalued markets like sculpture and bid on the Bernini sculpture while there were still some doubts about its authenticity. “If there’s a museum director who keeps his nerve in making big and sometimes adventurous acquisitions, it’s Timothy.”
In addition to his work at the Fitzwilliam and the Kimbell, Potts, a Sydney native, ran the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, from 1994 to 1998.
“He has all the qualities we need in our next museum director, with the experience of running three very different and complementary museums,” Cuno said. “And his standing in the field of museums is unsurpassed. People respect his experience and vision. When he’s in a room with staff members, the public or museum professionals, he has their confidence.”
Cuno said he got to know Potts over the years through their involvement in Assn. of Art Museum Directors or AAMD, a trade group for museum leaders. He said he chose Potts after serious conversations with six other candidates, and the Getty trustees in January “affirmed my decision unanimously at a board meeting.”
Because of the Getty’s $5.1-billion endowment, its museum director is in a rare position of being able to make significant acquisitions without having to raise money by hustling trustees for contributions.
But some observers view the Getty’s institutional structure — in which the museum director reports to the trust director and competes with three other Getty programs for funding — as dysfunctional. Former museum director Brand once called it “a major structural problem,” which “transcends any individual personalities.”
Potts said he could not speak to past problems but sees the Getty today as a “very cohesive and collegial place.” He also said that working at the Fitzwilliam, a museum that belongs to a research university and has its own conservation center, has prepared him for a complex institutional structure.
“I wouldn’t have accepted the offer if I thought it was a revolving door or there was a tension built into the structure that was so difficult,” Potts said. “The idea that different programs must get approval for funding is no different than a university structure in which we make the case for our projects. That’s the real world. I don’t see this as problematic.”
Potts’ career includes some realpolitik business experience. In the early 1990s, after receiving his doctorate from Oxford in ancient art and archaeology of the Near East (what is now considered the Middle East) and starting his curatorial work, he took a job at Lehman Brothers in New York. He worked there as an associate and then director in corporate finance, handling mergers and acquisitions among other things. He traded teams briefly for a similar job at Goldman Sachs before assuming his role as head of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Potts said he entered investment banking to help prepare him for the business side of being a museum director but otherwise describes it as a brief interlude in his career. “I think it gave me a more businesslike approach to project management, seeing things through. But you don’t have to work in the business world to have these qualities,” he said. “It’s not what made me the museum director I am today.”
Because of his background in ancient cultures, one area where he could have an effect is the Getty Villa — the Getty’s seaside home for antiquities that was modeled at great expense after an ancient Roman estate. Potts is the first Getty Museum director to specialize in antiquities and archaeology. (John Walsh was an expert in 17th century Dutch painting, Deborah Gribbon in 19th century French painting and Brand in Indian art.)
“Because of changes in the museum leadership and curatorial leadership, the Villa hasn’t had the kind of direction it deserves,” Cuno said. “With Timothy coming, we have someone who can give it that kind of leadership and vision, though not by any means at the expense of the Getty Center.”
Cuno and Potts both emphasize that the Getty will not buy antiquities of unknown or suspect origin, the sort of acquisitions that prompted allegations that the museum had dozens of looted artifacts in its collection. (The Getty subsequently agreed to return 40 works to Italy.) The Getty now has guidelines preventing the acquisition of any antiquity unless it was known to have already left its presumed country of origin before 1970 and “there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported.”
Potts said that he “completely respects the Getty’s antiquity policy, which is also AAMD policy and increasingly the national standard.” But he is, along with Cuno, known for asking questions that can be provocative or unpopular in today’s staunchly anti-looting climate.
“I do take with him the view that within art history the movement of artworks among cultures is an important historical phenomenon. It’s a fact — works have been moved and traded,” Potts said. “It would be a much poorer world if we could only interact with the works from our own country.”