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At the Getty institute, it's buy, borrow and think

August 26, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

ONE of the intellectual hubs of the art world, almost hidden in plain sight, resides in a gleaming white circular building on the Getty Center's Brentwood hillside.

It's a library to die for with 920,000 volumes on the history of art, architecture and archeology and 2 million study photographs.

It's a cabinet of wonders with special collections of rare books, prints, maps, dealers' archives, artists' sketchbooks, optical devices and, oh, yes, more than 5,000 videotapes spanning the evolution of video art since the 1960s.

It's an ivory tower where scholars from around the world converge and ponder big ideas: Change! Religion and Ritual! Duration! Markets and Value! Memory! The Metropolis as Crucible! The Avant-Garde!

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 02, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Pierre Koenig: An article last Sunday about the Getty Research Institute misstated the first name of architect Pierre Koenig as Peter.

As well, it's a think tank where brainstorms turn into exhibitions, books, conferences, workshops and projects with artists, not to mention a database paradise for art historians, librarians and museum professionals in search of every last fact and detail about the visual arts.

And to Thomas W. Gaehtgens, the Getty Research Institute is an offer he finally couldn't refuse. A scholar of 18th and 19th century French and German art who directs the German Center for the History of Art in Paris and teaches at the Free University of Berlin, Gaehtgens recently accepted an invitation to take charge of the institute in Los Angeles. He will assume the prestigious position Nov. 1, succeeding Thomas Crow, who will leave at the end of this month to chair the department of modern art history at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

"This idea came out of the blue," Gaehtgens says, reached by telephone at his home in Berlin. At 67, he has compiled an enormous résumé as a scholar, writer, teacher, administrator, consultant and award winner. A few months ago, he was preparing to step down from the German Center in Paris, which he founded 10 years ago, and looking forward to focusing on his own work.

Then he got a call from James Wood, the former president of the Art Institute of Chicago who gave up his retirement in New England to take charge of the Getty Trust late last year and restore calm and integrity to an organization that had been shaken to its core by scandals concerning its antiquities collections and the lavish spending of its president, Barry Munitz, who was forced out in early 2006.

"When he asked if I would think about going to the Getty," Gaehtgens says, "my first answer was, 'I am much too old.' He laughed and told me that he was kayaking when they pulled him out of retirement. I thought, 'No, I cannot leave Paris and Berlin. I am much too involved in this world."

But the question led to long conversations and e-mail exchanges. "I knew that I had done my job in Paris," he says. "As we talked, I began to think it might be a good moment to go to Los Angeles." The Getty Center community -- composed of a museum, conservation institute, philanthropic foundation and research institute -- has "a unique possibility of advancing our understanding of art through exploration, investigation, interpretation and propagation," says Gaehtgens, who got to know the Getty as a visiting scholar in 1985-86. "So I said after all, why not participate in this mission? It's a marvelous challenge."

An edge on competitors

Gaehtgens steps into an organization that was hatched in 1982, after oilman J. Paul Getty's estate was settled. The following year, the institute -- then called the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities -- moved into a Santa Monica bank building with a curatorial collection of about 30,000 books and 100,000 study photographs amassed by the original Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades and thousands of new acquisitions.

Getty left his fortune to the museum for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge," and the mission of the research institute is only a bit more specific: "to bring together all the resources and activities required to advance understanding of the visual arts taken in their widest possible significance." There's no telling how much money it would take to completely fulfill that impossibly expansive aspiration, but as a beneficiary of a bequest that has grown from $1.2 billion to $5.8 billion in the last 25 years, the research institute has an edge on most of its competitors.

Still, even with a budget of about $30 million, it can't buy every desirable item that comes along. Operating in a large facility with a staff of 200 limits shopping possibilities.

"Everybody talks about the money," Gaehtgens says. "My idea about that is very easy. Money is responsibility. Money is only responsibility."

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