The Kimbell and Its Critics

For 30 years, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum has been a venerable, wealthy institution. But a controversial director and self-serving board of trustees have critics from around the world taking shots at the museum.

This
past August, the Star-Telegram’s Marton reported in a front-page story
that the Kimbell was negotiating a refund for a $2.7 million Sumerian
statue the museum quietly purchased in 2000. According to the article,
the Kimbell had purchased the 2600 B.C. sculpture with undue haste to
take advantage of a $300,000 discount from the seller, Phoenix Soho.
Potts, who has a doctorate in Near Eastern art and archaeology from
Oxford, allegedly bought the statue before confirming its provenance.
The museum returned it before ever putting it on display.

Potts would
not comment for Marton’s story. Instead, he offered a 700-word,
not-to-be-edited explanation that he insisted be published alongside
it. When Star-Telegram editors refused, Potts, who wrote art reviews
for the Financial Times while living in London, resorted to a strongly
worded letter to the editor. “From its headline down,” he wrote,
“Friday’s Star-Telegram article on the Kimbell Art Museum contained
critical inaccuracies and unwarranted implications of impropriety.”

Marton had
reported that Phoenix Soho’s offices in Geneva were recently raided by
Swiss and Italian authorities. He also included quotes from
archaeological and museum experts dubious of the statue’s provenance.

It was
either fake or illegally obtained, said Michel van Rijn, a flamboyant,
self-promoting, self-confessed art smuggler from Amsterdam who has
since decided to fight for the Good Guys.
Van Rijn, no fan of Potts,
writes on his eponymous web site, “He’s made blunder after blunder and
this latest fiasco, in [an] area in which he is supposedly an ’expert,’
threatens to ruin his sorry-ass career, which would be a good thing for
the community and the art world at large.”

In his published
rebuttal in the following day’s Star-Telegram, Potts noted that “the
Kimbell’s interests were fully protected in all relevant contracts.” He
said there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision to
return the sculpture, the most significant of which—and the only one he
listed—was “our assessment of what this object would contribute to the
Kimbell’s collection compared to other outstanding acquisition
opportunities that had come along since its purchase.”

Had the
sculpture scandal been an isolated incident, perhaps the art world
would not have paid as much attention as it did. And had Potts
developed a rapport with the local critics during his tenure, perhaps
they would have been more understanding than they were. Instead, the
director’s relationship with the press had deteriorated to the point
that both sides seemed mutually antagonistic. The front-page story
about the statue was only one of many that began to question operations
at the once-revered museum.

While
reporters often refer to institutions like the Kimbell as
“conservative,” the truth is there is no institution more conservative
than the press itself. So when Potts, in his first year as director,
proposed several interior-decorating revisions to Kahn’s masterpiece,
such as adding Belgian green-tinted wool backdrops to some of the 18th-
and 19th-century works, the press erupted with questions. When it
became known he had brought in Italian architect Mario Bellini, with
whom he worked in Australia, the questions intensified. Potts
eventually retreated. “Clearly the Kimbell’s building is a masterpiece
with an aesthetic that must be respected,” Potts said at the time. “But
having some of the old masters against stone walls was only one way of
doing things—perhaps not the only way.”

In the
summer of 2000, questions about the Kimbell involved more serious
topics than matters of aesthetics. And for once, Timothy Potts wasn’t
in the headline. FW Weekly staff writer Betty Brink reported that Kay
Fortson—niece of founder Kay Kimbell—and her husband Ben received
$750,000 and $747,000 respectively for their work from 1996 to 1998 as
president and vice president of the Kimbell’s board of trustees. The
authorization was given by the board in 1998, just days after Ted
Pillsbury left his post as director of the museum. What’s more, three
of the Fortsons’ children sit on the eight-member board. Even though
the children say they didn’t vote on the payments to their parents, the
alleged self-dealing was a major embarrassment to the institution.
After the story ran, the Fortsons announced that they would no longer
accept compensation for jobs that, at most museums across the country,
are regarded as volunteer positions.

A few
months later, Brink reported that the trustees had changed the
foundation’s charter and revised the museum’s lease agreement with the
city. The cover story, “Is the Kimbell Leaving Town?” was alarmist
enough to get the attention of the national arts community. Art in
America ran its own investigation, “What’s up at the Kimbell?” In light
of the $1.5 million payday, the trustees’ amendments to the original
charter warranted explanation, and Brenda Cline, the foundation’s
administrative officer, gave Art in America an official statement. In
it, she said that Kay Kimbell’s original gift to the foundation
specified that it be “charitable and educational,” but that
“charitable” was left out of the charter. The seemingly subtle change
allowed the foundation to donate funds, even though it went against Kay
Kimbell’s original wishes.

This
past November, Brink reported that the museum’s endowment was doing
just that, putting Kimbell Art Museum money into coffers other than the
Kimbell Art Museum’s. Not only was money used to fund other
organizations in the Fort Worth area, but the board members of those
organizations also included board members of the museum.

“They have
quite a wall around that place,” Brink says. By “that place,” she means
the Kimbell, and by “they,” she means anyone who has an interest in
keeping a reporter such as her from delving too deeply into the
goings-on at 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard. “From everyone surrounding the
Kimbell, the foundation, and the museum, even the people who left
there,” Brink says, “no one’s been anxious to go to the public with
what they know.”

Timothy
Potts, who earns half a million dollars a year, has shrunk farther and
farther from the spotlight as the Kimbell has found itself more and
more under the magnifying glass. For the five stories Brink has written
about the Kimbell, she says she’s tried to call Potts for comment three
or four times per story. She’s never spoken with him. If his and the
board’s plan is to wait out the media storm until it blows over, their
plan is having the opposite effect. “I figure, if someone’s not talking
to me, or if they’re keeping something from me, I want to find out what
it is,” Brink says.

