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Rethinking a Think Tank

With a contemporary-art scholar leading the history-intensive Getty Research Institute, expect changes.

April 29, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Thomas Crow has taken charge of the Getty Research Institute at a propitious moment. Nine months into his job as director of the J. Paul Getty Trust's art history think tank and research library--with views to die for--he is at the helm of an enterprise that's old enough and rich enough to be a rising star in the international galaxy of cultural resources, but still young enough to be malleable.

"It isn't like any other place," Crow says of his new professional home. "There has never been quite the venue or the mechanism we've got here to make the humanities come alive."

Founded in 1984 as a center of interdisciplinary scholarship in the arts and humanities, the institute operated out of temporary facilities for 13 years--amassing a vast collection in record time but forced to keep most of it in storage while the Getty Center was being planned and constructed. In December 1997, when the Brentwood hilltop complex opened, the institute made its public debut in a spectacular circular building, adjacent to the Getty Museum and just across the plaza from offices housing the Getty Conservation Institute and the trust's grant program.

More than three years have passed since then, but--like his predecessors, Kurt Forster and Salvatore Settis--Crow still finds himself explaining the institute. "It's very new," he says. "Under earlier directors, the special collections were gathered and the library was enhanced, but it wasn't all in one place. It wasn't easy to get people into the old quarters. Now we are up here and very visible, and we've got fantastic facilities. And that, I think, is so unprecedented that it has taken the profession a little while just to understand what we are."

As for the public, the institute "remains somewhat mysterious, even for visitors who come across from the museum and look at our building and exhibitions," Crow says. "But I think they are happy they came because they see amazing materials from our special collections, presented in a very intimate and compelling way--from the early Mexican photographs that we are showing now to past exhibitions such as 'The Edible Monument.' Without seeing that show, would you have known that we had all those treatises and illustrations on courtly banquets and the use of food as a kind of baroque symbolism?"

Yet another part of the institute's collection--its extensive holdings of architectural drawings, photographs and printed materials--can be seen in "Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937," at the Getty Center's temporary exhibition galleries through next Sunday.

Revealing as they may be, these shows merely represent one aspect of the institute, which is just beginning to come into its own as an organizer and presenter of public programs, as well as a research center that serves scholars through residencies, fellowships and online resources.

Crow oversees a staff of 200, a library of nearly 1 million volumes, and special collection materials on art history, archeology and architecture from antiquity to the present. All this is lodged in a Richard Meier-designed building that's equipped with 331/2 miles of shelves, 30,288 square feet of vaults (including facilities for cold and frozen storage), 85 offices for staff and visiting scholars, 130 work stations, 182 carrels for readers, eight conference rooms and a gallery.

The institute obviously needs a director with a wide range of experience and interests--not to mention administrative skills. Crow, 53, who gave up his position as chairman of Yale University's art history department to join the Getty, is a scholar of unusual breadth whose work spans 18th century France to 21st century America, but his appointment took some observers by surprise.

That's because the Getty is primarily known for the museum's collection of historical art, while Crow has made a name for himself in contemporary art circles. A contributor to Artforum and other up-to-the-minute journals, he is also the author of two provocative books, "Modern Art in the Common Culture" and "The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent."

His appointment seemed to signal change--or at least an increased emphasis on modern and contemporary art--and that perception has been borne out this spring with a round of institute-sponsored conferences on 1960s multimedia artists. The first, "Media Pop," explored the relationship between Pop art and mass media. Next came "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular," which assessed the significance of Smith's work as a filmmaker, painter and musicologist. "The Art of David Tudor: Indeterminacy and Performance in Postwar Culture," to be held May 17-19, will examine the work of the pianist and composer in the context of the postwar American and European avant-garde.

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