From his childhood in Australia spent reading about the ancient world to his current role as director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Tim Potts has always thought globally. Potts’s broad experiences as a PhD student at Oxford, banker at Lehman Brothers, and director at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, Fitzwilliam in England, and Kimbell in Texas have shaped his approach to the Getty’s collections and programs.
In this episode, Potts discusses how he came to the museum and how the institution is using its largely European art collection to engage in discussions of international exchange from the ancient world through today.
More to explore:
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM POTTS: If you’re working in a major museum pretty well anywhere, you feel like your audience and the world is looking at your. It’s no longer your city or your state, or even, you know, your country that is aware of what you’re doing.
CUNO: In this podcast, I speak with Tim Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Tim Potts has been director of the J. Paul Getty Museum for eight years. He has made major acquisitions of Italian old master drawings, Renaissance paintings, ancient gems, a Roman-era Palmyra relief, and a great, late painting by Edouard Manet. At the same time he has organized or co-organized many major exhibitions including Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, and Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq.
On a recent afternoon, I took advantage of a free moment in Tim’s busy schedule to sit down with him and talk about his career and his vision for the Getty Museum.
Well, Tim, thank you for joining me on this podcast. Now, you came to the Getty seven years ago, from the directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, England. And before that, you were director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, and director of the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. But before all of that, you took your doctorate degree in Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. You were co-director of the University of Sydney’s excavations at Pella, Jordan. And you worked in New York at Lehman Brothers. That’s a distinguished path to the directorship of the Getty Museum. Tell us about it all and about how it prepared you for the directorship of the Getty.
TIM POTTS: Thank you. I suppose it all goes back to what, for me, was an early interest in the ancient world. I know by my eleventh birthday, I was asking for books on Mesopotamia and Egypt and things like that. So I did get a bug, if you like, very early on.
CUNO: How did that happen? How did that happen from Australia?
POTTS: Only through books, I think, because at that point, I’d never been to a museum that had ancient material. There was one. I mean, there’s a couple in Sydney that do; but I only discovered them much later. So I think it was entire— in fact, I know it was through books.
CUNO: Was there a teacher or a person that somehow animated it for you?
POTTS: Well, yes, I remember in high school, there was one teacher who taught ancient history, Harry Nicholson. And he certainly realized my interest in the subject and supported me in that. But I’d already decided that was— I was just fascinated by the images. You know, Tutankhamen’s mummy mask and the images of statutes of Gudea and the Assyrian reliefs and things like that, Mesopotamia. So I latched onto them before I was in the age where he was doing ancient history.
But once I got that stage, he realized I was seriously interesting, and I suppose was good about sort of encouraging me. And so it helped me along. But I found it all through books.
CUNO: So how did you go then from Ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology to Lehman Brothers?
POTTS: So I did my first degree at Sydney University. And I knew already clearly, obviously, that I wanted to do archaeology and the ancient world. So I did that and I did double honors in philosophy, which was the other subject I’d become very interested in. And Sydney was a great platform. It had a very good department of archaeology in those days. The professor there had himself done his doctorate in Oxford and was well-connected, was doing excavations in the Middle East, in Jordan. So from my very first year as an undergraduate, I was able to get on the digs and be part of that process.
And so when it came time to do my doctorate, went to Oxford. It was a great place to study what interested me most, and I knew it was Mesopotamia, so that’s what I focused my work on.
And then I got a research fellowship at Oxford, towards the latter end of my years in doing my doctorate. So I started as an academic and assumed my career would continue to be as an academic, and was very happy with that idea. And really, what got me off track, or on track, depending on how you see it, was the invitation to curate an exhibition for the British Museum, from the British Museum’s material. I thought it would make sense to do it from the rise of civilian in ancient Mesopotamia up to the coming of Christianity in the fourth century A.D., and basically do a review of civilization through objects and ancient material.
So that experience gave me the sense that museums organizations in which you could bring to bear an academic knowledge of a subject, but have an impact and reach an audience far beyond what you’re able to do in academic journals and conferences and the things that academics do.
