The Monuments Men

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Otto Wittmann, Jr. ( 1911-2001 )

Museum director Otto Wittmann, Jr. was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. After graduating with a degree in fine arts from Harvard University in 1933, he returned to his hometown as Curator of Prints at the Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (today the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Due to the incredible financial difficulties of the Great Depression, he could not afford to reenroll at Harvard for graduate studies. However, in 1937 Paul J. Sachs, future member of the Roberts Commission, named Wittmann his assistant so he could enroll in his legendary Museum Studies course without cost. In the following years he worked as an instructor of art history at Skidmore College and curator of the Hyde Collection, the prominent private collection of Renaissance and eighteenth-century works of art in Glen Falls, New York. He worked closely with Mrs. Hyde to transform the collection into a respected museum.

Wittmann was drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1941 and served as an interviewer of incoming draftees. After several months, he returned to the United States on reserve status and accepted the position of Assistant Director of the Portland Art Museum. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Wittmann was called back to service with the Air Transport Command, the first worldwide airline built specifically to move troops and supplies by plane.

Wittmann later became Officer in Charge of the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He traveled to Europe on many occasions, conducting investigations on Nazi looting activities, most notably the dealings of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). He assisted Monuments Officer Lt. Bernard Taper with the interrogation of the Nazi art dealer Hans Wendland, who was involved in the transfer of ERR-looted works of art to the infamous Fischer Gallery in Switzerland. For his work with the ALIU, he was named an Officer of the French Legion of Honor, Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau (the Netherlands), and Commander of the Order of Merit (Italy).

Upon his return home to the United States in 1946, Wittmann began a thirty-year career at the Toledo Museum of Art which included his appointment to Director in 1959. Under his leadership, the museum established internationally-ranked education programs, tripled its collection, and doubled its exhibition space. His keen eye and innate understanding of the art market guided acquisitions of some of the best American, Dutch, and seventeenth-century Italian and French paintings available. He organized numerous successful exhibitions, including France: The Splendid Century (1961) and The Age of Rembrandt (1966). In honor of his retirement in 1976, the museum presented Treasures for Toledo, a retrospective of his most notable acquisitions.

Wittmann’s success at the Toledo Museum of Art attracted the attention of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. In 1976, following the death of its founder, billionaire oil baron J. Paul Getty, the museum became the sole beneficiary of a $700 million estate (today, almost $3 billion). The museum’s board of trustees, which consisted of businessmen with little knowledge of art, enlisted the help of Wittmann, who guided the museum through its most transformative period. From 1978 to 1989 he served as chair of the museum’s acquisition committee, vastly expanding its collection by acquiring Greek and Roman antiquities, French decorative arts, and Old Masters outside the spending limit of typical museums. His election to trustee in 1979 and appointment to acting chief curator in 1980 effectively placed the museum within his sole control. In 1980 he established the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust, which endures today as one of the world’s leading providers of international grants for the humanities. In 1987 he was awarded the American Association of Museums’ Award for Distinguished Service to Museums.

In addition to his work with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Wittmann served as a trustee of both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. He was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts and an advisor to both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was a two-time President of the American Association of Art Museum Directors, Director of the College Art Association, and a member of the American Association of Museums.

Otto Wittmann died in Montecito, California on July 14, 2001, the same year in which the Toledo Museum of Art celebrated its 100th Anniversary. In honor of the leader more responsible for its success than any other, the museum published Otto Wittmann: A Museum Man for All Seasons.