The J. Paul Getty Trust 2016 Report
The Getty Research Institute
Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Director
The Getty Research Institute is dedicated to furthering knowledge and advancing understanding of the visual arts and their various histories through its expertise, active collecting program, public programs, institutional collaborations, exhibitions, publications, digital services, and a residential scholars program. Its Research Library and special collections of rare materials and digital resources serve an international community of scholars and the interested public. The Institute's activities and scholarly resources guide and sustain each other and together provide a unique environment for research, critical inquiry, and scholarly exchange.
The world’s cultural heritage is at risk—a fact that is familiar to almost everyone, yet seems to remain underestimated. The destruction of artworks, artifacts, monuments, sites, and textual and visual documents that tell the stories of our cultural past is, however, nothing new; though it has certainly shifted more into public focus with the devastating destruction of important monuments and artifacts in Afghanistan and Syria in the last decade.
Fervor and fanaticism are often the cause of physical attacks on artifacts, as was the case during the French Revolution, which resulted in a series of terrible losses due to deliberate vandalism. The Paris Bastille is but one example of a structure that is lost to us in its physical form and only survives in images and texts.
In 1871, members of the Paris Commune burned the famous Tuileries Palace and, with the active participation of Gustave Courbet, shattered the Vendôme Column, a monument honoring the victories of Napoléon I. Even though both the Tuileries and the column have been restored, it is solely through images that we can learn about their original state as well as witness the brutal assaults that were perpetrated on these monuments in the name of political convictions.
While our ability to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage is, of course, limited, institutions like the Getty Research Institute (GRI) play a vital role in collecting the traces of monuments and objects that have been destroyed or damaged, and in preserving them for future generations. “Memory institutions” like the GRI serve as repositories for the records of our cultural past and as keepers and creators of knowledge. Collecting material traces of the world’s cultural heritage and carefully studying and interpreting those objects and documents enables us to understand not only our past, but also our present.
Preserving and fostering the study of objects and documents relating to the world’s cultural heritage is at the core of the GRI’s mission. All of the GRI’s departments—the Research Library with millions of published volumes and the vast special collections of rare and unique materials; the Conservation and Digitization departments; the Publications and Exhibitions departments; and especially the Scholars Program—not only work together to create a repository for physical artifacts of the world’s cultural heritage and to find new ways to conserve and protect it, but also to be what Umberto Eco called in his 1986 essay on libraries, “De Bibliotheca,” a “locus of creative work,” a place where knowledge about cultural history is created, enriched, shared, and disseminated.
Collecting the Witnesses
Awareness of the need to preserve and restore cultural monuments, artworks, and artifacts from former periods has not always been a given, and it remains so. Be it human negligence, natural disasters, or willful destruction, there are many reasons for the loss of invaluable and irreplaceable objects of cultural heritage. A dramatic and very recent example of the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is the attack on Palmyra by ISIS soldiers that left large parts of this ancient site in rubble.
The GRI recently acquired taken by French naval officer Louis Vignes in 1864. Stretching some three kilometers across the Tadmurean desert, the ruins of Palmyra stood for ages as bearers of meaning, marking their place in history. The Romans knew Palmyra as a wealthy metropolis located on an oasis in the desert that functioned as a center of culture and trade on the eastern edge of the empire. In the twenty-first century, war in Syria has irrevocably changed what was once one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world and famed as a meeting place of civilizations since its apogee in the late third century. The GRI’s acquisition of the historical photographs of this tragically destroyed site enhances its already extensive collection of visual documents and publications on Palmyra that span its rediscovery by the West in the late seventeenth century to the earliest photographs taken of the ruins in 1864. In addition to numerous early modern accounts describing the site, the GRI holds more than one hundred rare engravings based on eighteenth-century drawings made by the French architect Louis-François Cassas. This suite of prints, along with the rare photographs, depicts the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the colonnade, and the tower tombs that were destroyed in 2015. Even though the destruction of the site cannot be undone, photographs and prints allow us to at least preserve a visual record of the site for research and archaeological studies—a record the GRI presents in its first online-only exhibition in 2017.
The GRI’s Photo Archive is a unique collection of important and often one-of-a-kind visual documents of lost cultural heritage. The archive, which had its origins in the Getty Villa in the late 1970s, comprises more than two million images drawn primarily from scholars’ archives and expanded through Getty-sponsored photographic campaigns and purchases. It provides supplementary and original pictorial material for the study of the visual arts and material culture. Furthermore, the annotations on the backs of many photographs, along with accompanying notes by scholars and photographers, provide additional information that can lead to surprising provenance research discoveries and new attributions.
