Come and Getty

By Caroline Baum

As director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Timothy Potts has a budget and resources that make him the envy of the art world. But he is a careful shopper.
Image of Timothy Potts

Credit: Getty Museum

It will be more than two years before the hand – or should that be the eye – of Timothy Potts will be visible at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He may have been appointed director late last year but exhibitions are long-term projects, taking years to research, plan and negotiate.

In the meantime, the Sydney alumnus (BA Hons ’81) is making his presence felt in other ways. Mainly by shopping. When you have the Getty’s purchasing power, his sort of shopping (a crude and rather vulgar term for the kind of buying that Potts does), is the topic of speculation and media fascination.

Blessed with an enviable endowment of $5.3 billion from the Getty Trust, the museum director does not have to spend energy raising money. Instead, his job is to spend it. Potts started his tenure with a fairly low-key purchase, a Flemish illuminated manuscript by Lieven van Lathem at the 2012 Sotheby’s sale of items from Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire, in the UK for $6.2 million.

Although it may seem as if Potts has carte blanche to buy whatever he likes, he says it is not that simple. “The market has not missed a beat due to the GFC. The Russian oligarchs have simply moved in where previously it was the Japanese paying the high prices. Next it will be the Chinese. Frankly, the prices are staggering and it is getting harder and harder. We may have the largest institutional budget but our competition comes from private individuals.”

He admits to having his eye out for a Caravaggio, though such things are not easy to come by, even with a hefty cheque book. “I have, in the past 10 years, seen lots of paintings that want to be Caravaggios,” he says coolly. He is in no hurry. One thing you learn as an archaeologist is patience.

From the age of 11, Potts knew what he wanted to be. Raised by a urologist father and a mother interested in fashion, he first visited the University’s Nicholson Museum when he was 14. “That was the first time I came face to face with original artefacts from antiquity.” He recently returned to view the collection, and describes it today as “more welcoming and designed now”.

"With so many experts on so many subjects in one place, we are all both professors and students at the same time. That is incredibly stimulating."

As an undergraduate studying philosophy and archaeology, Potts, now 54, lived off campus, cycling from the family home near Centennial Park to university every day. He regards those as “the critical, golden years” and has maintained friendships with some of his peers, “many of whom have gone on to become scholars at universities around the world”.

He sounds almost apologetic when describing the focus and enthusiasm he brought to his studies, eclipsing the alternative temptations and distractions of a social or sporting life. His chief mentor was Professor of Archaeology Basil Hennessey, a specialist in Near Eastern civilisations. “He was very supportive, helped to get me to Oxford for my postgraduate work and invited me on my first dig in Jordan,” says Potts, who went on to work at several sites in the Middle East which would today be inaccessible, such as those in Iraq.

Image of Getty Museum aerial view

An Aerial view of the Getty Museum. Credit: Getty Museum

Potts saved up to go to Jordan by washing dishes in a restaurant at night. Today he talks about the life on a dig with undimmed, almost boyish enthusiasm and nostalgia. “That first site was fascinating; it went from the neolithic era to medieval times, including the Roman and the Byzantine. It was both primitive and romantic, undeniably authentic. I am glad I experienced living on site in tents, the simplicity of it. The actual digging today remains a manual craft – you still have to feel your way. What has changed is the science for dating things and the technology for recording data.”

He worries about looting at sites which he describes as “a scourge” and says that providing security to protect such places of cultural significance is a priority that most countries caught up in the current wave of war and upheaval ignore.

At the Getty, he sees his role as similar to that of a storyteller. “I am keeping an eye out for what the state of a subject is, to see if a story can be assembled through artworks that can convey a meaningful experience to audiences. It is the scholarship in that process that excites me, not the wheeling and dealing,” he says emphatically.

But isn’t there some satisfaction in bartering with institutions that are normally loath to lend? “Of course, but the reason they lend is because they get excited by the story you want to tell; they also share in the opportunity to learn something new about a work in their collection. You don’t lend a Giotto just because it’s the Getty that’s asking. The power of an idea secures you the loans. The challenge lies in finding a fresh approach.”

Potts compares the Getty, with its 200 staff, to a university: “With so many experts on so many subjects in one place, we are all both professors and students at the same time. That is incredibly stimulating.”

From Sydney to LA

Before his appointment to the Getty Museum, Potts spent five years as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, where he derived personal satisfaction from two exhibitions he curated, attracting unprecedented numbers to view shows devoted to the Han Dynasty Royal Tombs and Vermeer’s Women. “The trick is to find a balance between scholarship in the raw as you find it in journals and research and knowledge that is worn lightly and can be shared with non-experts.”

Image of the Getty Museum foyer

The foyer of the Getty Museum. Credit: Getty Museum

In the early ’90s, before his museum career took off, Potts spent four years in the Media and Communications Group at Lehmann Brothers investment bank in New York, an experience which he now says gave him an advantage in understanding how the corporate world works, “especially the focus on follow-through, deadlines and outcomes, since those are the terms in which most of our funders think and assess us. It also gives sponsors of the museum a higher level of comfort in me as the steward of their support. They know I understand what they need to get out of the relationship.”

Following that stint he was appointed director of the National Gallery of Victoria (1994–98). He does not hesitate when asked to nominate his personal highlights from his four years there: “Firstly, abolishing the entry charge and seeing the attendance double in the first year. Secondly, persuading the Kennett government that the major building on Federation Square should be a museum of Australian art drawn from the NGV’s collections. As for a curatorial highpoint, that was organising Rembrandt, A Genius And His Impact.”

From Melbourne he moved to Texas, as Director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1998–2007), where he shifted the emphasis to sculpture through opportunistic purchasing – including a Bernini which experts claimed was ‘a steal’ and a major coup largely because its authenticity at the time was uncertain. Potts’s rigorous scholarship won the day, demonstrating that the year he and his curators put into determining it was genuine paid off. “I don’t think I am aggressive but I do have a clear sense of purpose and how to get there, which often means standing firm,” he says, adding that “in most situations judgement underpinned by scholarship is the key to success.”

Describing his management style as informal, and clearly appreciating LA’s laid-back vibe, Potts is currently renting an apartment in Santa Monica with his partner, an artist photographer, and looking to buy something more permanent. The two entertain a lot.

His office at the Getty is minimalist, in keeping with the aesthetic of the building by Richard Meier, and overlooks the Robert Irwin garden, which he describes as “the most contemplative part of the site”.

Two of the walls are glass, one is covered in books from floor to ceiling. The fourth is reserved for a work of art. “With a de Kooning and a few antiquities, it would be perfect,” Potts jokes.
“It’s been easy to settle here, perhaps because it reminds me so much of Australia,” he says. “I do miss it, on a personal level,” he acknowledges. “If life were just about lifestyle, I would live there.”