So I was so engaged by that prospect from the exhibition at the British Museum, which traveled to Australia and then to Japan and elsewhere, and the success that that had, that I thought, well, maybe that’s a move I would be open to. And that gets me to the Lehman bit, because I realized I had sort of a strong academic background and now the curatorial work, having done at least one major exhibition; but I realized I’d to demonstrate other skills if I was going to a museum director, or in any senior role in a museum.
Having been a, you know, research professor in Oxford, I didn’t wanna really go back to school, study business and that sort of thing. So I preferred to dive into working in a role in— and it turned out to be investment banking—where I could show I could do the numbers, I could manage projects, I could respond and, as it were, analyze situations and opportunities in a strategic way, and manage the people involved in them.
So I spent a few years—it ended up being a bit more than four years—in that world.
CUNO: Did it turn out to be as helpful to you as you thought it might be?
POTTS: It did, although I wouldn’t say in the ways I expected it to be. When I talk about this, often the response is, “Well, it must be good that you can read a balance sheet or a P&L, whatever.” In fact, as a museum director, as you know, you don’t need to do that.
CUNO: [over Potts] Other people do that. Yeah.
POTTS: You don’t really need to be doing that. You have people to do it.
POTTS: What it did teach me was how, in a— if you like, a more corporate or professional environment, you present ideas; the sort of follow-through that’s required; and developing in other people, a level of confidence in you as a responsible agent, whether they’re sponsors who you might want to support an exhibition; that you do understand the motivation behind their support, which is often to do with the branding and marketing and so on, of whatever their product is. That you’ll be responsible about acknowledging that, but not in a way which doesn’t fit with the, if you like, image and mission of the institution. So balancing those sorts of issues. But actually delivering on the follow-through, the reporting, the engagement, so that understanding from both sides of the fence, that— how that sort of transaction needs to work for both to feel it’s been a productive relationship.
CUNO: When you went to Lehman Brothers, did you leave entirely the world of academia, or did you stay, have some connection to it?
POTTS: No, I didn’t. And that’s— I find that quite amusing. While I was working at Lehman Brothers in New York—’cause I started off in New York and then moved back to London—I was sort of on the side, writing book reviews and exhibition reviews for the Financial Times. And they were appearing under my name, and no one, in four and a half years, ever came up to me and said, ‘Is this— is this Timothy Potts you?’
CUNO: It didn’t enhance your reputation there.
POTTS: Well, it just was interesting to me that people probably weren’t reading the art and book reviews in the FT. But no, I was doing that. And in fact, there was a book I had started working on already before then that I wanted to get finished. And so I was spending quite a lot of evenings and many weekends in the New York Public Library working on it. So I was doing quite a lot of writing on the side.
I realized that this was, for me, an interlude. And I went into it knowing that. And it was, therefore, important that I kept my publications going, ’cause I didn’t want to look like someone who had been an academic, shifted to another area of professional activity entirely and left it behind, for exactly the reason I think that you’re implying. And that’s why I kept my publications going.
CUNO: Yeah. Did you have a teaching career, as well?
POTTS: Well, when I was at Oxford, I was. Mostly with graduate students. And then of course, when I came to the Fitzwilliam—well, I’m jumping ahead now—which brought me back into the university world, I was a professor or a fellow at Clare and director of studies for art history. So it was not only involved in supervising the graduate students, but also I did the admissions, so would interview the undergraduates.
CUNO: Did you find it mutually enhancing?
POTTS: Yes, absolutely.
POTTS: In fact, I think central to my approach to being a museum director is continuing involvement with the material and the understanding of it. And that means the ongoing research. And teaching is the best way, of course, to keep up with your own research.
CUNO: So tell us about the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. What’s its strength and why did it attract you, other than it was an important job in Australia?
POTTS: Well, it is the great collection, historical collection, in Australia. A remarkably early one. It was founded in the early 1860s and modeled on the National Gallery in London. And in fact, that’s why it’s called the National Gallery of Victoria—not that it was a federal foundation; there wasn’t a federal entity of Australia at that point.
