Issue #179  3/2/2011
Los Angeles Museum and Getty Trust Jointly Acquire Collection of Mapplethorpe Works and Letters

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust have jointly acquired a huge collection of the prints, negatives and letters of Robert Mapplethorpe, further strengthening California's position as a major center for 20th-century photography.

The acquisition is the first time the two institutions have collected works of art to share, in a partnership they formed to compete more effectively against other major museums being considered by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation as homes for the collection.

The foundation is donating the majority of the more than 2,000 photographs, including Mapplethorpe silver-gelatin prints and Polaroid works, and the Getty and the county museum, with help from the David Geffen Foundation, are buying the rest.

The foundation estimated the value of the entire collection, which includes 120,000 negatives, at more than $30 million.

"This is pretty big news for us," said Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who was involved in 1992 with an earlier transfer of a major collection of Mapplethorpe work to the Guggenheim Museum, where he worked at the time.

Govan said that he and Getty officials had been in negotiations with the foundation for more than two years, making a case for Los Angeles based partly on the Getty's extensive storage and conservation facilities and on both museums' strong photography holdings.

In addition, a cornerstone of the Getty's photo holdings is the former private collection and archives of Sam Wagstaff, a curator and major collector who was Mapplethorpe's companion, muse and mentor until Wagstaff's death in 1987. (Mapplethorpe died two years later.)

"It's so poetic, if you will, or correct that the two archives are finally going to come together," Govan said.

The Getty Museum will house most of the photographic material in its temperature-controlled storage facilities. The Getty Research Institute, an arm of the Getty Trust, with world-class archival collections, will keep the letters and other historical Mapplethorpe material, which includes legal papers and documents from the landmark 1990 trial in which the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati was acquitted of obscenity charges for including several Mapplethorpe photographs with sexual themes in an exhibition. The Getty and the county museum will collaborate on exhibitions and publications using both the photographs and archives.

David Bomford, the acting director of the Getty Museum, described the acquisition as an important demonstration of a growing collaborative spirit between Los Angeles art institutions. "We like to think in terms of a kind of ideal Greater Museum of Los Angeles," he said. "And this is an example of that happening."

Govan added of the work that the two institutions will share, "There's plenty to go around here, so I think it's unlikely we'll end up fighting over any of it."