In the world of art, there are few things more precious than a masterpiece. That is why things get really complicated when a masterpiece is in danger, especially when its preservation depends on budgetary constraints. Sometimes, the lines between preserving art and conserving finances can be blurred, leading to ethical problems for those involved in the decision-making process. The JP Getty Museum in California currently finds itself in just such a situation, grappling with the question of whether to save the £50 million portrait of Omai at the 11th hour.
Omai’s portrait is a prime example of the artistic brilliance of the eighteenth century. The portrait was painted in 1776 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a giant of English portraiture, and is considered one of his masterpieces. The portrait depicts Omai, a young Cook Islander, who became a sensation in London’s fashionable circles for his story, as recounted by the famous explorer James Cook. He was hailed as a living specimen of the exoticism of the Pacific people and, as such, was feted with great pomp and ceremony; fettered in a world that saw him as a curiosity.
The portrait has led an eventful life, changing hands multiple times, conducting world tours, and even surviving a fire. Now, at the end of its long and illustrious journey, it might be in danger of being lost forever, and that’s where the Getty Museum and the question of its salvation come in.
One of the crucial aspects of the ongoing debate is the financial burden of owning and safeguarding such a precious work of art. The National Portrait Gallery in London, the current owner of the portrait, is struggling to meet the cost of keeping it on display. The gallery incurred a debt of approximately £9.3m in 2013-14 as a result of exhibiting it, which forced them to sell a few of their collections to handle the debt. Thus, the Gallery’s decision to sell it to the Getty Museum creates room for anger, with critics arguing that it is a betrayal of the country’s culture.
However, the Getty Museum itself is facing its financial difficulties. Home to more than 125,000 works of art from antiquity to contemporary art, the museum’s budget is typically consumed by the upkeep of vast infrastructure, salaries and other operating expenses. The museum is, therefore, under no obligation to buy the portrait, especially since it would require a considerable sum, but the museum’s trustees may want to make a bid for the portrait given the opportunity.
The Getty Museum also sits at the apex of the current public debate over how far London’s galleries and museums should be reliant on corporate and private supporters rather than government funding. The acquisition of the portrait would no doubt bolster the museum’s standing and reputation as a mausoleum of high culture, but given the museum’s financial position, the acquisition could also be a risky decision.
The thought of the Getty Museum being forced to renege on some of its primary objectives due to budgetary constraints is unpleasant to consider. Still, as an institution that depends on public and philanthropic support, it is imperative that its assets are spent wisely. The decision of whether to acquire the Portrait of Omai would depend on various circumstances, such as the museum’s level of support and influence, the perceived value of the portrait, and, crucially, the willingness of the markets to support it.
The decision to buy the portrait should not be based solely on what critics feel about the National Portrait Gallery or the Getty Museum. The primary consideration should be the value of the painting and the importance of the work to the collection. The painting has been displayed in temporary locations for long periods, and it is essential to ensure that it is well preserved and maintained for future generations.
The Getty Museum, for all its resources, playing a significant role in the acquisition of the portrait, would signify a real vote of confidence in the museum’s long-term sustainability. A successful purchase would allow the Getty to add another masterpiece to its vast collection of art while also preserving an important piece of history.
All in all, the JP Getty Museum could save Omai’s portrait at the 11th hour, but whether it should is the pivotal question here. The board must consider their priorities and engage in a healthy debate that would weigh the decision’s financial cost to preserve one of the world’s unparalleled works of art. This decision is solely dependent on their discretion and sense of responsibility. However, regardless of the decision they make, the fact that the portrait’s safety is generating so much buzz, is indicative of the true value and importance that works like these have to our society.