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Getty Trust's new CEO: Art Institute of Chicago's James Cuno

Cuno, known as a seasoned museum leader, will oversee the world's wealthiest arts organization. The Getty's museum director post remains to be filled.

May 10, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Times Staff Writer

When asked about his contributions there, Cuno singled out not just the addition of the Modern Wing but "working with the curators to add significantly to the collection." He mentioned artworks acquired recently in departments ranging from African art to contemporary art with the pride of a new parent.

"I would never have left this job for another museum job," Cuno said, reached by phone in Chicago. "But the opportunities at the Getty, with its range of programs and collections, were just too attractive." And by collections, he means more than museum collections — he talks about the Getty Research Institute, with "perhaps the greatest art history library in the country and enormous primary archives," as well.

He says his goals for the Getty, where he will not have the same fundraising mandate, include "bringing the heads of the four divisions together to articulate a plan and pursue a common mission." He acknowledges that the four branches have not always worked together as well as possible, describing "the great potential" for these divisions "to find ways not just to collaborate but to leverage the benefits of one to another."

The questions being raised about the Getty's commitment to respecting the cultural property of other countries stem from Cuno's comments and writings on this heated topic.

Over the years, Cuno has criticized cultural patrimony laws for being too restrictive or politically motivated. His 2008 book, "Who Owns Antiquity?," describes the "cosmopolitan" value of an "encyclopedic museum" that draws from many cultures, criticizing what he sees as "nationalistic" claims made by modern nations like Italy that have only weak ties to the ancient civilizations that once occupied the same land.

The Getty, meanwhile, has been trying to move beyond its antiquities scandals and respect the cultural property claims of other nations, most notably Italy.

The institution became the center of international controversy when former antiquities curator Marion True was criminally indicted by Italy in 2005.

It has since returned over 40 objects to Italy and adopted a new acquisitions policy that prevents the institution from acquiring an antiquity unless it was known to have already left its presumed country of origin before 1970 and "there is no reason to suspect it was illegally exported."

Colin Renfrew, a leading archaeologist at Cambridge University, calls Cuno a "seemingly odd choice" to lead the Getty because of his position on this topic.

"But if he maintains the new acquisition policy, he may do no harm," Renfrew says. "If he persuades the trustees to renege on that policy he will make the Getty once again the black sheep of the Western world. We shall have to wait and see."

Cuno says that his appointment does not signal a change in Getty's antiquities policies. "No, I'm certain they won't change. The decisions that the Getty made were absolutely right for the Getty," he says.

"In terms of my criticism of cultural property laws, I think reasonable people can disagree on these matters, and I very much look forward to engaging in conversations with colleagues around the world. I think we are all seeking the same thing: to preserve the objects of antiquity and broaden public and scholarly access to them."

Times staff writers Mike Boehm and Jason Felch contributed to this report.

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