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The Getty's Dutch Master Takes His Leave

* After 17 years on the job, outgoing director John Walsh picks 'a natural moment to go.'

August 13, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

When John Walsh reflects on his 17 years as director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he paints a broad picture of a fabulously wealthy institution that has evolved at a phenomenal rate in an international spotlight. And yes, he's had a great ride. But when he talks about the personal rewards of being in such a public position, he immediately recalls a private encounter with one particular work of art.

"My happiest single moment here was walking into the paintings conservation studio after Mark Leonard had cleaned 'The Abduction of Europa' by Rembrandt and applied temporary varnish to it," he said, sitting in the Getty Center office he'll vacate on Sept. 30. "I think it's the most enchanting of all his early history paintings and might well be the most important thing we acquired while I was here. In any case, it's the thing that gave me the most joy because Rembrandt is an artist I have written about and this is a picture I had heavy fantasies about owning when I worked in several other museums before this.

"I could never land that painting when I was at the Met and Boston," he continued, referring to his curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, from 1970 to 1975, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, from 1977 to 1983. "The fact that we got it for the Getty and that we got to be the ones to take the gravy off the surface--and that the person who did it is the most skilled paintings conservator in the world, as far as I am concerned--well, the result is just too moving to put into words."

Then Walsh had a second thought: "I also could say my happiest moment was when I walked out to the new museum at the Getty Center and admired the architecture and listened to the fountains. But in the end, it's what's in the museum's rooms that counts."

Most of those artworks were acquired on his watch: entire collections of drawings, illuminated manuscripts and photographs, the bulk of European sculpture and vast numbers of paintings, including prime works by artists ranging from Italian Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo to Belgian Expressionist James Ensor.

Walsh arrived a year after the Getty Trust received its fortune. As the endowment has grown from $1.2 billion to $5 billion, the Getty Museum has not only spent huge sums on its collections, but also beefed up educational programs, developed what Walsh says is now the best publishing program of any museum in the world and built the new facility at the Getty Center.

"It's pretty amazing when you think how small and relatively insignificant the Getty was in 1983," he said. "It was a curious, charming museum with quite a fine decorative arts collection, a very good Greek and Roman collection and a modest paintings collection that was mostly footnotes, not much text. There were a lot of delighted visitors and certain things were done well. It's not that we were failing; Malibu was a big success. It's just that the scale was so small.

"What we wanted to do was to take what was wonderful, what was working, and translate that into a whole different language and a whole different scale and see if we could make another absolutely marvelous museum with a great collection--young as it is--that would serve three or four times as many people. The fact that that has happened and we're still alive is quite remarkable," he said.

*

Nonetheless, "you can have enough even of a good thing," Walsh said, explaining his decision to retire, which was announced in June. "It just seems a natural moment to go. I'm ready; Debbie [Gribbon] is ready. This is the perfect moment for her. The main museum is stable. The villa project is approved and going ahead. There are a whole bunch of things that can be done here that go beyond my abilities. She brings just the skills that are needed."

Walsh isn't moving on to another position. "I'm cutting loose to finally recover some of my attention span, which is the main thing you lose on these jobs," he said. A scholar of Dutch painting, he has lots of writing projects in mind but declines to divulge them.

On the subject of leaving Los Angeles, however, he has a definite answer: No. He and his wife, Jill, have a retreat in Marin County, but they aren't planning to move there or anywhere else.

"Ten years ago, I would have gone back to New York," he said. "Five years ago, I might have wavered. Now, not only have we gone native, and not only do we have a lot of friends here, but the Getty library is a big factor in my life. This is one of the great places to work. I don't need New York or Cambridge, Mass., anymore for my daily work."

But what about the threat of getting pressed into service on a trip to the library?

"I'll come up the down staircase, wearing a mustache if I have to," he said.

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