Critic's Notebook: Timothy Potts' past and future

With the Getty Trust's recent announcement that, after a gap of more than two years, a director has finally been hired to lead its museum, a perennial question arises. The Getty's art collection certainly hasn't languished, with important additions periodically made, but few would say it has lived up to hopes for the hugely wealthy institution. What does new leadership portend for it?

More than 90% of art museum collections consist of gifts made by private collectors, according to estimates of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. Take the UCLA Hammer Museum. Its modest painting and sculpture collection all came from the late Armand Hammer, and an impressive current show is selected from roughly 150 works, mostly postwar drawings and paintings on paper, recently donated by Susan and Larry Marx.

But there are exceptions to prove the rule. When word comes that an American art museum has made a stellar purchase rather than receiving a gift, the immediate question is usually: Kimbell or Getty? The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were named for the collectors whose art established them, but they also have large acquisition budgets, about which most museums can only fantasize.

NEW DIRECTOR: Getty Museum hires Timothy Potts

Michelangelo's tumultuous "The Torment of Saint Anthony" (circa 1487-88), one of just four known easel paintings by the Renaissance master, astonishingly painted when he was barely a teenager? The Kimbell bought it in 2009.

J.M.W. Turner's epochal masterpiece "Modern Rome — Campo Vaccino" (1838-39), which shows the ancient Eternal City dissolving into a thoroughly nonclassical blur of limpid light? The Getty bought it in 2010.

Museums rarely admit that they are competitors, preferring to emphasize collegiality. Still, they do vie for art. The Kimbell is a small, focused museum with a big endowment (more than $400 million) and the Getty is a big, varied institution with an even bigger endowment (more than $5 billion). In the art-buying world they are friendly if determined rivals.

OLD PROBLEMS: Getty suffers same issues, even with new director

That's one reason bemusement accompanied the news last month that Timothy Potts would become the Getty Museum's fifth director. (He starts in September.) The Australian-born Potts was director of the Kimbell for nine years — from 1998 to 2007. While there, he added art to the Texas museum's impressive collection that I would have been happy to see arrive at the Getty's outposts in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. Perhaps most noteworthy, the majority of significant buys were sculptures. In the already paintings-rich Kimbell, they filled gaps.

Potts heads Cambridge University's venerable Fitzwilliam Museum. Founded in 1816, the impressive Fitzwilliam reflects the history of English aristocrats shopping for art on the old continental grand tour. But few acquisitions are made now, and none of major consequence came during Potts' three-year tenure as director. So, considering the Getty, what might we glean from looking at Potts' prior Kimbell acquisitions?

A few Getty-worthy things stand out. Michelozzo di Bartolomeo's early Renaissance gilt-bronze figure of a bereft St. John the Baptist, circa 1450, was commissioned by Piero de' Medici for a Florentine church. The "Borromeo Madonna," also circa 1450, is a terra cotta relief of intimate motherly love attributed to Donatello — Michelozzo's even more gifted friend. Gianlorenzo Bernini's spiraling, wind-swept figure of a sea god is a dramatic, 1653 terra cotta study for a figure in the "Fountain of the Four Rivers" in Rome's Piazza Navona.

Potts did add some fine paintings: Lucas Cranach the Elder's "The Judgment of Paris" (circa 1512-14), in which three loose-limbed beauties look so similar that we, like Paris, have trouble deciding which one is the most comely; a marvelous little candlelit scene of a dentist working on a patient by Rembrandt-trained Gerrit Dou; and, an exquisite, wondrously preserved 15th century Tibetan thangka painting featuring four eye-dazzling mandalas.

The Getty has a fine, slightly later Cranach as well as Dou's "Astronomer by Candlelight."

Except for the thangka, these paintings and sculptures are small — less than 3 feet high. But the quality is ample.

So is great art's cost. The Getty paid nearly $47 million at a London auction for its magnificent Turner; the price the Kimbell privately paid for the remarkable little Michelangelo, acquired after Potts left, is unreported. (It's juvenilia, but published estimates for the roughly 18-by-13-inch painted panel exceed $6 million.) Yet in today's high-stakes art market, financial resources aren't the only thing driving the museums' acquisitions. So is compelling need.

These rivals are located outside the Northeast and the Midwest, where the nation's first great fortunes began to build great public museums in the late 19th century. The Kimbell and the Getty got underway as ambitious public collections only with the deaths of their munificent benefactors, industrialist Kay Kimbell (1964) and oil baron J. Paul Getty (1976). Stately dowager museums reign from Boston to Detroit, but their upstart colleagues in Fort Worth and L.A. have barely reached middle age.

These newer, richer museums' hunger for art of substance has gotten both into some trouble, especially with ancient art. The Getty's antiquities woes are well known, with roughly four dozen outstanding Greek and Roman objects returned to the source countries from which they were looted. The Kimbell has had problems too — including during Potts' directorship.

An important Greek vase, an alabaster Sumerian statuette and a Roman marble torso were all questioned. The sculptures were returned to their dealer midpurchase, a public embarrassment to the museum. Only the vase, its ownership history still disputed, is in the collection.

Potts, an Oxford-trained archaeologist with a specialty in Near East antiquities, certainly has an informed eye. In 2000, he bought a beautiful 1st century BC Roman bronze head of an athlete, now thought to have been modeled on a 4th century BC Greek original by Lysippos. He's the sculptor who made Alexander the Great the most famous face in all antiquity.

Still, the Kimbell and the Getty are very different places. The Texas collection is small — fewer than 350 works, mostly Old Master European paintings, with a modest selection of ancient Greek, Roman, African, pre-Columbian, Oceanic and Asian objects. The Kimbell is a little treasure house.

The Getty is not. Its collection numbers upward of 65,000 objects.

Painting for painting, the Kimbell is superior, but the Getty can also claim many unrivaled works, like Pontormo's great mannerist portrait of a young soldier and James Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," the first blast of modern Expressionist art. Everyone knows it has the world's leading photographs collection, one of the great holdings in French decorative arts and a truly astounding collection of medieval manuscript paintings. The Getty Villa, where the famous "Victorious Youth" ranks among the few life-size ancient Greek bronzes to have survived, surpasses the Kimbell's antiquities.

Potts has mentioned the intriguing possibility of expanding beyond the Getty's current collecting areas, which are largely European — Poseidon to Post-Impressionism, as it were. Would launching new areas — ancient China, say, or the colonial Americas — make sense? Starting from scratch, is it possible today even to develop breadth in those areas?

Maybe now is the time to dust off a suggestion I made five years ago, when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., decided to sell off one of the greatest Indian sculptures in America. The Getty could have bought the life-size, 10th century figure of Shiva as Brahma and, retaining title, put the magnificent sculpture on essentially permanent loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA already has a good Indian and Southeast Asian base collection, which the Getty lacks.

Museums like to emphasize collegiality, but there are many ways to accomplish it for the art public's benefit. Imagine an Indian masterpiece from the "Getty Collection at LACMA" — or of African art at the UCLA Fowler Museum, American painting at the Huntington, postwar Los Angeles art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, etc. If truly major art of any culture comes onto the market, the Getty could go after it and place it in whatever L.A. museum would be appropriate.

The object would benefit from the context of the city's existing collections. It would add luster to important museums. It would boost access to major masterpieces representing L.A.'s global diversity.

The city's existing institutions already have excellent base collections in areas outside the Getty's current scope. What they don't have is Getty-size acquisition funds. With Potts' arrival, perhaps it's time collegiality took a different, more productive turn.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°