Timothy Potts: Reflections of Culture

For decades, art historian Timothy Potts has studied and curated the world’s most significant works of art. Nearly five years into his tenure as director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he believes the Los Angeles arts scene is the most dynamic in the country.

Timothy Potts: Reflections of Culture
October 31, 2016

The origin story that explains how and why Dr. Timothy Potts became a preeminent curator and museum director is set in England, where he was asked to curate the first major exhibition of ancient works ever lent by the British Museum, Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum.

“I was an Oxford University research fellow, when I was asked to select 100 objects [that] told the story of civilization up to the Christianization of Rome in the 4th century,” he recalls. “That was the moment that made me realize that the museum world allowed you to do things – exhibitions – that reach hundreds of thousands of people. That by seeing an exhibition, works of art would become an important part of people’s lives for that day. That was very meaningful to me,” explains Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum since 2012.

The annual visitor reach of the Museum at Getty Center and Getty Villa is over 2 million, making the institution the fourth-most-visited museum in the country. Of those visitors, 173,000 are school children with nearly three quarters of those visits being subsidized by the Getty. “We have one of the most active school programs in the country,” Potts says proudly. “It has a huge impact. For many of these students it’s their first experience of art, or of a museum as a place where you see visually interesting things, and learn how to read a work of art. The program is critical for giving kids some experience of what a museum is about and what art is about.”

A Stimulating City

The trajectory of Potts’ career spans the globe, but he contends that Los Angeles is currently the most energetic, forward-looking place for the arts. “The Broad museum was a great step forward,” he says. “More and more major artists, curators, consultants, dealers, students, scholars, and practitioners are deciding to come and work in Los Angeles.” The criteria for designation as a forward-thinking venue lies in the mindset, explains Potts. “You see the shift toward the West Coast as the center of innovation. You see it in the arts, in entrepreneurship, and technological innovation.”

When asked how innovation is applied to the Getty Museum, Potts lights up and explains that the exhibition program is the Getty’s way of exposing visitors to the history of art beyond 1900. “Mr. Getty collected quite narrowly European art from the ancient Greeks and Romans through to about 1800. When the Getty Trust was created in the early ’80s, they pushed the end point to 1900. Since then we’ve been actively collecting in the 19th century as well, but still within the European tradition.”

“You see the shift toward the West Coast as the center of innovation. You see it in the arts, in entrepreneurship, and technological innovation.”

The only aspect of the collection that goes beyond the European tradition and right up to the present day is photographs. That one department is global, representing all periods from the inception of photography in the 1830s to today, but the rest is a narrow take on the story of art. So that poses the question of what should be the focus of the Getty exhibit program? Ninety-eight percent of the exhibitions have related to the collection, and most will continue to do so, but the fact that the Getty doesn’t collect the rest of the world, or go beyond 1900, creates a gap.

“The story of art did not stop in the 1900s,” says Potts. “By not going beyond 1900 we would be doing a disservice to our visitors. That’s why we will do shows like London Calling.” A collaborative exhibit between the Tate museum in London and the J. Paul Getty Museum, London Calling highlights the late-20th-century paintings of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, and R.B. Kitaj – six artists who pushed back against the perception that modern art must be rooted in abstraction, conceptualism, and minimalism, instead favoring landscape and the human figure. London Calling is a bridge between the Getty’s permanent collection and the story of art beyond 1900.

“Art can and does change at certain points in history.”

Potts points out that the exhibit has a prehistory in the material the Getty collects. “The whole tradition of figurative and landscape painting, which goes back to the ancient world, is the tradition in which these artists think of themselves,” he says. “In that general conceptual way there is a connection to the collection, but these artists are doing it in [a] totally different and radical 20th-century way, which makes it very novel for our visitors.”

That’s exactly how the exhibition program is meant to surprise visitors. “Art can and does change at certain points in history. When a genius like Picasso wants to turn everything on its head and do things differently, or when Malevich sees a new form of beauty in pure geometry and form, and suddenly we have abstraction, we want to be telling those stories and surprising people,” he adds. The appeal of working directly with the objects, is what draws the Director to being in a museum setting rather than teaching about them in a classroom setting. “I love the physical engagement of being around the objects, seeing them, arranging them in the space, doing the hanging of the exhibition, and making them look as beautiful as possible.”

