While doing research for this interview we were very impressed by the number of departments associated with the Getty. Could you please summarise in a few words how this network is organised?
The Jean Paul Getty Trust is composed by four individual operations which are the Museum, the Research Institute, the Conservation Institute and a separate grant giving body called the Foundation. Within the organisation the four operations are conceived as being roughly equal in weight and in importance. While they are organised separately, they do also work together extensively as seen in initiatives such as „Pacific Standard Time„, which is a series of 40 to 50 exhibitions organised in collaboration with various arts institutions in Southern California.
Jean Paul Getty was a collector of Old Master Paintings, French Decorative Arts, and Greek and Roman Antiquities. In 1953 he founded the Museum, which had its own small research library and small curatorial staff. The creation of the J. Paul Getty Trust after Getty’s death in 1976 saw the decision of the Trustees, now in charge of the collection and its funding, to use their resources not only to expand the Museum’s collection, but also to develop the Research Institute. The Research Institute already existed in its embryonic form in the Getty’s research library, with its very good photo archive and its research programme bringing international scholars to the Getty to conduct their studies. Moreover, the Trust created the Getty Conservation Institute, which was an entirely new operation. Finally, the Foundation was established as the fourth component.
What were the aims Mr Getty had in mind when founding the museum? Does the Getty still maintain these ideals, if so, how are they achieved?
While we still honour the core of what Mr Getty collected, in recent years the Collection has expanded to accommodate a broader focus. Mr Getty collected throughout his life, focussing on the three areas mentioned earlier and an additional interest in French furniture and antiquities. Throughout the Thirties he also bought a few French impressionist paintings, but soon stopped collecting them as he found them to be too expensive. Nevertheless, the Trustees decided in 1982 to expand the collection and bought major works of van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet and Cézanne, the irony at hand being that they are far more expensive today than in Mr Getty’s time. Other areas in which we now collect include medieval art, such as illuminated manuscripts, Old Master Drawings and Twentieth Century photography.
Although Getty was living in England, he sent many new objects to his residence in Malibu, California in 1953. According to the Californian law he set up the collection as a non-profit museum to which the public had access to by appointment. During his lifetime, and a short time after his death, there were relatively few exhibitions because the building was so small. Despite this, the Museum actively engaged in research, including a program of lectures and public events. All of this has expanded greatly over the years. Often when we host a major exhibition, we try to organise an international conference to accompany it. Also, many international scholars that come to the Research or Conservational Institute each year give lectures, which make the Getty an intellectual centre for the study of art in Southern California.
Do you also work together with universities in California to include students in your research programmes?
Yes, quite a few members of the staff at the Getty teach at Universities. Some of the University Professors also bring students to the Getty to come and look at the illuminated manuscripts. We very much encourage and welcome this initiative and are very happy to have students around. We see ourselves serving the intellectual community and of course universities are a very important part of this. It is very interesting, even exciting, to see the Getty and many other local museums become incredibly vibrant and dynamic institutions that make L.A. a great good place for studying art and getting involved with the art and museum world.
Many of the Getty’s research projects are conducted in collaboration with European research institutions, such as the „German Sales 1930-1945“-project at the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, which examines the German art markets during the National Socialist regime. How do these collaborations work, how are they initiated and organised?
Usually, these projects begin informally and very much depend upon the staff’s intellectual interests. A few years ago, I worked on a major exhibition in conjunction with the British Library in London on late medieval Flemish manuscripts. This project was the result of collaboration between myself and Scot McKendrick, curator at the British Library and a specialist in Flemish manuscripts. We had known each other for a long time and talked about our research, and finally decided to put together a wonderful exhibition from both Museums’ extensive Flemish manuscript collections.
Manuscripts are very valuable and fragile objects and therefore usually not available for everybody. However, the digitisation of manuscripts has a central part in making them accessible for researchers or anyone else interested. What kind of advantages or disadvantages does working with digitised manuscripts have?
I am fully supportive of manuscript digitisation and – as it is perhaps the optimal way of making images of manuscripts available for researchers and the wider public – we are presently digitising our own collection.
One of the greatest problems traditionally facing manuscript studies is the distribution of images. Many manuscripts are richly illuminated and therefore require many images to make them available. Often even a manuscript that is published may have only half of its images or a small proportion of them illustrated. There are many major objects that have not even been studied in depth and are not well known and I think digitisation can certainly help in this regard.
A negative aspect is that images are never completely satisfying substitutes for the originals. Digitisation is amazing because you can see a level of detail that is very impressive and enormously helpful. But then you will always need to see the original object to make sure you got the colours right or to see aspects the photograph did not pick up for any reason. It is also very important to understand the manuscript’s character as an object, its physicality. Ultimately, photography can never be a substitute for the original.
Many museums and libraries are digitising their collection of manuscripts. Still there is no centralised organisation or project bringing together all these images to establish a comprehensive database.
A comprehensive database is of course something that needs to be done in order to work with manuscripts, but presently the costs of such a project make it difficult to pursue. There are some initiatives like the Digital Scriptorium at Columbia University, but still they are not exhaustive as there are so many manuscripts and images that would need to be added to such a database.
At the Getty, we have of two hundred or so manuscripts containing several thousand illuminated pages and even managing such a small amount of images is a lot of work. The amount of images at so many other libraries and museums is so much larger. The number of images increases even further if you digitise not only the pictures but also the text of the manuscripts. Despite the complicated nature of these works and the sometimes epic scope of their decoration, illuminated manuscripts is still an exciting field of study and one of the areas where there is much original research to be undertaken.
A lot of miniatures were dismembered from their host manuscripts over time and books that constituted an entity were broken up. You reconstructed the Hours of Louis XII. How do these difficulties affect current research?
Those difficulties are first and foremost practical. To understand manuscripts as works of art one wants to grasp the full program of illumination so the effort has to be made to reconstruct the books as closely as possible. For the Hours of Louis XII in fact we still only have part of the book, though fortunately a number of the most important parts. So the first step is always the archeology of the original book. Evaluating the artistic achievement of the book and its implications necessarily comes when we begin to see the book as a whole.
Is it even possible to look at miniatures without the context of their origin and function? Why is it important to take this into account?
Collectors have always collected and admired miniatures that have been removed from books for their aesthetic qualities – they are an important part of the history of medieval painting. We collect leaves and cuttings from illuminated manuscripts because they are often the only evidence of a particular book or offer our only chance to represent the work of a particular artist or school. However the book itself is both the context and the complete work of art. We would always prefer to require a whole book when possible.
In September, the Abbey Bible was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum and is now on display in the exhibition “Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200-1350”, how often does the chance occur to buy precious manuscripts on the art market?
All too rarely, especially for Italian illuminated manuscripts, which are not in themselves rare on the market. However great examples are exceedingly hard to find. A collector has to be very patient today if he wants to example a collection of the first quality. We in fact buy relatively few works from year to year, both because great works are so expensive and because they are so hard to find.
Am 11. Mai wird das internationale Kooperationsprojekt „German Sales 1930-1945. Art Works, Art Markets, and Cultural Policy“ in Heidelberg der Öffentlichkeit vorgestellt. Das Projekt, das unter anderem von der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg und dem Getty Research Institute bearbeitet wird, soll deutschsprachige Auktionskataloge dieser Periode online recherchierbar machen.