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Wednesday, 16 January 2008


at the Getty

By Richard Carreño
I can't remember when -- if ever -- when I walked away from a feature article in The New Yorker wondering what happened to magazine's renown for tight editing. That was the case, however, with 'Treasure Hunt,' Hugh Eakin's article about erstwhile Getty Museum curator Marion True. (12 December 2007). For the most part, the piece was fascinating and well crafted. (The 'surprise' denouement was enchantingly unexpected. At least for me).

What also surprised me were some significant 'holes' in the story.

One, why didn't we learn of Marion True's personal finances, salary, investments, debts, and the rest? This was especially important in that her financial plight had a significant bearing on her need to 'borrow' to finance her villa on Paros. This, ostentibly, led to her sacking at the Getty, and, thus, a key element in the story. In other words, was True, despite her putative frugal Yankee background, in a financial pickle? Situations like this can often lead to ethical, even treasonous, compromises.

Related to this was the role of her husband, or, I should say, 'phantom' husband since he only popped up in the article once, or was it twice? Why wasn't he a participant in the financing of the property? No money? Yet True and husband have property in western France. How and when was this property financed, especially, since True noted that, previously, she not owned any real estate. Were they 'renting' in LA -- well over their heads, perhaps?

Clearly, True had all the euridition and right credentials as a schooled curator. But an Armani suit does not make the cosmopolitan. In the end, True evinced more Mid-Western naivete (and earnestness) than Brahmin savior-faire in her dealings with the duplictious dealers who became her dubious 'friends.' That was her first mistake -- thinking that these sharks liked her for was she was, rather than for whom she represented. Despite a high-flying life, it appears she never learned to 'watch her back.'

At at the end of the day, this was a woman who did not adhere to her Yankee roots: If you can't afford it, don't buy it. It's all well and good to be able to identify a fish fork. It takes greater aplomb not to give a damn about it. Unlike Phillipe de Montebello, who announced recently his retirement from the Met and who was able to parry the slings of newly acquistive government arts establishments, Marion True was not to the manor born.

In the end, she was simply outclassed. First, by Euro-scum dealers. And, then, by her other 'friends' at the double-dealing Getty.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, runs like a well-oiled machine. One parks, and proceeds by tram to the museum complex overlooking LA. Actually, the panorama is one of better experiences at the museum.

What Marion True and others have wrought is all rather breathtaking -- for its quantity. The place is stuffed like grand-dad's attic. Elegantly done, of course. Why not? With billions from the Getty Oil fortune to grease the wheels of the museum's agressive acquistion.

The overall impression is that of an art theme-park, with thousands of tourists over-running the place.

My visit to the museum about two years ago also involved an incident that speaks ill of the Getty, as well as the post-9/11 mind-set that is crippling free speech and American democracy. (Another Bushman legacy).

I don't how my conversation with a friend who had accompanied me to the museum turned to Bushman. I suppose he's never far from our minds -- hanging around for verbal sport. Anyway, my friend admittedly got a bit carried away, loudly spewing venom against the President. Nothing hostile. Just loud critcism of his policies.

Within in minutes, we sensed that we were being circled by plain-clothes, ear-piece-wearing security guards. Simultaneouly, the crowds that we had been, just moments before, apart started to peal off. No one, of course, said a word. That's another post 9/11 axiom: Be afraid, very afraid.
Sensing our predictament, we backed off. As we meekly turned down the volume, there was no more free speech for us that day at the Getty. Our docility seemed to accomodate the guards, who silently blended back into the summer crowd. And so did we.

(Richard Carreño, Junto's editor, is a partner in @philabooks+booksellers, an on-line bookshop that specialises in books and ephemera about The New Yorker and by its authors).