But it was very ambitious in the sort of Victorian mode of wanting to represent all cultures and types of art and periods and so on. And it came into a lot of money in 1904, from a particular benefactor called Felton. And by the twenties or so, it was one of the richest collecting museums in the world, right through to the fifties and beyond.
So it was able to buy great paintings, sculptures and decorative arts across pretty well all cultures. So it is pretty much a universal collection, from antiquity—Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome—right through to contemporary art, and pretty much all media—photography, prints, et cetera, et cetera.
So it’s a encyclopedic collection, the great one of Australia, and I think pretty much universally regarded as the greatest of the Southern Hemisphere.
I made a concerted effort to learn as much as I could about the collection, the NGV’s collection. Which, of course, means learning about periods of art history I’d never formally studied before. But because my interests are just naturally broad, it was a wonderful opportunity to dive in and learn so much more about whether it is, you know, sixteenth century Italian art or pre-Columbian art, which I already knew I was interested in, but didn’t know as much as I’d like to and— As you know, each exhibition you do is an opportunity, also, to dive into the literature on that subject. And so I suppose I was stretched, but I saw that as part of the great attraction of the job.
CUNO: How did the staff feel about you coming from Lehman Brothers?
POTTS: I don’t know that that was actually much talked about. And it wasn’t the part of my background, of course, that was, in a way, relevant. I think there was much more about me being the first person who was a specialist on the ancient world to run a museum of such broad character as that. Those are the conversations I remember having. I mean, the Lehman Brothers, I put behind me as soon as I walked out the door, you know.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. How long were you there?
POTTS: It was about five years. All my tenures have been either five years— It was five years Melbourne, ten years Kimbell, five years Cambridge, and so far seven years…
CUNO: On your way to ten, so—
POTTS: …at the Getty. Yeah.
CUNO: And what was the opportunity that came your way with regard to the Kimbell? How did that happen?
POTTS: The usual thing. As a museum director, yourself, you know when jobs are coming up—and they’re pretty well coming up all the time—you do get called by the search firms, the headhunters, either asking your ideas for other people or sometimes directly acting, “Would— might you be interested?” And I received one of those calls. And I duly suggested some people that they might look at, and I think that was the end of the conversation at that point.
But then they came back to me, I think a few weeks or a month later, saying, “Well, thank you for those suggestions, but do you think you might be interested?” And it’s so long ago and I’m gonna have trouble remembering the sort of sequences of the thoughts that went through my head. But it wasn’t an obvious place for me to think of moving next.
CUNO: But you knew the quality of the museum.
POTTS: Of the museums in Texas, the only one that I knew was the Kimbell, for the quality of its small holdings. The founding directors, Rick Brown and then Ted Pillsbury had collected very well. And so there were, you know, wonderful Old Masters; some very good early material, also, even back to antiquity; and it’s in an extraordinarily beautiful and in fact, iconic building by Louis Kahn. Perhaps, for many people, his greatest building of all.
POTTS: So that combination and the opportunity to continue to collect at that very high level. And in that way, the Kimbell is a bit like the Getty. It had and has a very good endowment. And so was known, above all, for the quality of acquisitions it’s able to make. And that was the great attraction moving there.
CUNO: Yeah. You keep talking about acquisitions. But of course, the museums are also the means by which exhibitions are mounted, organized and mounted. And you did a series of important exhibitions at the Kimbell. How do you balance your interest in acquisitions with that of exhibitions?
POTTS: I think they’re the two most exciting and joyful parts of the job. You’re right, of course. The exhibitions are, in a way, the greatest challenge. I mean, an object, great object, it’s in a way, easy to see how wonderful it is. It declares itself as a great work of art. And then it’s just a question, do you have the funding to acquire it?