An
Australian art reporter once labeled Timothy Potts a “swot,” basically
a nerd, and Potts himself admitted, “I was very excited to get to
university and study archaeology, ancient art, and philosophy.” He
graduated with “first-class honours” from Sydney University and then
went to Oxford for a doctorate in ancient Near Eastern art and
archaeology. After earning a self-styled M.B.A. while working in London
for Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, the scholar returned to
Australia and to his labor of love, museums.

But
scholarly training and even a stint in the back rooms of an investment
banking house can only prepare you so much for being a museum director.
An art museum, even a private one such as the Kimbell, is a public
trust and requires a director with a temperament capable of dealing
with the public. “You have been trained to be an art historian and all
of the sudden you’re dealing with a world you have no experience in,”
says Peter Marzio, director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “You’re
representing the institution. The responsibility is profound.”

Potts’
history shows that he may still be learning this part of a museum
director’s job. In Australia, it is fair to say, he is not well
regarded by many of the people who covered him. Much of the Australian
press’ animosity toward Potts seems to stem from the way he handled the
notorious Serrano exhibit. “It would be a great irony and a great
historical inaccuracy if I ended up being portrayed as the one who’s
compromised artistic freedom of expression when, through this whole
episode, I’ve been the one defending it,” Potts said at a press
conference in October 1997, explaining why he closed the exhibit mere
days after it opened.
The de facto centerpiece of Serrano’s show,
“Piss Christ,” stirred protests, threats, and a lawsuit from the
Church. Potts indeed publicly supported and defended Serrano, until the
photo of a crucifix immersed in urine was physically attacked two times
in as many days. He then closed the show, claiming it endangered
visitors, the museum staff, and the other works of art. The apparent
flip-flop made him a punching bag for the tabloids, while the more
serious newspapers questioned why any director would run such a
controversial exhibit at the same time as a billion-dollar traveling
Rembrandt show.

Potts’
standing in the Australian art community never recovered. When he
announced that he was leaving his native land for Fort Worth in August
1998, the Australian Financial Review ran “Goodbye, Tim: Why Potts Was
Panned” as a less than mournful adieu. “If Potts was on a springboard,”
Brook Turner wrote, “schools of sharks had been circling it for some
time. Indeed, his stocks had never seemed lower.” The piece
regurgitated the Serrano “furore” and suggested it was “just the
flashpoint for more deep-seated hostility to Potts in the Australian
art establishment.”

“Perhaps
someone’s manner and style shouldn’t matter at all when it comes to the
challenging and substantial task of running a huge gallery like the
National Gallery,” says Virginia Trioli, a former senior writer with
Australia’s The Age newspaper and now broadcaster on 774 ABC Melbourne.
“But he rubbed everyone the wrong way from the beginning. He appeared
cold and aloof, and he made little attempt to connect with the
community.”

Not
surprisingly, Potts declined to be interviewed for this story or to
give his version of events. Dating back to Potts’ days in Australia,
profiles of him give the clear impression of someone who doesn’t care
what people think. Even in 1994, when he was promoted from coordinating
curator of international art to director of the National Gallery, Potts
was described as “the invisible man” of the National Gallery staff, and
critics used the same word as Virginia Trioli, “aloof.”

Ted
Pillsbury, who is now co-owner of Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art in
Dallas, has refused to comment specifically on his successor’s
performance. Pillsbury did offer some general observations about the
importance of effective communication with the community via the media.
“To be the director is to be the public spokesperson for the
institution,” he says. “To be effective in the community-service world,
you have to publicly articulate a vision for the institution. To ignore
the interests of the media and the valuable role the media play in
communicating that vision is undertaken with peril.

“In
the public sector, it’s not enough to do the right thing,” Pillsbury
adds, “but you have to explain how you did it and why you did it. That
leads to effective leadership.”

“He’s a horrible leader,” says Mark Caywood, who admits that anything he says will come across as the comments
of a disgruntled former employee. He also admits that’s exactly what he
is. As the Kimbell’s former manager of marketing and audience
development, Caywood helped establish and maintain the museum’s
reputation until he resigned in 1999, “specifically because of Potts
and the damage he’s done to the museum,” he says. Caywood, now a
freelance writer, has gone so far as to establish a “watchdog” web site
with links to the numerous newspaper stories about Potts, the Kimbell,
and its trustees. “There’s no hyperbole in anything anyone’s said about
him,” Caywood says, which is itself a bold statement considering some
of the things critics, including him, have said about Potts. Caywood
says Potts is “sociopathic, incompetent, secretive, paranoid, and
totally unqualified to be at the helm of any institution of any size.”

Not
every art critic is taking potshots at the Kimbell. When the discussion
is about the art on the walls and not about how the art got there,
critics are continually impressed. Over the years, SMU English
professor Willard Spiegelman has written flattering reviews of the
Kimbell for The Wall Street Journal, and he continues to hold the
museum in high regard as one of the country’s finest. “The Kimbell is a
connoisseur’s museum,” he says. “Everything about it is first-rate. I
think of the Kimbell as a museum that has never compromised.”

And
not everyone is critical of Timothy Potts. “I thought his selection [as
director] was brilliant,” says Houston’s Marzio. “I find him to be a
straight shooter. He has an excellent eye.” Then, as if anticipating a
counterargument, Marzio adds,”The notion of him being reticent—he’s a
new director. He comes from Australia. I think the reticence is his
style, not a substantive issue. It’s not about hiding anything. I think
it just may be his own way of doing things.”

Photos: Kimbell: Kimbell Museum; Caywood: Tres Simth

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