Many of the countless artifacts, artworks, buildings, and sites represented in the GRI’s Photo Archive, which covers antiquity to the present day, do not exist anymore, thus making the archive an important source for preserving their memory and facilitating their study. This is the case with several of the works depicted in the Foto Arte Minore archive of the German scholar and photographer Max Hutzel, who photographed the art and architecture of Italy over a period of thirty years, from 1960 to 1990. The typewritten summaries that Hutzel made to accompany his photographs frequently include invaluable information provided to him by local inhabitants, such as notations about works of art that had disappeared from provincial churches, as well as his own personal commentary about the sites. Because he visited the same sites more than once, his photographs frequently show buildings and objects in various states of preservation or decay. His photographs of the church of Santa Maria Assunta in Assergi, in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, are among the few visual documents of the baroque interior of this church before its 1965–1975 restoration, which uncovered medieval walls and paintings beneath.
The archive of the legendary twentieth-century photographer Julius Shulman represents a unique source of photographic documentation of Los Angeles’s modernist architecture, such as Pierre Koenig’s world-famous Stahl House. As Shulman generally took his photographs during construction or soon after completion of a building, they remain the best visual documents of the development or original state of a building, and thus are invaluable research tools. Many buildings that Shulman documented have either experienced drastic changes or, in some cases, been destroyed entirely. If it were not for Shulman’s photographic documentation, these buildings, and possibly our knowledge about them, would be lost.
A case in point is architect Raphael Soriano (1904–1988), who was the first and the most skilled architect to exploit the spatial potentialities of modular prefabricated steel and aluminum structures in residential buildings. However, few of the houses that Soriano built still exist and we are left with Shulman’s photographs of, for example, the destroyed Case Study House (1950). Soriano’s Colby Apartments (1951), a milestone in the history of affordable housing, were torn down in the mid-1980s and only survive in fourteen, crisp, evocative black-and-white shots taken by Shulman during the building’s construction.
Collecting Artists’ Archives
Collecting cultural heritage can happen in many different ways and is not always an easy and straightforward process. This is illustrated in the case of George Herms, a Southern California assemblage artist, writer, and musician whose archive was acquired by the GRI in 2006. The archive had been randomly stored in boxes and orange crates overflowing with artworks, exhibition catalogues, correspondence, photographs, flyers and exhibition announcements, guest lists, mail art, astrological research, working notes, and artifacts. The process of housing, cataloguing, and preserving the vast range of materials in Herms’s archive was daunting. The GRI tackled the challenge by bringing the artist on-site and pairing him with a cataloguer, with whom he looked at each item and created an inventory that identified the objects in the order in which they were found. The initial inventory contained corresponding video footage of the archiving process, including Herms’s commentary on the objects identified and on the act of what he called “winnowing.”
Herms and his collaborator moved from this initial process of object identification to the creation of categories and series in keeping with the artist’s methods and with standard archival cataloguing practice. The series are intentionally broad, so as to encompass the interconnections of Herms’s work in different fields—assemblage, collage, drawing, painting, poetry, and publishing. The initial housing and cataloguing of this vast archive (comprising more than two hundred linear feet) was thus the product of a special and unprecedented collaboration between artist and cataloguer to preserve archival materials that might otherwise have been lost. The direct involvement of the artists—which the GRI has been fortunate to have in other instances, such as with the Los Angeles–based feminist performance artists Barbara T. Smith and Eleanor Antin—adds valuable personal information and context to their legacy, which is an important factor for understanding their place in cultural history. Direct interactions with artists and recorded oral histories represent a facet of cultural heritage that would not be captured otherwise, but would be lost forever. This is especially true of oral histories with artists who have been marginalized in one way or another when it comes to traditional art historical methods of “legitimization.” If we do not document the stories of artists like these, the crucial knowledge they have about art and its historical moment could be lost forever. The GRI holds more than one thousand oral-history videos, audio recordings, and transcripts, each of which captures the voices of artists who helped to shape the artistic landscape of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Collecting Digital Heritage
Art forms such as performance art, video art, sound art, and digital art, which have emerged over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, have created an entirely new form of cultural heritage, characterized by ephemerality on the one hand and new forms of media and technologies on the other. These new art forms, and their material traces, pose new challenges, such as how to collect and preserve these new forms that fall outside of what has constituted the canon of cultural heritage until recently, and, in some instances—such as performance art—were never meant to be “preserved” in the conventional sense.
Contemporary media holdings at the GRI include the Long Beach Museum of Art Video Archive, which was acquired in 2006 and contains nearly five thousand videotapes. Subsequently, the GRI has expanded its video holdings with a focus on the birth of video as an artistic medium around the world, with exhibitions and programs devoted to video art from Japan, Brazil, and California, and a current research project focused on the broad development of video art and performance across Latin America.