Exhibitions are intrinsically more complex propositions. Initially, you have to develop a concept of a narrative that is going to be engaging to a general public, but feasible in terms of getting the loans of a high enough quality and importance, and making that all come together as an experience that will resonate, and make a contribution to scholarship in the process. So all of those multiple objectives require, I think, a lot of just good judgment on selection of the material, how you craft the narrative, how you convey it to a public that might be unfamiliar with it. But when you can get it to work, it is also, just like a great acquisition, one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in working at a museum.
CUNO: Yeah. And you said you were then ten years and then you went to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. So you returned to England, but you also returned to distinguished academic settings.
CUNO: How does the Fitzwilliam work within the context of Cambridge University?
POTTS: It is the art museum of the University of Cambridge. So it belongs to the university, but set up, as most museums were in the nineteenth century, from a particular bequest and collection; but grew, you know, dramatically over the decades and beyond, to be one of the great collections of Britain. I mean, after the National Gallery in London and National Galleries of Scotland, for its paintings in particular, it’s probably the third, or fourth greatest collection in the country.
So like all the museums I’ve been in, it was encyclopedic in its range, which makes it relevant for all sorts of teaching that goes on in a place like Cambridge. And that was part of the attraction to me. It was bringing the academic dimension of my background and the museum aspect of my background together again, actually, in a more fully connected way than had ever been the case before.
So I really enjoyed that prospect and enjoyed my years there, being involved not only in running the museum and creating a much more ambitious exhibition program— And that was the focus of my efforts there. I think if I think back, what was I able to make a difference it, it was to elevate the exhibition program in a way it hadn’t really been done in the past.
CUNO: And I remember very well an exhibition on ancient Chinese art. And it was, I think, the last exhibition you probably did there, before coming to the Getty
POTTS: Yeah, it was one of the last. It was on the Han Period of China, so third century B.C. to third century A.D., and particularly the royal burials. And we were able to get two of the great jade suits—and they’d never lent two of them before—and the other great goldwork and jade work and so on.
CUNO: How did the exhibition come about?
POTTS: It was a lot of diplomacy, as you would expect in that sort of situation.
CUNO: But did someone come to you with an idea or did you have the idea?
POTTS: We had a curator of Asian art. And his thesis had been on the Han Period. He’d studied in Cambridge after doing his undergraduate work in China. And I asked him— There had never been an exhibition, a special exhibition on anything to do with Chinese art. So I said to him, “What is the great exhibition that could come out of China that we ought to think about doing? What would make a difference, not only to us, but to the understanding of a period or aspect of Chinese art?”
And he came back, “Well, there are the great royal tombs of China. They’re well known in China and well-displayed, but there hasn’t been a really focused exhibition on them outside China.” So that’s where the idea came from. We were lucky we— Cambridge is somewhat of a magic name in China. I think that the prestige helped us greatly in getting the loans. I went on a trip with the vice— then vice chancellor of Cambridge, and on that trip, we were able to, as it were, leverage that for further discussions about possible loans. And it came together and the show was a great success.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, it was just about that time that we were able to lure you away from Cambridge to the Getty. What was it about the Getty that attracted you, your interest?
POTTS: Well, the Getty is the Getty, isn’t it? It has, in fact, all of the things that I’ve said were attractive about other places. The ambitious program of acquisitions—and frankly, second to none, I’d say now in museum terms. There are private collectors who sometimes outbid us at auction. But overall, I think we have the most ambitious program of any museum in the world these days.
And also a tradition of great exhibition, which we’ve been able, I think, to strengthen further and diversify, through programs like The Classical World in Context and Ancient Worlds Now, as we launch into that. And also using the program not just to reinforce and give more context to the areas we do collect, but occasionally to represent periods or aspects of art that we don’t collect, but have some intrinsic complementarity or relationship to what we collect.
Like you’ll remember the show we did on London Calling, which was British artists of the mid and later twentieth century, including Bacon and Freud and Andrews and Auerbach and so on, who were still working in a figurative tradition and a landscape tradition, which connects them to the twentieth and even the nineteenth century. But some of these were living artists, so it is contemporary art. So that was a sort of thing we only, as it were, dallied with very rarely in the past. And we’ve made those sorts of ventures a little more regular.
