In the museum world, the biggest institutions frequently work together while managing to protect their turf at the same time. Lending artworks? Gladly. Sharing information? Easy.
But going halfsies on acquisitions? That’s not so common.
Now, however, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum are displaying for the first time the products of a groundbreaking joint acquisition of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work.
In a deal completed in 2011, the two Los Angeles museums, working with the Getty Research Institute, acquired a trove of works from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, including 2,000 editioned prints that encompass all of his most important images, which will be shared by the museums.
For 100 of the most iconic images, they split a $3 million bill. The rest of the photographs were a gift from the foundation, as was a large portion of Mapplethorpe’s archive. The total acquisition was appraised at $38 million.
The archive, which will be stored at the Getty Research Institute, includes 120,000 negatives, hundreds of artworks, 6,000 contact sheets and a wealth of ephemera and other material.
New exhibitions at each institution give a small sample of the recently acquired work - appetizers leading up to a much larger double exhibition in 2016 meant to be the definitive take on Mapplethorpe.
“We wanted people to know right away that we are now in possession of this great material,” said Paul Martineau, the Getty’s associate photography curator.
Mapplethorpe (1946-89) pushed the limits of his art, both technically and in what he chose to picture. His passion was capturing the human body, and for a time he became synonymous with controversy when the most explicit male nudes in the 1989 exhibition “The Perfect Moment” caused an uproar in Congress and elsewhere, leading the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to cancel the show.
Since that time, his reputation has solidified, putting him by most accounts in the pantheon of the 20th century’s best photographers.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty — which have never done a joint acquisition of this magnitude, with each other or any other partner — found it fairly easy to divide the Mapplethorpe oeuvre for the initial shows.
At the Getty, the 23-work show “Robert Mapplethorpe: In Focus” is “a chocolate box of greatest hits, plus a few things that people haven’t seen before,” Mr. Martineau said.
Among the images on display is “Ken Moody and Robert Sherman” (1984), in which Mapplethorpe captured the gleaming bald heads of his male subjects, one white and one black.
The Los Angeles museum is displaying the striking work that Mapplethorpe considered among his best — the 39 photographs spread over three discrete portfolios called “X,” “Y” and “Z.” Included are some of the sadomasochistic-themed nudes that provoked outrage almost 25 years ago, like “Self-Portrait, N.Y.C.” (1978), but there are also opulent pictures of flowers, the photographer’s second-best-known body of work.
“The Getty wanted to draw out his classicism,” said Britt Salvesen, Lacma’s chief photography curator, referring to the Getty’s renowned collection of antiquities. “For us, the ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ ‘Z’ material made sense in the context of our modern and contemporary art collection.”
“Photography depicts something real,” she added. “Mapplethorpe’s work shows its power to entice, but also disturb.”
The acquisition was originally put in motion by Michael Ward Stout, the longtime president of the New York-based Mapplethorpe Foundation and estate.
“I felt that we had to look into the possibilities of aligning ourselves with a major institution,” said Mr. Stout, a partner in the law firm Stout & Thomas and a friend of Mapplethorpe’s. “The idea was depositing a big chunk of our holdings — the whole story of Mapplethorpe, as many artworks as we could possibly give them. So we started to explore.”
The foundation was established by the photographer in 1988, when he was already battling acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It supports medical research in the AIDS field as well as photography-related exhibitions and institutions. Its primary income comes from the sale of Mapplethorpe’s works.
“We’re in business to carefully turn our holdings into money that can be used to support our charitable mandates,” Mr. Stout said. But the cost of storing and maintaining its large holdings over decades prompted him to seek a prestigious museum partner that would help curate Mapplethorpe’s legacy.
The process took longer than Mr. Stout expected, though not for lack of interest on the part of museums. He said he had discussions with the Whitney Museum of American Art and the International Center for Photography, among others.
At one point, he was close to a deal with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson. But those talks fell apart, Mr. Stout said, when Arizona officials worried about the potential controversy Mapplethorpe’s work could cause at a publicly financed school.
Mr. Stout was leaning toward the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has a strong photography department and facilities, when, during a business trip to Los Angeles, he paid a social call on an old friend, Michael Govan, Lacma’s director.
“I told him about our plan,” Mr. Stout recalled. “He is a big Mapplethorpe fan, and he worked at the Guggenheim when the foundation made a big gift to the Guggenheim in 1993. Michael said, ‘What about us?’ ”
Mr. Stout was skeptical that Lacma could absorb the vast archive material, so Mr. Govan had to do some fast thinking.
“We didn’t have room for archive, but the Getty did,” recalled Mr. Govan, who then floated the idea of a partnership. “We couldn’t compete with Houston alone, but with the Getty we’re better.”
As for why the Getty wouldn’t go solo, Mr. Govan made the case that Mapplethorpe’s work needed to be shown in the context of a comprehensive collection that included contemporary art, like Lacma’s, given how the photographer helped lift his medium out of its artistic ghetto.
“Mapplethorpe crossed that line,” Mr. Govan said. “For him, it was art, not just ‘photography’ in quotes.”
Once all parties were agreed in principle, Mr. Govan still had to come up with his half of the $3 million purchase. “The Getty has resources,” he said. “They knew where their money was coming from for this, but I didn’t.”
Through one of his trustees, Mr. Govan turned to the entertainment mogul and avid art collector David Geffen, whose foundation donated $1.5 million.
“I wrote him a letter, and he got back to me saying, ‘Wow, that sounds like a good investment,’ ” Mr. Govan said.
While its gift was large, Mr. Stout estimated that the foundation parted with only 10 to 20 percent of its holdings and still owns, among many other things, 8,000 silver gelatin prints.
The current shows created with that material happen to come a year after the debut of “Pacific Standard Time,” the huge exhibition spread across 60 Southern California institutions that tackled the history of art in Los Angeles — a landmark collaboration of a degree that has not been seen in other cities.
“This has further strengthened our relationship with the Getty, a process that started with ‘Pacific Standard Time,’ ” Mr. Govan said.
As for whether Mapplethorpe’s most explicit images, which have been infrequently seen in major American museum shows over the last two decades, would cause a new stir at Lacma, Mr. Govan said he doubted it.
“We live in a very different time now,” he said.