In addition to video art, the GRI has strong audio collections and numerous holdings on performance art, including the archives of towering figures of the twentieth century such as Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer, David Tudor, Carolee Schneemann, and Eleanor Antin. Much of these artists’ work is now accessible only through performance photographs, handwritten notes, scores, and sketchbooks. With the recent addition of the archive of legendary New York City art and performance space The Kitchen, which includes more than six thousand audio and videotapes documenting the history of experimental music, dance, and performance art, the GRI’s collection of time-based artistic practices and art forms incorporating new media and technologies is one of the strongest in the world. These media assets form an important part of our contemporary cultural heritage, but at the same time present their own set of challenges in terms of rescuing, conserving, and making accessible these historical recordings. We need to continue to reflect on and develop methods and practices for addressing these challenges. One central effort must be to preserve these fragile materials for future generations by transferring them to digital platforms, which also significantly increases their accessibility to the research community.
Archives at Risk
Preserving cultural heritage at risk can only be achieved by pooling forces and sharing knowledge about the collecting, conserving, and study of the physical artifacts, as well as about the ideas, convictions, or codes of past and current generations. The GRI is in a privileged position in that it has at its disposal substantial spatial and logistical capacities and exceptional staff expertise, all of which enable the Research Institute to collect, process, and preserve even very large collections in their entirety. Due to these factors, for example, the GRI was able to save the huge archive of the famous New York–based Knoedler Gallery, the extensive archive of epoch-making photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and, most notably, the vast archive of legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann—a pioneer in the study and exhibition of twentieth-century art—an archive which, because of its sheer size and complexity, other institutions lacked the resources and space to handle. In all three cases—Knoedler, Mapplethorpe, and Szeemann—the GRI was selected as the best place for these extremely important collections to be carefully preserved and made available to the international research community.
The saving of cultural heritage in some instances takes on more dramatic forms, as for example with the archives of famed photographer Harry Shunk; the Woman’s Building, a Los Angeles–based feminist arts and education center; and the papers and drawings of architects John Lautner and Welton Beckett.
Harry Shunk’s photographs document some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, including Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Yayoi Kusama. In his later years Shunk withdrew from society, living an isolated existence in Manhattan’s Westbeth Artists’ Housing surrounded by an extraordinary archive of more than 25,000 photographic prints and nearly 200,000 negatives. Shunk died without heirs in 2006, and his archive passed to public administration. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation acquired the archive at public auction and later purchased more than 1,700 prints that had been thrown in a dumpster when the city cleaned up Shunk’s apartment. Other works retrieved from the dumpster sold at auction in 2012. In 2014, the Lichtenstein Foundation donated the bulk of the collection to the GRI.
For nearly twenty years, the Woman’s Building (founded by artist Judy Chicago, critic Arlene Raven, and designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in 1973) served as a vital hub of feminist artistic activity in Los Angeles. The Woman’s Building included the first independent school for women artists, as well as spaces for exhibitions, meetings, and social services. The building also contained a video postproduction facility where artists could produce work and where documentation of events at the venue could be edited and preserved. After the organization closed in 1991, the video archive was inexplicably tossed in the trash. A concerned artist retrieved the tapes, eventually donating them to the Long Beach Museum of Art, whose archive was acquired by the GRI in 2005. The Woman’s Building video archive is now one of the most frequently requested collections at the GRI.
Other examples of archives that were at risk include the papers and drawings of John Lautner, one of the most important architects to have worked in Southern California. Before being acquired by the GRI in 2007, the archive was stored for ten years in a warehouse with no climate control, a major threat to the delicate components of the archive, which include drawings, notes, photographs, and models. The neglect resulted in the paper becoming brittle and in damage done by silverfish, which were feeding on the photographs. Had the archive remained stored under those circumstances for a few years longer, many drawings and other vital material that allows research on Lautner’s creative process for his innovative residences would have been lost.
Similarly, the architectural drawings and photographs of Welton Becket, an acclaimed architect whose designs defined the built environment of Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century, were stored in a garage close to the ocean in Laguna Beach before being transferred to the GRI in 2010. That archive also was infested with silverfish, yet the humidity of the ocean air was a far worse danger. In both cases, acquisition by the GRI and careful treatment by its conservation specialists have helped to preserve material that is of tremendous value for the understanding of the creative process in architecture.
Preserving Digital Cultural Heritage
Throughout the world, cultural heritage material is increasingly produced in digital form, including email messages, texts, photographs, audio recordings, videos, digital art, and born-digital publications. The advance of technology has led to an enormous volume of digital information that is vulnerable to accidental or deliberate destruction and technical obsolescence. This digital legacy is in grave danger of being lost forever. Research centers and memory institutions all over the world need to commit to collecting and preserving digital heritage and making it available far into the future. The GRI’s special collections, for example, contain thousands of floppy disks, CDs, Zip disks and a Jaz drive, among other storage media. The growing holdings of the Getty’s own Institutional Archives include more than seven terabytes of content that exist solely in digital form on servers. The GRI has implemented forensic systems and best practices for transferring files from many forms of media and has begun depositing content into its digital preservation repository. For example, to access the password-protected hard drive of Harald Szeemann’s personal computer, forensic software that had originally been developed for law enforcement was used. Szeemann’s email and digital files are now available for research along with the rest of his vast archive of analog materials.
