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Critic's Notebook: Timothy Potts' past and future

The Getty Museum's future director has experience overseeing big purchases. What can he do for the Getty? And, more important, for L.A.?

March 11, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • "Torment of Saint Anthony" was a big Kimbell museum purchase, made after Timothy Potts' tenure.
"Torment of Saint Anthony" was a big Kimbell museum purchase,… (The Kimbell / Associated…)

With the Getty Trust's recent announcement that, after a gap of more than two years, a director has finally been hired to lead its museum, a perennial question arises. The Getty's art collection certainly hasn't languished, with important additions periodically made, but few would say it has lived up to hopes for the hugely wealthy institution. What does new leadership portend for it?

More than 90% of art museum collections consist of gifts made by private collectors, according to estimates of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. Take the UCLA Hammer Museum. Its modest painting and sculpture collection all came from the late Armand Hammer, and an impressive current show is selected from roughly 150 works, mostly postwar drawings and paintings on paper, recently donated by Susan and Larry Marx.

But there are exceptions to prove the rule. When word comes that an American art museum has made a stellar purchase rather than receiving a gift, the immediate question is usually: Kimbell or Getty? The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were named for the collectors whose art established them, but they also have large acquisition budgets, about which most museums can only fantasize.

NEW DIRECTOR: Getty Museum hires Timothy Potts

Michelangelo's tumultuous "The Torment of Saint Anthony" (circa 1487-88), one of just four known easel paintings by the Renaissance master, astonishingly painted when he was barely a teenager? The Kimbell bought it in 2009.

J.M.W. Turner's epochal masterpiece "Modern Rome — Campo Vaccino" (1838-39), which shows the ancient Eternal City dissolving into a thoroughly nonclassical blur of limpid light? The Getty bought it in 2010.

Museums rarely admit that they are competitors, preferring to emphasize collegiality. Still, they do vie for art. The Kimbell is a small, focused museum with a big endowment (more than $400 million) and the Getty is a big, varied institution with an even bigger endowment (more than $5 billion). In the art-buying world they are friendly if determined rivals.

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That's one reason bemusement accompanied the news last month that Timothy Potts would become the Getty Museum's fifth director. (He starts in September.) The Australian-born Potts was director of the Kimbell for nine years — from 1998 to 2007. While there, he added art to the Texas museum's impressive collection that I would have been happy to see arrive at the Getty's outposts in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. Perhaps most noteworthy, the majority of significant buys were sculptures. In the already paintings-rich Kimbell, they filled gaps.

Potts heads Cambridge University's venerable Fitzwilliam Museum. Founded in 1816, the impressive Fitzwilliam reflects the history of English aristocrats shopping for art on the old continental grand tour. But few acquisitions are made now, and none of major consequence came during Potts' three-year tenure as director. So, considering the Getty, what might we glean from looking at Potts' prior Kimbell acquisitions?

A few Getty-worthy things stand out. Michelozzo di Bartolomeo's early Renaissance gilt-bronze figure of a bereft St. John the Baptist, circa 1450, was commissioned by Piero de' Medici for a Florentine church. The "Borromeo Madonna," also circa 1450, is a terra cotta relief of intimate motherly love attributed to Donatello — Michelozzo's even more gifted friend. Gianlorenzo Bernini's spiraling, wind-swept figure of a sea god is a dramatic, 1653 terra cotta study for a figure in the "Fountain of the Four Rivers" in Rome's Piazza Navona.

Potts did add some fine paintings: Lucas Cranach the Elder's "The Judgment of Paris" (circa 1512-14), in which three loose-limbed beauties look so similar that we, like Paris, have trouble deciding which one is the most comely; a marvelous little candlelit scene of a dentist working on a patient by Rembrandt-trained Gerrit Dou; and, an exquisite, wondrously preserved 15th century Tibetan thangka painting featuring four eye-dazzling mandalas.

The Getty has a fine, slightly later Cranach as well as Dou's "Astronomer by Candlelight."

Except for the thangka, these paintings and sculptures are small — less than 3 feet high. But the quality is ample.

So is great art's cost. The Getty paid nearly $47 million at a London auction for its magnificent Turner; the price the Kimbell privately paid for the remarkable little Michelangelo, acquired after Potts left, is unreported. (It's juvenilia, but published estimates for the roughly 18-by-13-inch painted panel exceed $6 million.) Yet in today's high-stakes art market, financial resources aren't the only thing driving the museums' acquisitions. So is compelling need.

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