August 2014

Essays

Peter Robb

Art Gallery NSW’s Michael Brand

The Art Gallery of NSW. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Adventures in the artefact business

When you approach the entrance to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) on the edge of Sydney’s Domain, you see exactly what the local establishment had in mind when they commissioned its design in the last decade of the 19th century.

You meet a pert little sandstone bandbox perched rather absurdly on a grassy knoll that falls away steeply behind it towards Woolloomooloo Bay. Mock classical columns front a narrow porch at the top of a few steps. In a sculpted strip high on the outside the names of an 1890s pantheon of Italian Renaissance greats are graven in the stone. In the distance, above the bay, rises the built-up ridge of Potts Point.

The gallery looks small behind its pretentious pillars, lonely and precarious. The best thing about it is the deep, warm golden glow of the stone when the sun falls on it, which is most of most days in Sydney. When you get inside you realise the outside view was illusory, unless the light-filled inside spaces are. The gallery seems to go on forever, up but mostly down through a series of escalators, stretching towards the water just below it.

Over the years, and especially in the last few decades, a relay of different architects has extended the reach of the tiny original in a natural progression that’s always enticing you around another corner or on to a new level. Its proportions are always human. The spaces, nearly all of them, have a rare blend of dignity, welcome and good light.

The halls and rooms of the AGNSW always seem to be full – on weekdays, especially of the old, Zimmer frames clattering over the marble, and the young, in vaguely herded and rarely sullen groups, enjoying installation art. And these spaces will shortly get their biggest and most ambitious extension ever, which with luck won’t undo the accreted harmonies of the last century.

What the AGNSW doesn’t have – for reasons its director, Michael Brand, is powerfully aware of – is a really significant collection. Buying Cézanne’s Bords de la Marne in 2008 for the record sum in Australia of $16.2 million only showed up the general modesty of everything else. The question for Brand, who two years ago became the AGNSW’s eighth director, is what kind of future a middle-sized general art museum can have.


Michael Brand was born in Canberra, and is just old enough to feel he needs to be deprecating about this. His father, Lindsay Brand, had been a naval officer in the war and worked for the Treasury after it. Lindsay became secretary of the Australian Loan Council four years before his second son, Michael, was born in 1958.

At the end of 1970, when Michael was almost 13, his father was posted to Washington DC, where the family would live for the four years Lindsay Brand represented Australia as an executive director of the International Monetary Fund. The old Qantas Fiesta route took them across the Pacific via Mexico City and New Orleans, and Mexico afforded Michael a first glimpse of life outside white Anglo Australia.

These were interesting years in Washington, in the aftermath of the King and Kennedy murders, the resistance to the war in Vietnam. It was the Washington of Nixon’s crushing re-election in 1972, his undoing by the scandals exposed in the Washington Post and his resignation less than two years later. Then came the oil crisis and the final defeat of the US in Vietnam.

The young Michael Brand briefly attended a lively and very mixed public school, and then settled into the private and enlightened Emerson School. He learnt printmaking – etching and aquatint – and took evening classes in photography, setting up a darkroom in the basement of the family home. He’s kept up photography ever since. It flowed into the architectural interests he developed later, and is a great help in his art-historical investigations.

Brand’s eyes were really opened by the paintings in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, founded in the 1930s by the banker Andrew Mellon. He was drawn to the early Italian paintings Mellon had collected. When the Brand family returned to Australia in 1975, and Michael, at 17, spent five or six months of that year travelling home overland on his own, he headed first for Italy, to Rome and Siena. The year’s great revelation, however, came later, as he made his way through Egypt, Nepal, Borneo.

When he talks now about Egypt, it isn’t the ancient pharaonic monuments and their treasures he first recalls, but the urban landscape of the Cairo he passed through, the mosques, the quiet tree-shaded courtyards hidden from the dust and confusion of the streets, the social and cultural values implied in the buildings and their disposition, and what he saw of the way people lived.

He carried this enthusiasm back to Canberra and began a degree course at the Australian National University (ANU) that year in Asian studies – Central and South Asian history and languages. He studied Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian. In 1980 he won ANU’s University Medal and went back to the US, to do first a master’s degree and then a doctorate in art history at Harvard. Asian, of course.

After the closeness of ANU, Harvard’s bleak dormitories and remote teachers seemed grim at first, but he came to see that the teaching and resources were “fantastic”. He studied under the great historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar, who was the Aga Khan Professor at Harvard and the son of the great Byzantinist André Grabar. Another student was Gülru Necipoglu, who succeeded Oleg Grabar in 1993. One who became a friend was Glenn Lowry, now the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lowry and Brand would edit three books on Indian art together.

