The Fitzwilliam on a wet Wednesday presents the ideal conditions in which to see art. This is one of the most marvellous – but perhaps unsung – collections of paintings in Europe. Walking through the galleries, all I could think was, "Good God, I didn't know that was here." Actually, I could have bellowed it out loud, because no one would have heard me. The galleries were deserted. "Yes," says Timothy Potts, the director, "crowd management hasn't been a required skill at the Fitzwilliam."
Except that in the past four years, since Potts, a charismatic Australian, has taken over, there has been a change. True, the galleries of the permanent collection haven't required crowd control – but then that's something Tate Britain also finds a problem. However, the exhibitions have been a different story. Last year, Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence – created around securing the loan of The Lacemaker from the Louvre – proved to be the most popular show in the museum's history with queues of two hours.
The latest show, The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, is even more ambitious. With 350 artefacts on loan from China – the star items are a pair of jade suits and some exquisite pottery figures – the exhibition creates a sense of walking through a royal tomb. To mount this show is a spectacular achievement and Potts and the curator, James Lin, should receive nothing but praise.
It is the day before the show opens, but Potts seems confident that every label will be up in time. Sitting in his office, he explains why a scholarly university museum puts considerable resources into such a show. "The change in recent years is the emergence of the special exhibition as the hook on which people mount major research projects. What you see here is the latest analysis of the Han dynasty and the understanding of it will change with this show." It is a bit of a change from the days when curators were content to write ... well, books. Potts agrees. "The exhibitions have transformed the Fitzwilliam. That wasn't initially part of its brief, but they do give a sense of energy. The audience here is about 200,000 a year without a major exhibition. But with 400,000 visitors, the place is jumping, and after this show, we will have far more than that."
It can be inferred that Dr Potts is not someone who sits quietly in a corner. His peers talk of an intensively ambitious man who will do whatever it takes. Born in Sydney, he is an archaeologist who worked on excavations in Jordan and came to Oxford to take a DPhil. His Damascene moment came when he was asked to curate an exhibition called Civilization for the British Museum. ("The first loan exhibition the BM had ever done," he points out.) "This was the first time that I thought about my career being in a museum rather than at Oxford. But it was clear to me that if I wanted to be a director of a museum – and that was what appealed to me – I needed experience in other fields."
So Potts shook off the dust from Oxford and joined Lehman Brothers in New York, where he stayed for four and a half years. The tactic worked. Having never run a museum, he landed the directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 1994. "Looking back, it was a risky strategy. I don't recommend it now. But it is good to have exposure to management practises. Learning about the corporate world and making people feel comfortable with you as a manager of their funding and support has been very helpful."
From here, he has had a dizzying rise and crossed continents with each move: after Melbourne, he went to the Kimbell in Texas in 1998 and then to the Fitzwilliam in 2008. From September, he takes up his post as director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I ask him what is the one thing in his career that he has brought to each museum.
"I'd like to think it's a certain amount of energy and willingness to think about what the institution is doing well and what it is doing less well, about what could really make a difference. Here it's the exhibitions. At Kimbell it was the acquisitions. Where I made a difference was with the collection. The paintings were very strong, but the sculpture wasn't as strong. In Melbourne, it was the division of the collection [splitting Australian and European art] and the creation of the new site on Federation Square to show Australian art in the round."
The Getty post has, in the past, been regarded, to use an appropriately classical metaphor, as a 'poisoned chalice'. In recent years it has undergone the painful process of reassessing its antiquities, many of which(some claim half) were acquired through dubious dealers. The culmination of this was that the then curator of antiquities, Marion True, faced trial in Italy charged with conspiring to traffic in looted art. It was the first time an American museum official had been criminally charged by a foreign government. Now the Getty has one of the strictest acquisition policies in the world, refusing to purchase antiquities that do not have a clear ownership history.
Not surprisingly, Potts, as an archaeologist, has views on acquisitions. He himself has been caught up in debates about certain artefacts while at the Kimbell (two sculptures – a Sumerian figure and a Roman torso were returned to a dealer before they were purchased because they failed a due diligence test). As he says, "Museums don't buy anything that can't be traced back to 1970. It is acceptable to buy something if you can trace it back to 1965. But no owner or buyer is in the clear even then if it is shown to have been illegally exported. But often what happens is that the trail just goes dead." He has stated in the past, however, that there is a case in which works with a 'cloudy' provenance might be shown. "If there isn't a rightful owner, there is a merit to things that have questionable backgrounds being exhibited. I'm not saying that's a reason to acquire them. It's one benefit of them being in museums rather than somewhere else."
Potts has also said that it is beneficial for museums to publish these items – some of which are languishing in safes – so that someone could come forward and make a claim if they had the right documentation. Is this a position he still holds? "Our guidelines for loans are the same as for acquisitions..." He then pauses. "This is such a minefield. There are pros and cons. There is a logic to it, which is if you are not going to acquire things that can't be demonstrated to have been clean for that long, then you extend the same principal to loans because you are giving them the same status within the museum by exhibiting them. On the other hand, you could argue that taking it out of the safe and into the museum does bring it into the public domain for a claimant to see it. And if it is a valid claim, then justice will be served by the item being returned to the owner. But this [course of action] is being denied by the 1970 rule. So there's a tension there.
"Once you really start thinking about certain cases, you can see that the black and white positions don't do justice to the multitude of factors involved. There's the interest of scholarship, there's the valid interest of owners, there's national patrimony considerations. There are the good-faith purchasers who don't realise there's a problem. There is the principle of museums being safe repositories where cultures from around the world can be shown next to each other. You can't meet all these objectives with any one course of action. So compromises have to be made."
What will he bring to the Getty? "I'll have to get my feet under the desk before I find out. What I can say, is that I think it is the beginning of a new phase. It is the first time there is a President of the trust [James Cuno] who understands museums and the art world. Which is a huge step forward. The Getty has gone through its wayward adolescence. It has had its problems with the antiquities collection and with particular individuals that didn't fit. (The well-publicised personality clash between Potts' predecessor, Michael Brand and the former President, James Wood.) Teething problems are out of the way. We are working through some of the antiquities that are still under discussion. But the bulk of it is behind us. The Getty is now thinking about its future again – about what the Getty wants to be 20 years from now."
One cloud on the horizon is that the week before our meeting, 18 Chinese jades (valued at between £10m and £40m) were stolen from the Fitzwilliam. It must have been an awful shock. Potts looks very downcast. "It was horrible to have the collection violated in that way." But he bats away any questions I have about news or the police investigation. "We don't know," he says to every question, although he does agree that there has been a spate of thefts of Chinese material. "I've never had a situation like this."
By the time I return to London, it is on the news that two men have been arrested earlier in the day in connection with the thefts. Had the police not told him? Or is he just a phenomenally smooth operator?
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.
The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 11 November.