Acquisitions and long-term loans will expand focus beyond Ancient Greece and Rome
Timothy Potts, the first director of the J. Paul Getty Museum with a PhD in ancient art and archaeology, has had ambitious ideas for revamping the Getty Villa since taking on the job two years ago. Now, after the appointment of Jeffrey Spier as the senior curator of antiquities, he reveals how the Getty’s plans for the villa are starting to take shape. He also tells The Art Newspaper that the Getty is planning to expand its antiquities collection to embrace ancient Mediterranean cultures beyond the museum’s traditional Greek and Roman focus. To achieve this the Los Angeles museum is working to organise long-term loans from other major museums, Potts says, and to make new acquisitions.
In their first interview together, Potts and Spier discussed their vision for fully reinstalling the galleries of the faux-Roman villa on the edge of Malibu that is home to the museum’s Roman and Greek antiquities. The current arrangement is a legacy of the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True. Unveiled in 2006, True’s thematic displays, for example “Gods and Goddesses” and “Athletes and Competition”, mix objects of different periods.
Potts says that the Getty is planning to reinstall the works, which date from 6500BC to AD400, more chronologically for historic and aesthetic reasons, “so you can see the progression of styles, motifs, ways of seeing and representing the world throughout time”.
For example, Spier says: “We have a very early head of Alexander, a very good portrait of Ptolemy—one of the kings of Egypt—along with jewellery related to the royal court in Egypt, all from a period of 200 years.” But the trove gets lost in the current set-up, “spread out through so many galleries you wouldn’t even know it’s here. This would be a revelation when you see it.”
The goal is “minimal disruption,” Spier says, by closing no more than a couple of galleries for reinstallation at once. Potts says it will take at least “six months to a year of planning before we start implementing” the reinstallation.
The other major change under way is expanding its programme beyond Greek and Roman antiquities, J. Paul Getty’s original focus. “We are interested in making links into neighbouring cultures as the Classical world gets transported through Alexander the Great all the way through Afghanistan, and looking at other cultures that influenced the development of Greek art in the way that say Phoenician and Egyptian art did,” says Potts, whose doctoral degree focuses on art and archaeology of the Near East (now Middle East). He says their thinking is in keeping with current scholarship on early cultural trade: “Look at any course on Classical culture these days, and it’s all about interconnections and relationships, not treating the subject as a bubble.”
Does this mean the Getty, a voracious buyer from the 1970s to the 1990s of Roman and Greek antiquities, will start aggressively buying in these new fields? Potts says that purchases will be “strategic” instead. “It’s not that we’re setting up to establish parallel collections of other cultures with anything like the depth we have for Greece and Roman. It’s too late. It’s almost impossible. It would be silly to try.” Potts adds: “Don’t expect a rush of ten new objects in the next five years outside the Greek and Roman world.”
He describes the Getty today as a much more careful, thoughtful, looting-wary buyer, following a policy adopted in 2006 requiring a clear ownership history of archaeology back to 1970 or proof that an object was legally exported from its country of origin.
“Because there are so many problems, and things that meet our standards of quality, importance and provenance history are very rare, we have to be opportunistic,” Potts says. “When great things come along, you have to go for them, even if you really want something else.”
Has he bought any antiquities yet in his two years on the job? “We tried to buy things a couple of times and failed because of the prices,” Potts says, declining to explain how the Getty, with its $6bn endowment, was priced out.
Instead, Potts says that expansion into other Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cultures will occur not just through acquisitions. He is also working on “long-term loans from major museums” and “a series of exhibitions—not permanent” to supplement the Greek and Roman focus.