Brand’s youthful attraction to the small, gilded, Byzantine-inflected paintings of early Italian art translated into a fascination with the art of the Persian miniature. And on a vastly larger scale, the early impact of the great Islamic city of Cairo now led him to think more widely about monumental architecture in Central Asia. His doctoral thesis documented a complex of 15th-century monuments built in the now-ruined fortress city of Mandu in Malwa, one of the independent sultanates that flourished in India between Timur’s invasion of 1397 and Babur’s Mughal conquest in 1526.

His first job as a curator, in Providence, Rhode Island, flung him into organising exhibitions of Asian art more or less on his own for a couple of years. Then he extended his monumental interests in 1987 as a research fellow at the Smithsonian, working for much of that year on the institution’s Mughal Garden Project in Lahore, which had been one of the three Mughal capitals in India.

While he was in Pakistan, Brand heard a rumour that Gough Whitlam, as chairman of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), and James Mollison, the gallery’s director, were planning to set up a department of Asian art and appoint a curator of the new gallery’s Asian collections. Brand flew home briefly to investigate. Back in Lahore, he sent in an application for the job.

In Canberra he’d met Tina Gomes, a student at ANU originally from Borneo, and in January of 1988 they married in Borneo. Six months later there was no news from the NGA and Brand was expecting to remain in Lahore for some time, though Tina as a woman found life there immensely difficult. At last the call came. They flew back to Australia and Brand spent the next eight years tending Asian art at the NGA. In 1990, as prime minister, Bob Hawke opened the NGA’s new Asian Gallery, but passed on the curator’s offer to show him around the collection.

In 1996 Brand moved to Brisbane as assistant director of the Queensland Art Gallery, where he spent four years helping establish the national presence it now has. A rather similar brief then took him back to the US, not far from his old home in Washington, as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Brisbane and Richmond were the direct forerunners of his work at AGNSW.

He must have been a great success in the Virginia Museum appointment, his first senior curatorial post in the US, because five years later he made a remarkable – not to say stunning – leap to the highest ground in his profession. In 2005 Brand was appointed director of the Getty Museum, the richest in the world.


At the end of the ’90s I was contacted by a doctoral student from Georgetown University in Washington. He was doing research on the illicit trade in antiquities and he asked me what I knew about the Sicilian mafia’s involvement in the trafficking of looted art. I passed on a couple of anecdotes but really I knew nothing. I soon started learning. What he told me began a series of revelations about what was happening to the ancient art of the Mediterranean.

The doctoral student told me about the highly organised movement of ancient art from archaeological sites in the Mediterranean through Rome, Florence, Munich and Basel, through Geneva to Paris and London, then on to the museums and private collections of New York and Los Angeles and other parts of the US.

A series of accidental discoveries had led to a decade of work by the art protection unit of the Italian carabinieri and investigating magistrates. For the first time the activities of local tomb robbers in Greece and the overseas Greek world of Sicily, Southern Italy and Etruscan Central Italy were directly linked to the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums. The network had been operating for decades. The evidence was material, documentary and financial.

The crucial figure in Italy was a man the student had mentioned, an antiquities dealer named Giacomo Medici. A curator at the Getty described him as a “low-level gangster made good”. Medici’s warehouse in Geneva was raided in 1995; he was charged with illegal trafficking five years later and was convicted in December 2004. He was sentenced to ten years’ jail and fined 10 million euros.

Italy’s government and judiciary began a fierce campaign to stifle illicit trafficking and recover looted art sold by Medici. This trafficking had usually been done through an American dealer called Robert Hecht who worked in Paris. Hecht had sold on from Medici some outstanding ancient works of art to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Greece, too, moved to recover its looted art from American museums.

In a two-pronged assault on the museums holding the works, demands for restitution by the Italian and Greek governments were flanked by criminal charges. The museum under heaviest fire was the Getty, the richest buyer on the antiquities market and the most deeply compromised by the Italian investigation. The chosen target there was the Getty’s curator of antiquities, a woman called Marion True.


