Senior Curator and Department Head of the Paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The author of many books, Gasparotto’s areas of interest include painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts of the Renaissance, the rediscovery of classical antiquity between the Middle Ages and the 18th century, and the history of collecting, particularly in the Italian Renaissance.
After many years as a curator, director, and an employee of the cultural heritage departments of various Italian cities (Parma, Piacenza, Modena, and, first and foremost, San Sepolcro), for two years now you have been a Senior Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. How did this different experience happen?
I would say it happened a bit by chance. Between 2011 and 2012, I was a Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and this experience strengthened my relationships with the world of American museums. I returned to Modena for two years, which was important for the redesign of the Galleria Estense in Modena. But, while on one hand this was important, I felt some dissatisfaction because I saw what was lacking in the way Italian museums are managed.
Haven’t things changed quite a bit?
Yes. For the moment, it’s a bit too soon to judge the new experience in Italian museums. In any case, the Getty asked me if I was interested in the position. This started an intense discussion, with two meetings and two trips to Los Angeles. After about three months of discussions, I received the formal offer, which I accepted after thinking about it for a while. I would have seemed pretentious had I not accepted such a prestigious offer.
After two years of working at the Getty, how do you feel? Do you think that you made the right choice?
I believe I did because in a certain way the work of the curator is always the same. In other words, the curator takes care of the exhibition design, the presentation, and researching the collection. Imagining exhibition projects that start from the collection and then dealing with acquisitions. This last part of dealing with acquisitions is more typical of American museums. In Italy acquisitions are very rare.
What other differences have you noticed?
In Italy you get to really know the local area because in some cases there’s an inseparable bond between the museum and the local area. This bond doesn’t exist in the United States. The museum is an independent monad and a microcosm. The Getty collection aims to represent the entire spectrum of the history of European painting. I think that is one of my main duties, to expand the collection. I need to do it with a broad view, going beyond my specialization in Italian culture. This is very exciting.
What is the scope of your work?
I can purchase paintings from Giotto from the second half of the twelfth century all the way up to the era of the young Picasso throughout Europe.
Are today’s prices out of reach for museums?
For the Old Masters painting before the twentieth century this isn’t the case. Important pieces have a large, but not impossible, price tag.
You bought Orazio Gentileschi’s “Danaë” in January 2016 at a Sotheby’s auction…
Yes. I bought it for 30 million dollars, and the comparison I often make is that Modigliani’s “Red Nude” was sold at auction a few months later for 180 million dollars.
Do you have a large budget?
We have a sizeable budget, but for certain special acquisitions the museum’s trustees can make other resources available. The Getty is certainly the museum with the greatest buying power as compared to any other museum, including the Metropolitan.
How do you go about buying a new masterpiece? Do you start with an idea in mind or does happenstance play a role?
The first thing I do is to constantly keep an eye on the market, as to what the auction houses, antiques dealers, and private collectors have to offer. Obviously the two main international houses are in New York and London. In terms of upcoming acquisitions, we don’t have an exact schedule, although we are aware of what the museum lacks and what we’d like to have in the collection.
How many works do you have? How many masterpieces? Is there something you feel is missing? And what other museums could yours be compared to?
We have 430 paintings. Last week they approved the publication of a book on the 100 masterpieces in our collection. Some of the most important works in our collection include Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Halberdier”, Rembrandt’s “St. Bartholomew”, Turner’s “Modern Rome”, and Van Gogh’s “Iris”. The Getty is not an encyclopaedic museum like the Metropolitan or the Louvre. It is a museum that wants to showcase the best of art made in Europe from, let’s say, the time of the Greeks up to the Impressionists. It is a museum with a curated selection of works. Although the scale is different, I would compare it the Gulbenkian in Lisbon or the Kimbell in Fort Worth.
What would you really like to acquire?
I have already made an acquisition that was very much on my wish list. It is a wonderful painting by Parmigianino called “Virgin with Child, Saint John the Baptist with Mary Magdalene”.
Did it come from a private collection?
It came from a collection that I knew from when I curated the Parmigianino exhibition in Parma in 2003. The painting has been conserved exceptionally well, but it is awaiting an export licence from the British government.
What other dreams do you have?
Exhibitions in addition to acquisitions. For example, this autumn we are planning an exhibition dedicated to my favourite painter in the history of the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Bellini. The exhibition will be called “Giovanni Bellini and Landscapes.” We are working with the Uffizi to plan a small yet prestigious exhibition featuring Pontormo. We are planning an exhibition on Hans Holbein (“Portrait of the Humanist”) for 2020 with the Frick Collection in New York. And, in 2019, an exhibition dedicated to the last ten years of Édouard Manet’s career. This exhibition will focus on the Manet masterpiece that we bought in 2014 (“Le Printemps”), which is a portrait of a famous actress.
Do you think that Los Angeles is becoming an important cultural centre, not just for film and music but also for museums and contemporary art?
The museum scene is incredibly rich. In addition to the Getty, there’s the LACMA, the Norton Simon, the Huntington Library, and the MOCA, and, last year, the Broad joined this rich selection of museums. There are also new contemporary art galleries. There’s a true renaissance, centred especially on the downtown, and this also means new residents are moving into the neighbourhood along with bars and restaurants, and it’s a really lively scene. Furthermore, there are many artists that live in Los Angeles today.
What is the Getty’s position in the city? Are there a lot of visitors?
The Getty Center has more than 1.5 million visitors a year, and the Getty Villa has 400,000. We play a special role in the city because the only collection that goes all the way up to modern times is the photography collection. But we have a great number of visitors who also return to see the exhibitions, and we have many conferences and concerts, and educational programmes for schools.
One of your teachers at the Scuola Normale in Pisa was Professor Salvatore Settis who was also the director of the Getty Research Institute. Did he give you any advice when you came to the Getty?
Salvatore was the very first person I told that I was in discussions with the Getty. He gave me some advice and was very happy for me. He’s already been here twice, because he still has important relationships with the museum and the Research Institute.
Is Los Angeles the American art city of the future?
In my opinion, at first it is not an easy city, like New York, but you discover it with time and it has a lot of advantages. Presently, culture is playing an important role and, like New York, it offers constant stimulation.
Are you at all homesick for Italy?
Of course. Most of all, of the historical context. I miss our food, which is much more genuine. Nonetheless, I still feel a great sense of affinity with colleagues past and present. I’m very pleased to be part of the scientific committee of the National Museum of Bargello in Florence, which I’ve had strong ties to since the time of my apprenticeship with Paola Barocchi. I think that the director of the museum, Paola D’Agostino, is doing an excellent job despite the difficulties she faces.
How well do you think the new Italian museum directors are doing?
As I said before, it’s too soon to say. It seems that some are doing good things and that they have support from the Ministry that perhaps we didn’t have in the past. But you can’t work miracles on a shoestring budget. Even an excellent director needs to have the support of enough staff. This is what I see as lacking, and I hope that this gap is bridged with the call for applicants to fill 500 new positions.
Do you have a good staff at the Getty?
Absolutely. Excellent. I have incredibly knowledgeable curators in my department that come from all over the world. I have an American, a Canadian, and a German. The entire museum has an unimaginably large staff if compared, for example, to Italian museums. Working here you feel like you have constant support and you can concentrate on your curator duties.
So, after two years, would you sum it up as having been a positive experience?
I would definitely say so.
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