Thomas F. Reese, “Taking Sail: Kurt Forster’s Getty Center for the History
of Art and the Humanities,” Festschrift for Kurt W. Forster (in press).
Taking Sail: Kurt Forster’s Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities
Thomas F. Reese
The Getty story has been recounted many times, generally in ways that reflect the institution‟s self-consciousness about the magnitude of its importance in the realm of visual arts institutions. It was an ambition nourished by financial resources unprecedented in the United States, by leaders desirous of learning from others with good ideas and vision, and by what seemed like a tabula rasa
for creating new possibilities for research, education, conservation, and collecting.
Telling the story of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities probably must begin in January 1979, five years before Kurt Forster‟s appointment as its founding director. At that time, Otto Wittmann was appointed as an adviser to the Getty Museum, where he played a vital transitional role in convincing the board to think ambitiously about how Mr. Getty‟s gift to the small museum he had built on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu in 1968 could be most profitably deployed. Subsequently, the board appointed Harold M. Williams President of the Getty Trust in May 1981; Nancy Englander, Director, Program Planning and Analysis, joined him shortly thereafter, as did Leilani Lattin Duke, who became Director of the Center for Education in the Arts in 1983.
Williams and Englander led the search for ideas about how the legacy could
have a more comprehensive impact on all facets of the visual arts, and especially on international scholarship and conservation. They traveled widely in their quest for people with highly informed ideas about what the new institution should do, and what institutional components would be required to maximize the Getty‟s potential to achieve those goals. They had mentors, like Otto Wittmann and Franklin D. Murphy (d. 1994), who became Getty Trustees, as well as a circle of advisors, who in many cases became members of the initial advisory committees to the different programs. John Boardman, Hubert Landais, Irving Lavin, Willibald Sauderländer, Seymour Slive, and Craig Hugh Smyth formed the
1first committee for the Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.
Many observers credit Nancy Englander as the one who charted the course and even “tapped” the directors for Williams; together they began in 1982 to shape the future for the new Getty. John Walsh, Jr. of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had long conversations about the Getty Museum with Otto Wittmann before 1981 and subsequently with Williams. He accepted the position as Director of the Museum in December 1982 and arrived in Los Angeles in February 1983. Kurt W. Forster, then in his second year on the faculty of the Department of Architecture at MIT, began conversations with Williams in spring 1983; he was named Director of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in January 1984. He arrived in Los Angeles in August 1984. Luis Monreal, then
1 The desire for respect was paramount and clearly manifested in the President‟s and the Office of Program Planning and Analysis‟ appointment of extensive “blue-ribbon” advisory committees
Secretary-General of the International Council of Museums in Paris, was first contacted by Williams in December 1984. He traveled frequently between Los Angeles and Paris in January and February 1985 to discuss the future of the Getty Conservation Institute and assumed the directorship in May 1985.
Certainly, someone with influence had an appreciation for youthful, mercurial men with a certain fire in their eyes. The two dynamic individuals chosen to lead the largest new Trust entities, the Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and the Conservation Institute, were witty and urbane with strong visions and abilities of persuasion. They also had impeccable international credentials. One was Swiss German; the other Catalan, bringing international diversity to the team and complementing the Ivy-League affability of John Walsh, the American grassroots savvy of Leilani Lattin Duke, and the boyish intensity and practicality of Michael Ester, who became Director of the Getty Art History Information Program in January 1985.
Kurt Forster‟s studies in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and France; his teaching career at Yale, Stanford, and MIT; his experience as Director of the Swiss Institute in Rome, his scholarly and historiographical studies of the afterlife of classical antiquity and the birth of the modern, his critical engagement in the world of contemporary architecture, and his linguistic prowess in French, Italian, English, and his native German (to mention only modern languages) had earned
to advance their goals; fifty four members were listed in the Trust Program Review for the
him a very special reputation in an astonishingly broad international network of scholars, architects, artists, critics, publishers, and directors of major international study centers. Indeed, Forster‟s first contacts with Williams and
Englander were through the Getty search for an architect for the new site.
No doubt, Forster‟s dynamism and energy made a deep initial impression on them. They might well have wondered, too, how they might ever contain his impetuous vision for the Center. It was to create a great library and center for research and publication that would be a continuous work-in-progress, given form through an open, fluid, and creative process that would be held in balance through a collective ethos of dedication to the highest standards of excellence. In an ideal world, the institution might have taken on some of the very unique qualities of its director—his uncommon curiosity and insight, love of ideas,
metaphoric genius, uncanny linguistic and verbal skills, relentless optimism, elegant European manners, strange passions for chocolates, cheeses, and glaciers; and unyielding faith in the capabilities of his chosen travelers in the Center enterprise. He was, and remains, no ordinary administrator; he is sui
generis—a spellbinding performer and wordsmith who loves the power of a frequently iconoclastic navigational tool that provides some dazzlingly new vision of his subject. From that point, you simply must take the conceptual voyage with him as he weaves webs of thought that expand and test the viability
of the metaphor or association to elucidate some issue that is on his mind; these wonderful verbal explorations generally continue until he exhausts their utility.