Like all art museums founded by private persons of immense wealth, the Getty had its weirdnesses. Mellon had been on trial for tax evasion when he founded the Washington gallery, and the Getty began as a tax minimisation scheme and ended as the oil man J Paul Getty’s way of keeping his money out of the family. He founded the trust with his name in 1953. The next year he opened its museum on his citrus ranch at Pacific Palisades – by appointment only, for six hours a week, the minimum legal requirement for a charity – showing classical antiquities, European paintings, Persian rugs, French furniture and other things he had picked up over the years.

In 1970, long after he’d left the US for Europe, Getty decided to rehouse the collection in a re-created Roman villa, based on one buried by Vesuvius and incorporating a large car park. It was built on the ranch and opened in 1974. Getty died little more than two years later without ever having seen it. He left his entire fortune to the Getty Trust and its museum. By 1983 family disputes were settled and the trust was worth $1.7 billion. The Getty was the richest art museum in the world. It probably still is. Seven years ago its assets were worth $9 billion.

For decades the Getty was able to outbid all other institutions for whatever it wanted on the art market. It had to. By law the Getty had to spend 4.25% of the trust’s income on art. It spent $7 million on an archaic Greek kouros that many believe is a 20th-century fake. And the Getty still had to find new ways of spending its money. The trust decided to build a new museum, the Getty Center.

For a steep hill site in Brentwood, just north of Sunset Boulevard and bought for $25 million, the architect Richard Meier was commissioned in 1984 to design a massive late-modernist redoubt in imported Roman travertine. It took 13 years to build at a total cost of a billion dollars, and was a structure the architecture writer Martin Filler described as “obsolete long before it opened” in 1997.

One of the new Getty Center’s problems was that – rather in the way the Sydney Opera House has no adequate space for staging opera – it was too small to hold all the art. And not allowed to expand. In 1993 the Getty had commissioned another architect, Jorge Silvetti, to make over the ’70s Roman villa as a new museum for the Getty’s Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. Everything else stayed at the Center. Work began in 1997 and when the villa reopened nine years later, most people thought Silvetti had fulfilled his brief with amazing skill, and made a fine museum of some splendid art from the ancient Mediterranean. This was no less the achievement of Silvetti’s close collaborator, the Getty’s antiquities curator Marion True.

When the villa was reopened in January 2006, the Getty Museum – the Center and the Villa – had until that month been without a director for more than a year. The previous one had resigned after a long feud with the trust’s chairman. The chairman resigned a few days after the opening, renouncing severance pay of $2 million and repaying money he’d spent on himself while being paid more than $1 million a year. The Getty Trust itself was under investigation by the California attorney-general’s office.

The Getty’s new director, Michael Brand, missed the villa’s reopening himself. He had urgent business in Rome with the Italian ministry of culture and the criminal courts. Marion True was on trial. After a decade overseeing the villa’s transformation and nearly 20 years in charge of the Getty’s 50,000 works of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art, she had resigned from the Getty over a property deal. Now, with the dealer Hecht, she was charged in Rome with criminal conspiracy to remove stolen goods, illicit receipt of archaeological objects and falsifying the provenance of works bought by the Getty. The Italian government was demanding the return of 40-odd pieces from the Getty collection, some of stupendous beauty and value. Then True was charged in Greece as well.

Brand told me in Sydney he’d found the Getty embattled, paranoid, turned in on itself and speaking to nobody. True wrote him an embittered letter, attacking the Getty for abandoning her in a “calculated silence” – as the museum returned to Italy and Greece works named in the charges against her – that was being read as “tacit acceptance of my guilt”. She wrote that the Getty’s directors had known and approved everything. Brand won’t talk about the details of True’s case now, though he reminded me that the Getty had spent millions of dollars on her legal defence in Italy and Greece.

In the end, like so many in Italy, True was saved after five years on trial by the statute of limitations, and the case was never resolved. Brand instituted a regime of glasnost at the Getty, established rigorous new requirements for the provenance of future acquisitions, and made peace with Italy and Greece through agreements on restitution and reciprocal loans. Somehow he steered the Getty out of the storm.

At the start of 2010, some months before True’s criminal charges were dismissed in Rome, Brand surprised everyone by abruptly resigning as the Getty’s director. He’d been there a little more than four years, and his contract had nearly a year to run. The Getty’s original director, who’d lasted 17 years in the job, said he was “stunned”, and called Brand a “very fine director” who had “hired first-rate people, done wonderful shows and represented the Getty with a lot of skill and energy”. Brand felt constricted by the policies of the Getty Trust’s new chairman and his own lack of autonomy. He said nothing about the trouble then and says little now. After that, he became director of the vast new Aga Khan Museum of Islamic art in Toronto, due for a belated opening this year. He left the Aga Khan just as suddenly after a couple of years for the AGNSW.


