Five minutes with Timothy Potts
Written by Gregg Henglein
As the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Timothy Potts oversees the city’s most popular cultural attraction, guiding two million visitors per year on a thoughtful and inspiring journey through art history.
Can you classify your ‘vision’ for collecting?
The Getty Museum’s collections range from antiquity (around 3000 BCE) up to 1900 – except for photographs, which we collect up to the present day. My focus since coming to the Getty in 2012 has been on acquiring relatively few works of the very highest quality and importance – things that are truly ‘masterpieces’ of their kind. Art history is defined by its most brilliant and inspired moments, and a museum that wants to demonstrate to its visitors why this matters has to touch as many of those high points as possible.
Are there any particular items that top your ‘Wish List’ for acquisitions?
Collecting at the very top level has to be opportunistic. Works of art of the quality we seek are now so rare that one has to respond quickly and decisively. That said, being a collection that was formed in the later 20th and 21st centuries, we do not yet have the works by Leonardo or Caravaggio or Picasso that we would want. But we keep looking!
Is there a particular artistic period you are most fond of? Why?
My original area of expertise, in which I did my doctorate, was the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East, especially Mesopotamia. But the great attraction of working in museums has been the opportunity it allows to expand your knowledge. At present, for example, I’m organising a show on painters of the School of London who worked in the middle decades of the 20th century.
When you were hired, you said, “No other institution does more to collect, preserve, and understand the history and materiality of art than the Getty.” Do you feel you have succeeded in ensuring that’s remained the case?
Yes, I think all the Getty’s programmes are going from strength to strength. The Getty Museum continues to collect, interpret, and educate visitors from all over the world on the importance of the visual arts to our cultural and civic life; the Getty Research Institute has one of the largest visiting scholars programmes anywhere for research in art history and archaeology; the Getty Conservation Institute’s programmes continue to preserve and safeguard some of the most important cultural monuments and collections around the world; and the Getty Foundation continues to fund major programmes in the arts, including digital initiatives.
Beyond the Getty, when you want to go and see art, where do you go?
Berlin is a city transformed by the rebuilding of its museums over the past 25 years and should not be missed. But the most exciting experiences for me now are the new surprises; some wonderful museum or private collection in some unlikely place. I was recently in Mexico City, which has some fabulous collections, and there are a number of wonderful provincial museums in China. I could cite many more; it goes on and on.
Los Angeles, USA
Distance: 13,366 km
Flight Time: 16 hours, 25 minutes