What did Forster propose to Williams, Englander, and other Getty advisors? The narrative of Forster‟s program for the building of November 5, 1985, stressed the qualities that the new institution must have. Its pulse and exhortative values are classic Forster. (1) “Every part of it can be compared to some other institution,
but their combination in the Center amounts to a unique creation.” (2) “In every one of its parts . . . the Center strives to attain the highest level.” (3) “As the research arm of the Trust, it provides the resource collections and the highest caliber of scholarship in those fields of knowledge which are immediately pertinent to the study of art.” (4) “It is absolutely indispensable that modern and contemporary art be considered as integral to the scope of our resource collections as is the art of the past.” (5) “The true intellectual life of the Center will depend largely, if not exclusively, on its community of scholars.” (6) “It would be a mistake to think of the Center as a mere shell . . . . We could not fulfill our goals . . . without a pervading presence of true scholarship . . . . We must integrate scholarship into the conduct of our daily work.” (7) “To acquire wide resonance and impact, the Center needs to project its work far beyond its own walls . . . . Publications and research conferences will be the essential means of the Center‟s external mission.” (8) It is vitally important that we hold fast to the basic idea of creating a Center for advanced research and avoid the appearance
of a service institution where everyone seeks to promote their own special
The program narrative continued to define the conceptual models that guided the enterprise. The vision statement is filled with the tensions that animated his conception of the scholarly endeavor:
Internally, we want to create an atmosphere of highly focused work and
liberal exchange, a kind of academy in which imagination balances rigor,
where a spirit of exploration and scrutiny pervades every aspect.
Externally, we can offer opportunities for scholars to partake of that spirit,
to acquaint themselves with new paths of research and multi-disciplinary
It [the Center] may help to pioneer approaches, create research
resources and coordinate efforts which would otherwise lag behind or
falter altogether, and it may offer alternative or even corrective
opportunities where academic institutions tend to stagnate.
2 “The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, The J. Paul Getty Trust User Program Draft 2a,” November 6, 1985, pp. IV: 70-109. Author‟s files. At the Getty Center for the
History of Art and the Humanities, later renamed the Getty Research Institute, the author served as Associate Director (1986-1992), Deputy Director (1994-98), and Acting Director (1991, 1992-93).
Ideally, the Getty Center . . . ought to be a place of reflection and critical
examination. While thought requires a protected and secluded setting,
scrutiny and debate occur in a public arena. The cloistered scholar and
3the crowded auditorium make for a productive tension.
Finally the narrative described the qualities that would be fundamental for the design of the Center. Metaphors served Forster‟s purposes well here.
More important than a concept of mere functional efficiency is the notion
of the place and atmosphere. . . . The Center will house so many different
activities that they will be readily manifest to the visitor only in certain
places and in partial form. . . . Because of the highly distinct character of
its collections and programs, the Center would resemble a prism rather
than a monolith. Its activities and purposes are refracted throughout and
not solidly and simply present in any one place. The Center‟s composite
nature requires subdivision and specialization of spaces and sites, but it
4also suggests the need for frequent reminders of its unifying purpose.
Several years later, Williams urged all directors to draft statements of mission. Forster‟s was an essay about the nature of knowledge and scholarship in relation to art and artifacts.
The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities was established for the purpose of encouraging, as well as assisting, inquiry and research into the nature of art and artifacts. . . .
The Center is predicated on the notion that our knowledge and understanding of art are highly mediated. Because we are able to grasp spontaneously only a fraction of the phenomena of many millennia of artistic production, we require increasingly refined critical tools in order to come to terms with mankind's artifactual legacy. Moreover, for us to comprehend the vast store of information of which every artifact is composed, an array of disciplines must be called upon to study its materials and their choice, its manufacture and treatment, its use and preservation, as well as its ritual and figurative values. Works of art are ultimately too complex to remain the exclusive property of a single academic discipline —particularly a discipline of such recent formation and uncertain future as the history of art. Thus, the Center's programs rest on a broad base of humanistic studies that includes history, anthropology, philosophy, and cultural criticism. As Roger Fry recognized, now over half a century ago:
“If ever there was a study which needed the co-operation of so
many sciences, it is surely that of Art-History. . . . If ever there was
a liberal education, that of Art-History with its immense range of
interest, its vast accumulation of learning and the necessity it
imposes for delicacy and refinement of perception might claim to be
Instead of reinforcing the exclusive claim of art history as the unquestioned path to the understanding of cultural artifacts, the Center invites as wide a range of approaches to the subject as possible, while maintaining a highly determinant analytical focus. The diversity and rigor of this orientation is exemplified by the roster of international scholars —
representing the wide spectrums of disciplines and practicing diverse methodologies —who gather at the Center for varying lengths of time. Getty Scholars are invited each year in accord with loosely defined themes such as patronage, the production of artifacts, the reception of works of art, the avant-garde, and the history of the discipline. The themes are generated more in an attempt to identify areas of controversy and exploration than to increase appreciation of familiar subjects, and they are expected to yield stimulating records of current scholarly debates.
Over the years, these records will be published to become part of the annals of scholarly inquiry and progress. Other Center publications will make neglected or forgotten texts available in translation with new critical