The Burdens of Wealth: Paul Getty and His Museum

Burton B. Fredericksen. Archway Publishing, 2015. 460 pages. $28.99.

By Svetlana Alpers  

If you are interested in art, museums, the art market, the art world or even simply the life of institutions, you will find this an interesting book. Burton B. Fredericksen was hired to be curator at the Getty Malibu museum directly out of UCLA in 1965, aged thirty-one, with an MA in studio art, some graduate work in art history, and then three years on a Fulbright Fellowship to Munich. Gradually advancing at the museum—first as chief curator, then accepting a step down to curator, and finally in charge of the Provenance Index of the Research Institute—Fredericksen remained a Getty employee until  retirement in 2001. Once close to the center of things, he ended on the periphery. But he retired without accepting the severance award (one such award to an important Getty director is here said to have been $3 million), which involved a commitment to confidentiality and non-disparagement…hence this book. The holier-than-thou atmosphere that surrounds someone like Paul Getty and the institution now bearing his name is absent. It is refreshing, and one learns a lot. Unfortunately, there is no index.

First, there are the names, all familiar to someone like myself trained as an art historian in the 20th century United States. The Germans Wilhelm Valentiner, director in Detroit and then at Raleigh, North Carolina; Karl Birkmeyer, professor at UCLA; and Julius Held, renowned scholar on Rubens and Rembrandt; and the Italian connoisseur Federico Zeri make appearances early on. They all wanted to get close to the absent Paul Getty (who never returned to the United States after 1951), to his money, and to the art his money might buy. Getty was penurious: he wanted art but hesitated about its cost. 

Money drives this world as much as the art. Reading about acquisitions, one discovers in some detail that hardly any public art auction is what it seems: the names of the bidders and the end result are known to a few insiders in advance, not to speak of the pay offs to art experts who oil the works. And then, quite as disturbing, no old master painting on the market (or in a museum for that matter) is what it seems. Most have worn down and been painted up over the centuries. Many such are discussed here in passing. Take the case of the much heralded but certainly questionable (at least in parts) Metropolitan Museum Rubens’ Portrait with his Wife and Daughters: the Getty did not get it, but did the Metropolitan get what it claims to have gotten?          

A careful history of an institution and its personnel makes for slow reading. Fredericksen tells a lot about the Getty starting with the original ranch and museum in Malibu to the triumphant institution, which is a museum and much more, now standing high on the hill above Los Angeles. He is modest about himself. The stories he tells about others are presented less in the spirit of getting at people than of telling it as it was. Here is a sample of his distinctive even-handedness about Getty, his leading art consultant Frederico Zeri, and Fredericksen himself in 1969 as compared to the more competent Los Angeles collector Norton Simon:

“We were pathetic bunglers by comparison: an old man with less than a decade to live, whose inability to spend his hard-won resources prevented him from living up to his vaguely perceived goals; a middle-aged scholar who was allowing his need for money to corrupt his best principles; and an inexperienced and under-qualified curator who was only gradually coming to understand the issues involved and was incapable of resolving them.”        

Getty dies in 1976 about one third of the way through the book. To the astonishment of all but his lawyer and a few others, it comes out that his entire fortune is left to the museum. The museum had been collecting in fear of money drying up when he died.  When just the opposite was the case, those at the museum were overwhelmed by the news. Getty left no proposal about the future use of his money. The museum, as it turned out, did not go on to exist on its own, but rather as part of a much larger institution. In fact, if you go to the Getty website today the first tagline to appear reads, “art is just the beginning.” 


Getty would have been delighted to have his name in lights but would have been aghast, so Fredericksen suggests, at how things turned out. The newly constituted Getty Trust eventually set up a research institute, a grant institution, and a conservation institute. After 1997 when the Trust and its institutes moved into the Richard Meier building on the hill in Brentwood, the original Malibu museum, now rebuilt, was developed to house the collection of ancient art. That and eighteenth century furniture were Getty’s passions, but the wealth he left behind allowed the making of a significant collection of European painting.

The book goes on to present people (among them Harold Williams, first president of the newly formed Trust who, along with his wife-to-be Nancy Englander, was the mind behind the structure of the institution and its campus as it is today, John Walsh, director of the museum and George Goldner a dominant curator), art purchases, and the Getty’s institutional growth. The density of happenings and observations during the years Getty was alive become dispersed. After his death, the account has less focus and can indulge in gossip. But this actually pays off in Fredericksen’s hilarious and painful account of the rise and fall of Barry Munitz, the disastrous successor to Harold Williams as head of the Trust.     

There is something appropriate about the sprawling nature of this book. The huge wealth (peaking at $6.4 billion at one point) and presence of the Getty as an institution is unique. The money Getty could not face spending on art in his lifetime now supports various archives on site and initiatives around the globe that are of greater impact than the museum itself. That achievement overwhelms the institutional and human ups and downs, which make up much of the story told here. But one suspects that the turbulence over programs and between people is in the nature of all institutions. This book is a rare occasion to get a look at that—and also at art in such a setting.          

Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic, and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Fine Arts at New York University.