His time at the Getty has left Brand certain that “the age of collecting is over”, and that the future for museums and galleries worldwide is collaboration and loan. It’s a grand vision. It implies that the great collections of the US and Europe would keep everything they now hold, while sending things out a lot more on loans and touring exhibitions, collaborating with museums in places like China and India and the Mediterranean countries, where the art of the ancient world was made. Presumably also the Middle East and Central Asia when they’re secure.

The model of enlightened policy Brand cites is Neil MacGregor’s British Museum in London. The BM has for centuries been fending off calls to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece, keeping them for display “in the context of world history”, as its website now puts it. The British World Collections Programme, chaired by MacGregor and directed at the “priority regions” of Africa, the Middle East, India and China, may be a pre-emptive response to similar claims from these areas.

When I asked Brand if his appointment to the AGNSW meant the gallery was making the Asian collection its priority, he thought not. He said he got the job because he knows the directors of all the big museums. Professionally, as past or present board member, trustee or fellow, he is formidably well connected with the world’s leading institutions – the Hermitage in Russia, the Harvard Museum, the Courtauld Institute in London, the American Association of Museum Directors, and so on.

What would the AGNSW bring to a grand dance of cultural sharing among the world’s museums? What does it have – what art does any Australian museum hold – that the rest of the world would particularly want to see? Aboriginal art is the only thing, and the complexities of indigenous culture in Australia mean it remains an avant-garde interest even here. When the Royal Academy mounted a vast Australia exhibition in London late last year, the indigenous art was the only part of the show not viewed with contempt.

When I met Brand there recently, the AGNSW was showing an exhibition called Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which had already been touring the world and Australia for years. Brand said he’d tried to secure it for the Getty. Afghanistan arrived with a subtext to its splendid catalogue, about how the world, helped by some brave and enlightened Afghans, rescued the country’s art from the destruction of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the later advances of Islamic fundamentalism.

I wondered quite when and in what circumstances the show would stop circling the globe and return to Kabul. At some point a little voice began sounding in my head. Didn’t the Taliban start as the Islamic resistance to foreign occupiers? Who armed and strengthened the mujahedin?

Brand was talking, rather heatedly now, about the looting at Angkor Wat that took place during the regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In 1992, when he was Asian art curator there, the NGA had shown an exhibition called The Age of Angkor: Treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia. The little inner voice murmured, Who created the vacuum filled by the Khmer Rouge?

I asked his views on restitution. Brand’s answer, which took the form of some energetically put rhetorical questions, implied that the big museums were needed to protect the world’s art from the dangers it faced in its places of origin. After Cambodia, Brand invoked Iraq, and spoke of Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Iraq’s ancient art. I was unaware of this. The small voice asked, And the looting of Baghdad’s Museum and National Library in 2003? And who bombed Babylon?

It was a shock last year when the statue of the Dancing Shiva at the NGA in Canberra and six works of Indian sculpture in the AGNSW, among them a stone statue of the god Ardhanarishvara, turned out to have been looted recently from ancient temples in India. They were bought from Subhash Kapoor, an Indian dealer with offices in New York, in 2008 and 2004 respectively. Kapoor is now on trial for looting, and the statues are being returned to India. The AGNSW may not be big-time, but it’s in the loop. Brand is emphasising contemporary Asian art.

He loves working in Sydney. Terrific people here. “Great atmosphere,” he began, but didn’t pursue the insight. He was sunny about the minuscule sums he has to work with, by Getty or Aga Khan standards, and the time he spends raising them. Finessing the pitch, and finding succinct and compelling reasons for spending small amounts of money, “really sharpens your mind”.

He’s halfway through a five-year contract that he hopes to see renewed. So he’d like to stay for some time? “Not for 33 years.” This referred to the Christological tenure of his immediate predecessor, Edmund Capon, who still pops up in the media from time to time, as if he might be available for a Second Coming.

Brand can’t, at 56, have come back to die. His younger daughter is beginning an arts degree at the University of Melbourne and her elder sister has just finished one, so it can’t be for the children either. Thinking about the time Brand encountered Asia nearly 40 years ago as a boy of 17, and how it decided the direction of his life, I wondered whether he might go back there one day, simply to live. Would he like to live in India?

“Oh yes,” he said, unhesitating. “I’d love to live in Rajasthan. I love the desert.”

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

August 2014

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