Potts taking a hands on approach to the curation of The Getty Museum's exhibit "London Calling"

Potts taking a hands on approach to the curation of The Getty Museum’s exhibit “London Calling”

One City, Two Gettys

The Getty Center and Getty Villa tell different chapters of the history of art, utilizing materials from the ancient world from about 3000 BC to 5th century AD, then taking up from medieval times through to 1900. The Villa tells the first three chapters, with the Museum at the Getty Center telling chapters six through eight or so. The aesthetic and experience of the two museums is totally different. The Museum at the Getty Center is a modernist complex designed by architect Richard Meier while the Getty Villa is an accurate recreation of the famous archeological discovery of the Villa of the Papyri in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

“It’s a space where you go back into the ancient world where you’re walking through as close a reproduction of an ancient Roman villa as has ever been created,” says Potts of the Getty Villa. The bronzes in the garden are, in fact, modern copies of the very ancient bronze statues found in the Villa of the Papyri. It’s a unique immersive experience that is about to be given a historical reinstallation of its collection of ancient Greek and Roman material, an area of particular specialty and interest to Potts. Installed thematically for the re-opening in 2006, works were grouped according to subject matter, but the Director points out that this arrangement lost the narrative of development of styles and cultures through time, and confused the history of how and why the various periods of art evolved into the next.

So, the Villa is going back to displaying the collection as historical installations. “The material will be treated as works of art which is how it was collected, rather than illustrations of social history, and will highlight the greatest artistic works as the masterpieces they are,” explains Potts. It will be a totally new and different experience than what is going on now. Almost every object will move, so it’s a big operation, but the Villa will not close during the reorganization, with at least half the collection always on display. The re-installation is scheduled to be completed in early 2018.

Potts (second from the right), with Michael Ward Stout, president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, LACMA Director Michael Govan, and Mapplethorpe’s brother at th opeing of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at The Getty in early 2016 Photo: Courtesy of The Getty

Potts (second from the right), with Michael Ward Stout, president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, LACMA Director Michael Govan, and Mapplethorpe’s brother at th opeing of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at The Getty in early 2016
Photo: Courtesy of The Getty

A Global Perspective

Spending 10 years excavating at Pella in Jordan in the late 1970s and ’80s, and again in the ’80s in Greece and Iraq, where ancient materials were painstakingly excavated, has given Potts unique insight into the terror and destruction being perpetrated around the world by militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). “The willful destruction of monuments dating back 3,000 years, like the Assyrian palaces in Iraq or the Roman ruins of Palmyra in Syria, is an unprecedented atrocity,” rues Potts. On March 1, 2016, in an effort to stop the devastation, the international criminal court at The Hague commenced its first war crimes trial for destruction of cultural monuments, which included ancient mausoleums.

In the world of art, it sometimes takes years of hindsight to evaluate the cultural identity of an era. When asked to remark on the first 16 years of the 21st century, Potts describes the art being made today, and for the most part over the last 20 years, as multiplicity and hybridity. “All of the usual distinctions – high art and low art, museum art and street art, performance art and fine art – those boxes and categories are being experimented with, breached, and subverted. It is a new world where artists don’t want to be categorized.” The nature of what contemporary artists are producing is a collection of blurred lines between disciplines. “It’s blending things together in new and interesting ways, [such as] combining the digital with the analog,” says Potts. “That’s different than any earlier period.”

“All of the usual distinctions – high art and low art, museum art and street art, performance art and fine art – those boxes and categories are being experimented with, breached, and subverted. It is a new world where artists don’t want to be categorized.”

The Getty is also different than any earlier institution. It has an enormous influence on the practice of museums, the practice of art, and the conservation of monuments throughout the world. “We have an amazing combination of factors and a huge footprint while also being a young institution with the latitude to still decide what we want to be,” he explains. “We are a university of the arts, we have artists in residence, engage artists with commissions, we buy video art, and collect archives relating to art history through the Getty Research Institute, including those of living artists. We are deeply involved in research of all cultures and periods of art, and have more active, high-level research scholars working here than in any university around the world.”

It’s clear that a core value embedded in Potts is to expose as many people as possible to the history of art. Thousands of high-resolution images of artworks are available for download, without charge, on the museum’s Web site under the Getty’s Open Content Program. And when visiting the collection, visitors are encouraged to photograph the pieces.

The closest Potts came to acknowledging his formidable talents is when he acquiesced to the notion that there is a skill, a certain esthetic, in making an exhibition look its very best, an expertise he has certainly mastered. This humble exterior accentuates Potts’ charm.

While the Getty may have the most sweeping views of Los Angeles and an abundance of artistic and intellectual stimulation, it is no ivory tower detached from the outside world. Instead, the Getty reinforces the cultural fabric of Los Angeles, reflecting the times and serving as a beacon of what’s to come.

Dr. Timothy Potts

Dr. Timothy Potts

Director | The J. Paul Getty Museum

Age
58

Education
University of Sydney (B.A., Hons), University of Oxford (DPhil in art and archaeology)

Birthplace
Sydney, Australia

Residence
Venice Beach

Family
One son, one daughter

Favorite Local Restaurant
Gjelina

Travel Destination
Almost anywhere between Istanbul and Dunhuang

Favorite Book
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

Cultural Landmark
Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt

The J. Paul Getty Museum

Year Opened
1997

Annual Visitors
More than 2 million (including Getty Villa visitors)

Major Acquisitions
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Rembrandt Laughing; Edouard Manet, Spring (Jeanne); Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bust of Pope Paul V

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