Senior Curator of Paintings at J. Paul Getty Museum for fifteen years, I meet Scott Schaefer in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum in New York on 31st January, 2014. He is smiling and impeccably dressed. He complains about the New York weather versus that of Los Angeles, where he has come from and where he lives.
We move to the newly restored wing of the European paintings and sit on a bench, surrounded by Old Master masterpieces.
A SENSE OF QUALITY, A SENSE OF TASTE
Scott, why did you retire from the Getty a week ago?
I had six directors in fifteen years. I thought it was time to go as I had had a very good life being there.
In fifteen years you acquired seventy paintings and sold seventy paintings. Isn’t that a remarkable achievement?
The collection didn’t change in size, but it improved in quality. The next curator will be able to add to a very solid collection.
Of all the paintings you bought, which one do you remember the most?
They are all my children and I love them equally. In 1999 we bought a great Cézanne figure painting. Then we bough a great Titian portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos in excellent condition, and the Rubens oil sketch of The Calydonian which was an unknown picture. Watteau’s four actors in the park, the Italian Comedians; a great Turner, Campo Vaccino; a Gauguin, La Fin Royale, one of the most famous that had never been seen before; a great painting by Cagnacci, David with the Head of Goliath.
I built up a Spanish 17th century collection with a Rivera and a Murillo. We have an extraordinary collection of Decorative Art for the French18th Century and we added Chardin, Fragonard and Watteau.
Where did you buy them?
From auctions, private people, dealers. I hate to buy at auctions because you never know the outcome. Private dealers and people are safer.
How would you describe your job?
I am more interested in acquisitions than exhibitions, but we did also make significant exhibits.
What kind of museum is the Getty?
A museum that collects in six different specific areas, only three of which interested the founder. It was built for a small collection. Getty was interested in painting, but he was a bargain hunter. And that is what you get when you hunt bargains. Towards the end of his life he realised you have to pay serious money for great pictures. The last picture he bought was a famous Titian that is now at the National Gallery of London, Diana and Actaeon. He paid $4 million for that in 1974.
The Getty is supposed to be one of the richest museums. Is it so?
The Trust that runs the museum, in addition to the Conservation Institute, the research and the Foundation, is the richest art organisation in the world. They have an endowment of 6.25 billions of dollars and 1,500 employees.
Is the Getty one of the most important museums in America?
Yes, even if it is small and has to be small. It was never meant to compete with large Museums like the Metropolitan in New York or the National Gallery in Washington or the Fine Arts Museum in Boston. The collection, as I said before, is made of six sections: Drawings, Antiquities, French Furniture, Photographs, Mediaeval Manuscripts and Old Master Paintings.
Is it difficult to find great Old Masters on the market?
They are a lot cheaper than contemporary art. The market is getting thinner and thinner and the competition has increased. The Getty’s competition is with private collectors. The other problem with Old Masters is exportation. We can’t get them out of Italy and it is more and more difficult with France and the UK.
What are your future projects now that you have left the Getty?
I have a few writing projects. I will continue to vet in Maastricht and at Frieze Masters, to follow the market and to give advice to anybody interested. But, of course, from Los Angeles! Recently Sotheby’s asked me to curate a little exhibition of Italian Baroque paintings that belong to private dealers like Marco Voena, other dealers and a few private collections. Fifteen pictures all together. I approved the paintings and wrote an introduction for a brief catalogue. Sotheby’s has done selling exhibitions of contemporary, but never older things. It was an interesting experience for me.
Which other museums around the world do you find comparable to the Getty?
There are other small special collections like the Frick in New York, the Wallace in London, the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. But they had amazing opportunities to buy amazing works of art when it was still possible. I would like to think that the Getty has been able to do what they have done with the best possible acquisitions.
How is Los Angeles for the arts and Museums?
As international as contemporary art has become, I would say that if one puts together all the collections of all the LA Museums it is quite impressive. Especially if we consider that, except for the Huntington, it is essentially a post-Korean War collection!
Which is your favourite museum?
In Munich the Alte Pinakothek. The picture per picture is spectacular, smaller than the Louvre or the Prado – and it is easily digestible in a single day.
Your favourite Italian museums?
The Poldi Pezzoli has a wonderful collection and the Doria Pamphilj gallery in Rome. They give the sense of an individual family that created such a collection.
How many people visit the Getty?
In the last ten years the attendance was 1.3 million visitors every year. The Getty is in the enviable position that people come to see the permanent collection rather then exhibitions.
What is important for a Curator?
One of my major goals as a museum person was to teach to the next generation of Museum Curators, and that is what I am most proud of. What is important for a Curator is to have a sense of quality, a sense of taste, the ability to make old things come alive and to seem beautiful and relevant. Part of the Museum’s job today became marketing, fundraising, advertising.
Young people have a chance to make it?
I hope so because it is the future of museums. We are caretakers of the past and our duty is to make it relevant for the future.