Struck by Lightning at the Louvre

In advance of a conversation on February 11 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Getty president Jim Cuno reflects on how he found his life’s work. It wasn’t the path you might think. Co-published with Zócalo Public Square.

Crowds throng the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum, Paris

Today’s Louvre—glorious crowds and all. It was different in 1969. Photo: Gabriel Cabreira, CC BY-ND 2.0

Because I’m the head of a large arts organization, people often assume that I grew up with the arts. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I came to the arts—stumbled into them, actually—by chance.

I grew up in an Air Force family that moved around a lot: from Missouri to Louisiana, Ohio, Florida, Washington, California, and Bermuda. After graduating from high school at Travis Air Force Base in the Bay Area, I headed to the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs. But military school wasn’t for me. I wanted to travel. So, after one semester, I dropped out and went to London, where I worked as a short-order cook and hitchhiked up and down the U.K.

Open Art: The Getty and ZocaloIn 1969, I enrolled at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Wanderlust soon struck again, and I moved to Luxembourg for a study-abroad program. Ideally suited for train travel—I am a compact person—I moved around Europe as often as I could, buying inexpensive tickets to bigger cities such as Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris.

On a trip to Paris, I happened to visit the Louvre. It was my first experience at a museum. This was more than 40 years ago, long before the Louvre Pyramid was built to accommodate crowds of visitors. In those days, artifacts overflowed along byzantine passages and byways, and rows of Old Masters hung from the ceiling in grand salons, beckoning you through hall after tantalizing hall.

View of the Salon Carre / Alexandre Brun

Hall after tantalizing hall. View of the Salon Carré, about 1880, Alexandre Brun. Oil on canvas, 23 x 32 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I stumbled along those halls looking at the art—these were things I had never seen before, made by people from cultures I had never heard of before, from times and places of which I knew nothing. And it all came alive to me. Each object was a provocation. I’ve never forgotten it.

That chance visit to the Louvre was a lightning bolt. At age 19, I’d found what made my heart sing—but I hadn’t figured out how to turn it into a career. Two years later, still a college student, I got involved in avant-garde theater. When I acted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, I got a taste of what it means to make art, and the pleasure of that experience. I moved to San Francisco for a time, worked in a warehouse, and tried to connect with theater; I even did an evening of Beckett plays in a dance studio in Berkeley.

When I returned to college in Oregon, I worked as a janitor in a theater and did a bit more acting. I loved acting, but I was terrible at it. I was a better janitor than I was an actor.

I decided to study art—rather than create it or clean up after it. I was accepted to the master’s degree program in art history at the University of Oregon. Still unwilling to let my theatrical ambitions die, I helped form a neo-Dada theater and music group called the Unfortunate Duck, which performed in art galleries and universities from Vancouver, British Columbia to Mills College in Oakland, California. There was no second tour.

I wrote a thesis on the work of the early 20th-century Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. I continued my graduate studies at Harvard University, moving my focus a few decades back in time, and a few countries west, to fin-de-siècle France. Years after that first unforgettable experience at the Louvre, I was back in Paris.

I was doubly lucky to study at Harvard, where the art history program was housed in the most magical possible place: a museum. I worked for the Fogg Museum at Harvard, and then moved with my young family to New York for a job teaching art history at Vassar College. Over the next years I taught at UCLA, Dartmouth College, Harvard, and the Courtauld Institute in London.

I had found my niche. I directed a series of ever-larger university museums and, two decades into my career, became director of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2011, I ended up in Los Angeles at the Getty, an institution that combines the fascination of a museum with the depth and breadth of a research institute, a conservation institute, an art publisher, and a grant-making foundation. When I arrived at the Getty, I felt that I had truly landed.

I know how lucky I am to have stumbled into the Louvre at age 19, knowing nothing of art or museums. I’ve never been called on to apologize for devoting my career to the arts. I went into the arts because they made me feel curious and challenged and alive, which are the best reasons for choosing your life’s work.

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  1. Pamela Takigawa
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I feel as an artist that your words “never been called to apologize for devoting my career to the arts” is something I wish I could say as well. This premise is such an interesting topic and timely. I only wish that I lived closer to Los Angeles and could attend the evening at Segerstrom.

    Will you be recording the event? Will there be a way to hear the discussion, for those of us unable to be there in person?

    Thank you for attending to this important topic.

    • Annelisa Stephan
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Hi Pamela, thanks so much for this comment and your question. Good news: the panel will indeed be videotaped by the organizer, Zócalo Public Square. Look for the video, along with a comprehensive text summary of the event, on their site the day after the event.

      Update: Here’s the full summary and video.

      —Annelisa / Iris editor

  2. Gail Miller
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I can understand your great interest in art. As an artist, teacher, and calligrapher, my love of art has been a lifelong endeavor.

  3. Hugh Davies
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Viva Cuno! And thank goodness for that curious 19 year old’s visit to the Louvre.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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