CUNO: How has the collection of the Getty evolved? That is, what kinds of things are collected? Now we have a defined set of interests. It’s not encyclopedic, as you say. But how did the collections evolve?
POTTS: Yeah. Perhaps the first thing to say that it is essentially a collection of only European art. And you easily visit the Getty, walk through all the galleries, and it might not strike you until you’ve left that what you’ve seen is the history of European art, admittedly from ancient Greece, Rome, and Medieval and right up through to 1900. It’s the European tradition. Not the American and not Asian and not many other things. The only exception to that is photography, which being a medium invented in the mid-nineteenth century, has to cover the full period that it’s been in existence. And I think rightly, when it was added to the list, was given a global remit. So it collects the traditions in America and Japan, and indeed, around the world.
CUNO: And who decides the range of things the museum is to collect?
POTTS: Of course, good ideas are welcome from anyone, but they tend to percolate from the curators up to Richard Rand, the head of collections, and to me. We discuss them at length with the respective curators. And there’s always more things we’d like to have than can be afforded, so it is a selective process, and we have to prioritize. And then we come and discuss them with you. And assuming you’re onboard with the proposals, then anything that is valued at over a million dollars will need to go to the board for their approval.
For all works, we prepare proposals based on what the object is and why it’s important, making the case for it being a worthy addition to the Getty’s collection. And that will then go in the board books and be voted on at the board meeting.
CUNO: Yeah. I guess I mean we don’t collect twentieth century European painting and sculpture; and we don’t collect ancient or any Chinese art at all, except for photography. So who makes that decision? And who has the authority to help define the collection as we have it?
POTTS: Well, it’s been the board, historically. I mean, the sta— with the caveat that the starting point was, of course, what Mr. Getty himself collected, which was primarily decorative arts—one French furniture of the eighteenth century, and other decorative arts, and a relatively small number of paintings and sculptures, very few sculptures. But then after his death, the board decided to expand the remit by adding new departments.
Sculpture was added explicitly as a category, together with the decorative arts. And then we added the three departments which are works on paper—manuscripts, drawings, and photography. And those all happened in the early eighties.
CUNO: Was that because of opportunities? I mean, the illuminated manuscript collection, of course, was virtually a single acquisition.
POTTS: Mm-hm. And the photography was done not quite from one, but from a small number. A small number of private collections that were in existence at the time. So it did start as a collection of collections. Buying single works would’ve been a much longer and arduous process.
So the principles, though, that we are still within the European tradition has been maintained. Occasionally the question gets raised: as time goes on, does our end point of 1900 make us look like an old-fashioned institution because we’re no longer keeping up with what’s happening in the art world over the last— which what is now more than a century ago?
I actually don’t think that that’s necessarily a problem. There are many other institutions in L.A. that represent the twentieth and twenty-first century very well. And not every museum has to cover the same territory; in fact, it’s better that they be, in some way, complementary.
CUNO: Yeah. It seems to make sense that we wouldn’t duplicate what others are doing, but rather we would contribute to what others are doing. To what extent do you actually take that into account?
POTTS: Yes. We do. When we’re buying a work by an artist, let’s say it’s a seventeenth century artist and we don’t have a work by that artist, but let’s say the Norton Simon has a great work by that artist, or LACMA has a great work by that artist. We will think twice before going for that painting. It’s because we’re not endeavoring to be a museum with the depth that, say, the Met has in New York. We’re not trying for that level of coverage.
We want to be sure that we’re acquiring the very best things of their kind that become available. That will mean there are little pockets of real strength, and then areas of relative weakness, and then another pocket of great strength. And we can live with those pockets of relative weakness because our main objective is to get as many of the high points in works of truly supreme importance and quality; that it’s not a matter of checking a box or saying we can tick off that artist. It has to be a work of such outstanding importance.
