Richmond, Va.

Already in the whirl

Incoming Getty Museum Director Michael Brand begins to ponder the possibilities.

August 20, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

The new director of the J. Paul Getty Museum has a thing for art in its own place.

Michael Brand was just 12 when he first visited an art gallery outside his native Australia. He was with his family, on the way to Washington, D.C., for his father, Lindsay Brand, to become a director of the International Monetary Fund. They stopped in Tahiti, and young Michael visited the Paul Gauguin Museum, where a sampling of the Postimpressionist's work was on display in the place he had created it. It was "a tiny little place" that made a big impression.

Then as a teenager, Brand spent summers abroad: He saw villas in Italy, the Taj Mahal in India. He learned French, one of seven languages with which he is acquainted. But if the intent of his travels was to broaden his linguistic skills, the result was to convince him that art is a function of the culture that produced it.

"When I look back, the real difference is most of my experiences were looking at art in its original place," he said in an interview earlier this week with The Times, speaking from his berth as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which he joined in 2000. Hearing the music in Italy, going to temples in India, eating the food in France -- those formative lessons helped shape Brand's philosophy, his view of art.

People who approach art purely through art history and European paintings, he said, might tend to look at paintings as two-dimensional things, of another time, to be purchased and put on a wall. But "my first experiences were more in places where there are rituals going on and there are people and sculptures and temples and sound."

This perspective may make the 47-year-old Brand a unique choice to run the Getty, a place where the setting sometimes overshadows the art, and the art could not be more removed from its place of origin. It is an irony not lost on Brand, as he gives a visitor a tour of a museum where a $150-million expansion is underway to demolish unwieldy additions, integrate new ones and reorient the museum toward the city, to ensure that the Virginia museum too has a sense of place.

"It's sort of funny in a way, having been involved in planning a campus here and trying to talk about the shift from being a building with parking to being a campus," he said. Moving to the Getty is "cheating, in a way," he added, because the Getty "is the ultimate campus and is one of the most beautiful places on the Earth, really."

A specialist in Indian art -- he jokes that he will have to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when he needs a dose of his passion -- Brand is married to an Australian woman of Indian descent who was born in Malaysia, Tina Gomes Brand, and they have two daughters, ages 13 and 10. "I always joke with her that she might be the Indian, but I've got the PhD in Indian studies," he said.

In Richmond, the family lives in a stately home owned by the museum for its director. Tina is "a very, very good cook," said her husband, and writes about food, much as her husband does of art, in its organic place. They enjoy entertaining -- particularly on the scale of a museum director, with catered affairs and an eclectic guest list -- and hope the Getty will provide housing so that they can continue the tradition.

"The museum is looking at the possibility of a house, which actually does make much more sense," he said, noting the "shock" of the L.A. housing market. "We can entertain people; my wife and I can bring people from different parts of the community together."

Brand said that he is especially eager to reach out to Asian and Latino communities, though he is "impressed by the mixture of people" who already visit the Getty.

And he hopes to add Spanish to the list of languages he speaks and reads, not because the job requires it but because "it would be a wonderful way of experiencing what Los Angeles is and what it is becoming, and also to experience what Mexico is becoming."

At the Getty, Brand will be the first museum director to oversee the public operation of two sites, the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Villa in Malibu, the latter of which is scheduled to formally reopen in early 2006.

He will be in charge of acquisitions, education and outreach, as well as exhibitions, and he envisions shows that, like California, look to Mexico and to China.

"The Getty is almost like the MoMA of pre-modern art," he said, speaking of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "MoMA has a period it looks at; it looks at it from New York, but it does it in such a brilliant way that it is of international relevance and significance. With the Getty, we collect Greek and Roman art, Renaissance painting, decorative arts, the Enlightenment. I believe those are subjects everybody should be interested in, not just Americans or Europeans or Greeks or Italians. China has no collections of that sort; Japan has no public collections of that sort really; India, none."

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