Being the director of one of the world's most powerful and forward-thinking, private art organisations isn't a job that many people could do well. For Tim Potts, it's as if he was meant for it.
Tim Potts still has the archaeology books he was given for his 11th birthday. They are the earliest evidence of an obsession that has taken him all the way to the top of the art and antiquities world: since September 2012, Potts has been the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Known simply as The Getty, it’s one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful art institutions.
Potts says he can’t remember much else about his 10-year-old self. But he was captivated by the same things that have captivated 10-year-old minds for generations: ancient civilisations that built giant pyramids, invented writing, and buried their royalty in gold sarcophagi. “I wouldn’t have put it in these words then, but I couldn’t understand how anyone could not be fascinated by all of that,” he says.
When Potts came to the Getty (the second Australian in a row to head the organisation), he had a formidable resumé. Among numerous achievements and postings, he had won University of Sydney medals in both archaeology and philosophy, lectured in Near Eastern art and archaeology at Oxford, and was the director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1994–1998.
But amid all this, he was progressively lured sideways, into the world of museums: after the NGV, he served long stints as director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
“It’s a world in which you have to be careful, because provenance issues are very real and very sensitive.”
For Potts, the Getty’s appeal was obvious. The main Getty Centre is perched on a plateau with expansive views over Los Angeles and houses its extensive galleries. The organisation also researches art history and the related humanities, while conducting research and training aimed at conserving the world’s art, architecture, and archaeological sites.
The Getty organisation itself was initiated by J. Paul Getty, once America’s biggest oil baron who quipped, ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights.’ He had collected art since his teens and established the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1953, which received his full bequest in 1982, six years after his death.
With an estimated endowment in of close to US$7 billion in 2017, it has enormous collecting clout. “We have the resources to buy many of the most important works that come on the market today”, as Potts says drily.
With such buying power comes great responsibility, and like many galleries and museums, the Getty is no stranger to controversy.
There is a long history of antiquities and artworks being stolen from one country to adorn another, with most modern-day plundering being done in war zones by criminals and extremist organisations, who then on-sell what they take to fund other activities.
Understandably, ownership of ill-gotten artefacts is hotly contested in the world of art collecting. “It’s a world in which you have to be careful, because provenance issues are very real and very sensitive,” Potts says.
As a result, there has been a convergence of views on the issue of stolen and looted works. “I think 20 or 30 years ago, many museums had different policies and different approaches, but there’s been a realisation that provenances have to be scrutinised very diligently,” he says. “Just saying ‘we don’t know where it came from, but it’s important and we’d like to have it’ is no longer enough.”
Many Getty works have been repatriated to their countries of origin, both before and after Potts’ arrival. In 2014, the museum returned a 12th-Century Byzantine New Testament, originally purchased as part of a collection in 1983, to Greece. “I feel that we’ve been very responsible players. When other parties have come forward to show they have evidence that something in the Getty’s collection was illegally exported or removed from the country, we’ve given it back. And when we’ve come upon evidence that something should be returned, we have offered it back.”
This more collaborative approach has now resulted in joint exhibitions and conservation projects between the Getty and Italian and Greek institutions. Potts says the Getty has also been designing pedestals and bases for the Archaeological Museum in Athens which will help protect their ancient sculptures from seismic damage: “We know about earthquakes in California, and how to mitigate their effects,” he says. “Again, we’re in a totally different world than we were 20 or so years ago.”
Increasingly, though, the Getty’s competition in the art market isn’t other museums and galleries, but with the wealthiest private collectors. Recently, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvatore Mundi was sold by Christie’s, for $450 million, to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The painting is reputedly kept on the prince’s yacht, Serene. (Whether it was da Vinci or one of his assistants who painted the work is in dispute.)
“Things like that Leonardo do end up in private hands from time to time, that’s a fact,” Potts says. “To a degree that’s always been the case, but the particular dynamics do change from generation to generation. I think the world is more interested in iconic works of art and culture these days, so a Leonardo being in the Emirates or Saudi Arabia gets a headline, when it probably wouldn’t have previously.”
A possible Leonardo on the yacht of a Saudi prince begs the question of how many other Leonardos, or works of similar stature, might be hidden from public view in private collections around the world. “I would not have a clue!” Potts says. “But I hope it’s very unusual for a painting of that importance to be sitting on someone’s yacht, and I suspect it is. I think that’s the exception to the rule.”
Ultimately, though, Potts says the biggest challenge for the Getty is a nice one to have: where to allocate its vast resources. “We can do extraordinary things, but you can’t do everything,” he says. “It’s making judgements about the legacy you’re going to leave through the programs you support … We’d rather do fewer things and do them really well, because we want the impact to be felt 50 and 100 years from now.”
And inside, Potts himself is still that 10-year-old boy. “I’ve been lucky in that I have always been in positions that have allowed me to indulge my greatest interests,” he says. “That’s the joy of being in a world of museums and intellectual activity. As long as you have really strong, keen interests, there’s nothing more enjoyable than pursuing them, and to be paid for it is an extraordinary luxury.”
Written by Andrew Stafford
Collage by Fabio Dias