Katherine Fleming On the Getty’s Role in the 21st Century

This is an especially dynamic moment in the Los Angeles art scene, and Fleming is reshaping how the Getty approaches access and ownership.

Woman in black suit holds coffee cup
Katherine Fleming. Julie Skarratt Photography Inc

Though a noted scholar of Mediterranean culture, history and religion, Katherine Fleming’s love affair with the region was initially less than academic. “I could try and hook up a highfalutin’ answer,” she told Observer. “But the real bottom line is that when I was a teenager, I dropped out of college and took a job as a waitress at a Taverna in Crete.”

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Fleming, who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, picked up modern Greek during that “wild, well-spent youth” on the island—a skill that in subsequent years came in handy in her studies of the humanities. “Since I had Greek, I wound up following a course of study that made it possible for me to make use of it,” she said. But for all the aforementioned hinted-at shenanigans, the scholarly path she eventually followed didn’t come out of left field for Fleming, the daughter of a literary critic and Episcopal priest. After her adventures in Greece, she earned degrees at Barnard University, the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley before going on to work as a lecturer at several California universities and eventually becoming provost of New York University in 2016.

Today, however, Fleming works in an entirely different field. Since 2022, she has been president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s wealthiest arts institution with an $8.6 billion endowment as of last year. She oversees the Los Angeles-based organization’s Getty Foundation, Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute and its two museums—alongside the 1,400 employees employed by them. Fleming was hired as a strategist to help unify the Getty’s various entities. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a public-facing cultural institution in the 21st Century because it can mean something pretty different from what it meant even twenty-five years ago,” she said.

A new definition of access for art institutions

One of those shifts includes evolved ways of thinking about who should have access to fine art museums. Located in Brentwood and Malibu, the Getty Center and Getty Villa respectively showcase pre-20th-century European art and Greek and Roman antiquities from the Getty’s more than 125,000-piece collection. “The organization is going through the process of trying to think really carefully and creatively about what it means to be wealthy, on top of a hill made of marble, in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in L.A.,” says Fleming. “We have to make that place as welcoming as possible to as many people as possible and to really make the people of the city of L.A. aware of it as theirs.”

Large white buildings pictured atop green hill
A view of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Shane Gritzinger/FilmMagic

By emphasizing both physical and online visitor experiences, Fleming hopes the Getty will become representative of the kinds of institutionally neutral places that one can visit for a moment of reflection. This is especially important “in an increasingly chaotic world,” says Fleming, when “people are trying to tell people what to think and how to think about things.” In addition to ensuring visitors can interpret holdings in their own ways, without an assumption that one must have attained a certain level of education or have a particular knowledge base to truly appreciate artwork, Fleming wants the Getty museums to be “a kind of public square” where people can gather to enjoy the architecture and ocean views.

Other priorities include investing in the Getty’s public resource features, such as educational programs and teacher curriculums, and continuing major cataloguing and digitization initiatives like its work on the Johnson Publishing Company Archive. The producer of magazines including Ebony and Jet, the publishing company’s trove of images is co-owned by the Getty and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and stands as one of the most significant depictions of Black culture in the 20th Century, with pivotal snapshots of famous figures like Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Billie Holiday. “I’m very proud to be at an organization that owns that archive and is actively working to make it as widely accessible as possible—and effectively saving that archive from going into private hands,” Fleming said.

Exploring new models of ownership

The Getty CEO is also proud of her decision to commit $17 million to Pacific Standard Time, an arts initiative that brings together institutions across Southern California on a five-year cycle. Renamed PST Art, its next edition will kick off this September with an emphasis on interactions between art and science. Another major move made under Fleming’s leadership occurred in 2023 when the Getty and London’s National Portrait Gallery jointly purchased the 18th-century Joshua Reynolds painting Portrait of Mai (Omai), which depicts the first Polynesian to visit Britain. “We are in a world in which increasingly we have shared services, we have things that rest on the premise that lots of people should have access to the same goods,” said Fleming. Acquired for $62 million, the work will travel between the two institutions for exhibitions, research and conservation.

Large blue pool placed in the middle of courtyard surrounded by red buildings and trees
The courtyard of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Nick Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

Fleming’s enthusiasm for experimenting with ownership models extends beyond collaborative purchases. She cited fractional ownership platforms such as Masterworks and Artex, which offer the opportunity to acquire portions or shares of fine art, as key evolutions in an art market increasingly populated by investors and rising prices. “I don’t know yet what I think of them—it’s too early for me to make a judgment,” she says. “But I find it really, really interesting.”

Her own artistic inclinations reflect her commitment to culture in Los Angeles. Fleming is particularly excited about the rise of L.A.-based artists, like Getty Prize winner Mark Bradford, who are playing a role in shaping the city’s artistic evolution. Other influential creators include Lauren Halsey, whose installations in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles address local issues and offer critiques of gentrification, and Catherine Opie, whose photography documents Californian subcultures and queer communities. It’s the artists who are driving the region’s thriving cultural growth, said Fleming, as opposed to “the ecosystems of institutions that sell or curate or present their art.”

Amid an especially dynamic time for the Los Angeles arts community, Fleming believes the Getty needs to continue evolving and strengthening its commitment to the city it has long invested in. Fostering collaboration across the region and expanding its open-access resources are key elements of that mission—as are its plans to turn its physical campuses into more inclusive and welcoming sites. “In a place like L.A., which is so atomized and internal, people are in real need of it.”

Katherine Fleming On the Getty’s Role in the 21st Century