In addition to born-digital material, the GRI also works tirelessly on digitizing and providing access to our collections, which date from the fifteenth century to the present and include materials such as books, photographs, manuscripts, three-dimensional objects, and works on paper. As of this writing, the GRI has digitized more than 24,000 titles from its library for the Getty Research Portal™, and has digitized almost a half million images of objects from the special collections, 97 percent of which are open to off-site users (the remaining 3 percent can only be accessed on-site for legal reasons). The GRI’s continual acquisition of archives and materials relevant to contemporary culture, increasingly encompassing all manner of recordings and audio and visual material, has put the restoration and conservation of archaic media formats at the center of its attention. The GRI’s conservator of audiovisual materials is tasked with reviving and digitally capturing materials that were created or preserved in media formats that are now obsolete; these materials are then migrated to the most up-to-date digital access platforms. By filling out a simple online form, library patrons can now request materials that have lain dormant for decades and can access these materials on any computer terminal within the library. The GRI has already completely digitized the media components of the archives of the avant-garde composer and musician David Tudor, performance artist Allan Kaprow, and choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. The audiovisual materials found in each of these collections are especially enlightening, as live performance and time-based artistic enterprises were central to these artists’ oeuvres. The GRI is also poised to complete a three-year conservation and restoration project involving the Cynthia Maughan Archive that will reintroduce a unique and largely forgotten voice from the first generation of video artists.
These efforts result in a continuously growing number of digital files, which are inherently fragile and for which adequate systems of storage, management, and preservation continue to be explored. While photographs, under the right conditions, can remain intact for more than one hundred years, a CD containing digital files from only ten years ago might be unreadable due to rapid changes in software and devices that are used to provide access to digital content. Degradation of digital files is more random than that of a physical artifact, resulting much more quickly in complete loss when the file cannot be opened or accessed on current devices.
Practice of Preservation
One of the major concerns of our time is not only to save as much cultural heritage material at risk as possible, but also to constantly develop and improve the standards and best practices for collecting and preserving these objects and artifacts. What is more, our goal as repositories for the material manifestations of cultural heritage, as well as its memory, must be to foster the study of these materials in order to create and disseminate knowledge about past cultural developments. We need to share our expertise with regard to processing and presenting rare and unique materials; practices of cross-cultural scholarship; and preserving historical contexts. Since the inception of the Research Institute’s collecting practice in the early 1980s, the GRI has come a long way in understanding how to improve its contribution to preserving cultural heritage at risk. In those early days, archives and other collections used to be physically separated (for example, putting documents in the archives and putting photographs in the Photo Archive) in order to facilitate the cataloguing process. Now, not only has the GRI recognized the value of keeping collections together and embedding them in an extensive but focused context, it has also taken the lead in providing information about the provenance of its collections, which it makes available to researchers both on-site as well as through our online catalogue and collection inventories and finding aids. Digital technology also enables us to “reunite” collections that had been physically separated before the GRI’s policy about keeping archives and other collections intact went into effect.
The GRI constantly works with established institutions and undertakes new ventures to improve and to share its approach. It is frequently visited by staff from institutions in Asia, Europe, and South America seeking advice on how to establish or improve similar institutions in their own countries. GRI staff members also bring their expertise to the work of international organizations. For example, GRI Library staff are active in the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), which recently founded the IFLA Risk Register. Similar to the registers for museums and monuments of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the IFLA Risk Register gathers information about unique and irreplaceable documentary heritage. When disaster strikes, IFLA provides critical guidance to the International Committee of the Blue Shield partner institutions and UNESCO in order to guarantee a swift and targeted response. The Risk Register is just one element of IFLA’s recent initiative to work more closely with other international efforts to ensure the inclusion of libraries in response systems for natural and man-made disasters.
The GRI invests heavily in the storage, management, and preservation of its digital files and uses innovative systems such as Ex Libris’s digital preservation software, Rosetta, to identify existent files and file formats, select material to preserve for the long term, ensure file integrity, and avoid the disintegration of files over time.
The GRI is a repository for both the physical remnants of cultural heritage as well as our memory of it. But collecting and conserving artifacts and objects is only one aspect of preserving culture that is at risk. As important as technological resources are, it is the scholar who is needed to study and interpret—to unlock—the secrets of our cultural past.