CUNO: Yeah. You know, when I tell people that I work at the Getty Museum, and that the Getty Museum in its two different locations, attracts nearly 2 million people a year, and therefore, I think it’s fair to say and accurate to say that it’s the most visited museum west of Washington, D.C., they’re always surprised by that. So what are the features of the Getty Museum that attracts so many visitors?
POTTS: I think it’s the fact that the experience goes so far beyond the collections. We like to believe, as museum directors, that it’s the quality of the collections that is the driving factor. But there are so many other elements to an experience of the Getty—whether it’s the Villa, with its reconstruction of an ancient Roman building of the kind that those very works of art would’ve been shown in in Roman times. So it’s not just that you have a great collection of Greek and Roman art; you’re seeing it in a villa which is a reconstruction of a exactly that sort of Roman villa, around the first century A.D.
So that rather magical experience of being immersed is quite unique to the Getty. And then you’ve got the views, the wonderful landscaping around the villa, the view towards the ocean, just as a villa in Pompeii or Herculaneum would’ve had, over the Mediterranean.
So it’s that full-day experience—not only of the galleries, but you’ve got these extraordinary vistas, and particularly at the Center. I think there’s no better view of L.A. than from the Getty Center. You have the Meyer buildings, which are architectural masterpieces; the wonderful sunshine—it is Los Angeles. I mean, as a package, I just think it’s an unbeatable experience.
CUNO: Yeah. So then how does the Getty Museum differ from the previous museums that you’ve directed?
POTTS: I think the main thing is its narrowness; that it’s specifically European art, other than for photography. It’s also, I suppose— In structural terms, of course, the Getty Museum is part of the Getty Trust. And the Getty Trust is also the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the Foundation. So we have those sister programs. Which is, I think, a huge strength. Perhaps not as obvious to the average visitor, because they’re not as open to the public.
But their resources and their programs, whether it’s, you know, restoring the paintings in Nefertari’s tomb in Egypt or whether it’s a GRI research project on digitizing books for the libraries, or the great archives that they’ve been acquiring of Szeemann’s and others, their programs and all of that research and experience is a great resource for us when we’re developing, whether it’s exhibition projects, research projects or whatever.
And we have a community of scholars and experts in those fields that complements so well the art historical and conservation experience and expertise that we have in the museum. So that’s a huge difference, and I think a huge strength, which makes the Getty so much more than the sum of those individual programs.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, how have museums changed over the past twenty-five years, and how has the Getty managed that change, and does it need to manage that change?
POTTS: I think the growth in the profile of exhibitions is one of the things I’d point to. Because they’re the exciting thing that comes and goes—they’re a three- or four-month event—they get a lot of attention very quickly, and rightly so. And that does mean there’s a huge engine underneath the program to keep things going. And to be having, you know, at least one major exhibition up in part of the Getty Museum at any one time.
I think the internationalization of the art world just continues unabated in every way. I mean, collectors all over the world are competing. The competitions for exhibitions is huge. And the fact that what we do is noticed all over the world, it gets reported all over the world. If you’re working in a major museum pretty well anywhere, you feel like your audience and the world is looking at you. It’s no longer your city or your state, or even, you know, your country that is aware of what you’re doing. It is an international phenomenon, for better and for worse. And mostly, it’s for better.
CUNO: Yeah. What about the new technologies?
POTTS: That was the third one I’d point out. Which is, I think the increasing exploitation of digital technologies to both make access to our collections freer and easier and so on— There’s a lot of investment, as you know and we know. We’re engaged in digitizing all of our museum collections here. It’s a huge investment of time and people’s effort and research and so on.
But it’s a core responsibility. If we’re going to acquire things, and most of the world can’t get to the Getty to see them in person, so it’s important that they be able to access them online. Then also huge opportunities educationally, through digital media. We’re developing school programs for K through 12; but also adult education in video and other forms, which will, you know, multiple our reach many, many times over what we can ever receive in the museum itself.
