In February 2006, shortly after Getty Trust CEO Barry Munitz was forced to resign in the wake of an LA Times expose on his personal excesses with Getty money, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman weighed in with an analysis of the institution’s core problem.
“The Getty, at staggering cost and at little or no obvious benefit to the general public, directed millions to new programs,” Kimmelman wrote, referring to the Trust’s investments in conservation, research and education. Instead, Kimmelman argued the Getty should do what the Met had done a century earlier: spends its money buying A-list objects with the hope that, over time, the museum could catch up with the world’s great collections.
Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, read the piece and immediately recalled a conversation he had had with Munitz a few years earlier. During a seminar at the Trust, the profligate CEO had proposed a surprising new direction for the Getty, one that flew in the face of critics like Kimmelman: rather than spending vast amounts buying a handful of masterpieces, why not bring them to the Getty on loan, leveraging the Getty’s conservation expertise for a chance to display world-class art.
This “ ”simple and provocative” idea — moving the museum beyond ownership — stuck with Vikan, and he expanded on it in a rebuttal to Kimmelman that was never published. Here are excerpts of Vikan’s letter, whose ideas have taken on new relevance in the wake of the antiquities controversy recounted in our book:
“Why shouldn’t the Getty, with its spectacular wealth, its enormous prominence among the world’s art centers, and its relative ‘institutional youth,’ challenge the very notion of art acquisition and ownership?” Vikan asked. Such a move would “cut to the heart of the disequilibrium” between artifact-rich but cash poor nations like Italy and the wealthy young museums like the Getty, which have the expertise to conserve works and the burning desire to show them.
Museums “can offer an art experience, with its associated learning and scholarship, without having to own the work of art.” Vikan proposed replacing many acquisitions with a system of “innovative long-term loans derived from partnerships across the divide that separates the cash-rich/art poor from the cash-poor/art rich.”
“Such a visionary reordering of Getty Museum priorities would not only create a shining new model for art museums worldwide, it would remove a troublesome roadblock that would almost immediately open up at least two great opportunities. First would be the the opportunity to form a much stronger, more synergistic community of purpose among the four programmatic components of the Getty Trust under a single, education-centered mission — one wherein the Museum becomes at once the laboratory and showcase for the aspirations and achievements of all that the Getty Trust undertakes….Second would be the opportunity for the Getty Trust to play a leadership role in forging a community of purpose among museums internationally, and in establishing new, transparent models of mutually beneficial partnership….”
“This,” Vikan concluded, “is a vision that could help to re-shape the entire world community of art museums in the 21st century.”
Vikan and Munitz did not invent this vision — others had made similar proposals, notably Max Anderson of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer of the Berlin Museums. Ironically, former Getty curator Marion True emerged as the the greatest champion of the idea before her indictment by Italy. (See our Chap 8.) Still, the vision articulated by Vikan and others was strikingly audacious: a rethinking of centuries of collecting practices.
Remarkably, five years later, it is a vision that appears more and more like reality, especially at the Getty. A year after Vikan’s letter, the Getty ended its decade-long controversy with Italy over its purchase of looted antiquities and forged an agreement that embraces the key ideas in Vikan’s letter. Subsequent agreements were also struck with the National Archaeological Museum in Florence and the autonomous region of Sicily. In the end, the Getty lost 40 of its most prized antiquities, but has begun receiving on loan prized masterpieces from Italy, some of which had never before left Italy.
Here are a few (click the images for details on the loan):
To be sure, the Getty continues to purchase art, and – cautiously – antiquities. But with the growing roster of loans and collaboration, the historically underachieving Getty has also begun to look something like that 21st Century museum that Vikan envisioned. And the Trust’s new CEO Jim Cuno has already signaled that he hopes to continue in this direction.
As we wrote in the epilogue of Chasing Aphrodite: “The new era…is now within sight. It is one in which museums and countries alike will look beyond questions of ownership and embrace, as True said, the “sharing of cultural properties, rather than their exploitation as commodities.”
What are other examples of museums moving beyond ownership? Leave a comment below and we’ll raise them Baltimore, where we’ll be speaking with Vikan at the Walters Museum on October 29th at 2pm. Details here.