05/17/2012 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Art Treasures, Yours for the Asking


Every parent knows how important it is to hang bright, colorful mobile toys above the baby's crib to stimulate their child's growing brain. But is there a perfect toy for us, adults, to stimulate our presumably developed brain? My answer to this question is an unequivocal YES!

How about art museums as the ultimate toys for our eyes and brains? Where else can you find so many priceless art treasures, which are yours for the asking?


During the Mother's Day weekend I went with a bunch of adventurous art lovers to the Getty Center, to give our brains a generous dose of visual stimulation. As a rule, museums put on display only the best, only the crème de la crème of their collections, which counts for roughly 5 percent of everything that they have in storage. But what about the other 95 percent? Is there any way to have a look behind the closely guarded doors of a museum's storage facilities and archives? Does one have to be a student or a scholar to get that privileged peek at a museum's hidden treasures?

Fortunately not. Anyone curious enough about the Getty's holdings of Medieval manuscripts and Renaissance drawings, rare prints and photographs can request an appointment to view them. And that's exactly what I arranged for my group of art aficionados this past weekend.


I asked Frances Terpak, one of the curators at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) "Can you show us some highlights of your various collections?" And oh boy, I wish you had been there to see what she and her three assistants spread out for us and to hear the fascinating stories that she told.

We marveled at centuries-old exquisite art toys meant for wealthy connoisseurs. We had a chance to flip through an album of drawings by Anselm Kiefer, one of the best known contemporary German artists. And then there was a pair of men's underwear smartly stretched over a wooden picture frame, which turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek artistic response by Robert Mapplethorpe to the symbolic bra burning of feminists in the 1970s. You may have heard that last year the Getty and LACMA jointly acquired Mapplethorpe's vast archive, including thousands upon thousands of his photographs and negatives.


From the Getty Research Institute, we went to the Getty Museum, where Judith Keller, the senior curator of photographs, invited us to her study room to look at some of the most famous Mapplethorpe photographs, including a ghostly self-portrait, shot not long before his death from AIDS. However, my favorite was a dramatic and revealing portrait of Andy Warhol, stripped of his impersonal public mask. To see these images and to hear the stories of the relationship between Mapplethorpe and his patron and lover, Sam Wagstaff, was priceless.


Museum curators not only take care of their collections, but are, in their own right, a treasure trove of information. When Scott Schaefer, the Getty's senior curator of paintings, guided us through the collection of European paintings, we completely lost track of time. He was sharing amazing stories of searching for and, on occasion, successfully hunting down major masterpieces by Titian, Watteau and Turner.


I especially loved the story of his recent acquisition of a beautiful rare early portrait by Édouard Manet. It depicts Madame Brunet, a young, elegantly dressed lady of embarrassingly limited taste and imagination. Why do I say this? When she saw this finished portrait, she felt it was not flattering enough and refused to accept it. Stupid, stupid, stupid... I wonder if her great-grandchildren are still crying over such a terrible error in judgment.

Banner image: Scott Schaefer, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Getty Museum, in front of a portrait by Titian. All photos by Edward Goldman

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.