CUNO: What about all the talk that’s going on recently in museums about the need to increase diversity? Not only in the collection, but in the staff and among the visitors and in the programming of exhibitions and so forth. How does the Getty respond to that? And how does it distinguish its response from those of other museums?
POTTS: I think our response has been on many different levels. And I think right, needs to be. So it’s in our recruiting. We’re looking for ways to diversify the staffing. We’ve made big headway on that front with our docent body; but also in curatorial positions, conservation positions, and we are making progress. It’s not as fast as we’d like, but it’s certainly underway and we’re wanting to, you know, make the biggest effort we can.
But beyond staffing, it’s also, I think, important that the diversity in the collections is a real challenge, because the collections in Europe are what they are. The works we show are defined by what are the great achievements of artists of those generations throughout European history. And only relatively few of them are of diverse backgrounds. So in the works themselves, sometimes the images represented will have a subject matter which we can delve into, where the diversity of the figures represented or the context of what’s going on will allow us to develop a narrative which brings diversity to the forefront.
And it’s really, I think, important that we think as hard as we can about the narratives that are told. It’s not just the subject matter or the artist behind the works; it’s the question of the voices we bring to the narrative and what that narrative is. And that’s where we’re focusing on bringing diversity into the experience and understanding of the works of art.
So Balthazar’s an interesting case. Obviously, a figure in the Bible, one of the magi from the East. But the one from Africa, represented as a black person. So he— that’s a case where the subject matter itself allows us to ask all the questions about how were people of color perceived. Was Balthazar always shown as a black person, even though he’s identified in the text as that, or not? And why? What does that mean if he wasn’t? And at what point?
CUNO: Yes, that brings to mind this initiative that we’ve called Ancient Worlds Now, looking at the representation of antiquity around the globe at different times and different places. As an important part of that—and actually, it’s something that triggered it, at least in my memory, triggered our commitment to this Ancient Worlds project is the Classical World in Context exhibitions. And tell us about those.
POTTS: So the starting point there was, as I’ve said a number of times, since our collection is only European, our ancient collection is just Greece and Rome, plus the very closely associated cultures like the Etruscans and other Italic peoples in Italy. And that’s the way, you know, that the eighteenth century looked ancient history. It was all about the brilliance of Greece, and then the Romans adopting and pushing that further, and then the Late Antique and Medieval, and then you get the Renaissance and so on.
But of course, history isn’t as neat and linear as that. And those who study the ancient world know that at very important points in its history, Greek art was deeply influenced by Egypt and by the Phoenicians in the Levant. Roman art was deeply influenced by the nations around it, the Persians, the Parthians and others. And yet we are not able to represent those contexts, those influences, those exchanges. And they were both ways; it wasn’t as if one culture was downloading its great wisdom and legacy to another. There were traders, there were often mercenaries, there were sometimes conquests and booty being taken back and forward. So influences were always going in multiple directions.
But we couldn’t actually make those points through our collection alone, since we don’t have the works that are up that represent those other cultures they interacted with—Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and so on. So the Classical World in Context series of exhibitions was an initiative I proposed which would, through exhibitions, look at those relationships one at a time and build up over the period of a decade or so, into a sort of 360-degree look at what those connections were between the Classical world and Egypt and Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Scythians of the Steppe lands, the Thracians in Bulgaria, right through to the Central Asian kingdoms, the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms that arose after Alexander the Great, and even the connections as far as India and along to China, along the Silk Road in the centuries just before and after Christ.
There’s a huge network of interrelations and exchanges and so on that’s incredibly rich and very surprising. But it’s too much for one exhibition. I mean, it’s too much for one book. That’s why we split it up into manageable pieces. The first of them was the exhibition we titled Beyond the Nile: Egypt in the Classical World, which looked at relations from the Bronze Age right through to the Late Roman Period. The second one, which we’re working on now is The Ancient Classical World and Persia. Beyond that, we’ll do The Classical World and Thrace; and after that, The Classical World and the Levant, which brings in the Phoenicians, the Philistines, the Canaanites and others of that area.
So we’ve got our work cut out for ourselves, at least for the next sort or six or so years. But it’s a very ambitious program of a kind that no other institution has ever taken on. So I suppose it’s another example of the Getty’s level of ambition and commitment to sort of longterm projects.
CUNO: Just now to bring this back to where you began as an archaeologist, part of this Ancient Worlds Now project is going to be looking at archaeological sites and how one can advance the archaeological work, documentation of that work, and the conservation of the site after the work has been completed. Tell us about that and how it is that you are working with the other directors of the Getty Research Institute, Conservation Institute, and Foundation on this project.
POTTS: Well, in terms of the Ancient World Now concept, this is, I think, a great opportunity to expand the Getty’s sort of engagement beyond even the cultures we know best—Europe, the Americas, and so on—to parts of the world, you know, whether it’s China or the pre-Columbian cultures, to take a truly global perspective on what is important.
So at the museum, we’re focusing on a few of the opportunities that we think both play to the strengths that the museum has in its expertise and experience, and also that address some of the most urgent needs for preservation and research that really is going to be transformative. One of them has to do with a site in Iraq called Girsu, which is the source of the finds of fantastic sculptures from ancient Mesopotamia, as it then was, at the of Girsu. These are the statues of Gudea, who was the ruler of Girsu in the twenty-second century B.C. that you can see today in the Louvre.
Although some of them will be visiting us for an exhibition on Mesopotamia here at the Getty Villa in March 2020. But work on the site, like many of these other great heritage monuments, was fragmented. It happened over a long period of time. Various expeditions have come and gone; excavated, left; done a little bit of conservation work, gone away; the site has deteriorated further; then further excavation works happened. Publication has been sporadic. So a lot of wonderful things have been found.
But it has been far from exemplary, in that there hasn’t been any sort of strategic approach to how would you ideally, in this situation, address the issue of extracting from a site the best information you can and understanding of it, but also preserve the remains that need to be preserved, disseminate the information on it through publication—and today, of course, that means digitally—and involve the local community in its preservation? Because unless they have buy-in and understand its value and become the great advocates for it, of course, in the long term, no project to save it will be successful without that support at every level. But the local community is the most critical of all.
So we’re hoping at Girsu to partner with the British Museum, which has had a program there of training local conservators, Iraqi conservators, so that they can be involved in preserving the site and the objects found there. But we’re hoping more generally to use this as a test case. It has all the problems. It was started back in the nineteenth century, and it’s had these ongoing but intermittent programs of exploration and engagement. We want to look at what would be the right way to address a site like Girsu into the future, so that we can be asking the right questions in advance and giving guidance for how to strategically think about the order in which you do this, what sort of investment’s involved, and how to make the impact greatest, but also preserve what needs to be preserved on the site itself.
CUNO: And this is going to be part of this much larger project that I mentioned of Ancient Worlds Now, which is going to have a five-pronged approach, in which it’s going to be looking at policy and advocacy; the protection of cultural heritage sites; it’s going to be looking at K through 12 education; it’s going to be looking at university-based education; museum collection sharing; and the projects that you’ve just described at Girsu and archaeological sites. Can you think of another institution that the Getty that could conceive and execute on such an ancient worlds project like this?
POTTS: Well, I suppose maybe an institution, whether it’s the British Museum or one of the big universities that has a commitment to the ancient world might be able to. But if they did, it’d probably be the only such project that they— They’d have to put all their eggs in that basket. These are such ambitious projects and require such careful alignments of the appropriate institutions, and I don’t know of another institution which can be doing that on five or ten fronts at the same time, the way the Getty is.
CUNO: Right, right. Yeah, I think it is one of the great things about working at the Getty, is that you can dream big.
POTTS: Yeah, absolutely.
CUNO: And you’re pushed to. So we’re grateful to have you here, Tim, as director of the Getty Museum, but here on this podcast. Thanks so much.
POTTS: Thank you.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM POTTS: If you’re working in a major museum pretty well anywhere, you feel like your audience...