Frank B. Gettings, Hirshhorn curator who sought out overlooked artists, dies at 80

September 23, 2011

Frank B. Gettings, 80, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden who spent more than three decades gathering and showcasing the works of under-recognized contemporary artists, died Aug. 4 at the Avalon House assisted-living facility in McLean.

He had complications from dementia, said Martha Gaston, his social worker.

The Hirshhorn and the artists he nourished there were Mr. Gettings’s life. He was hired as curator of drawings and prints several years before the museum opened on the Mall in 1974, and he remained in that position until his health began to fail about a decade ago.

Former colleagues described him as an ebullient character whose dapper dress belied a tireless drive to uncover talented artists wherever they were.

“He dressed like a banker or a university professor — wingtips and tweeds or, in more appropriate moments, Brooks Brothers suits,” said Brian Kavanagh, a former chief registrar at the Hirshhorn. “But . . . he would go to places that most curators wouldn’t chance to go.”

Mr. Gettings’s 1988 exhibit “Different Drummers” featured unconventional artists including Clyde Connell, a Louisiana woman then in her late 80s who had only recently surfaced in the mainstream. When her works came to his attention, Mr. Gettings went to find Connell at her country home in Shreveport, Kavanagh said.

The show was “refreshingly different” in its approach, art critic Jo Ann Lewis wrote in The Washington Post, “and well worth seeing for the revelatory moments offered.”

The name of that exhibit described Mr. Gettings as well as it did the artists, said James Demetrion, a former director of the Hirshhorn.

“People get overlooked because they’re not in the mainstream of art, but they’re absolutely terrific artists,” Demetrion said. Mr. Gettings “was a different drummer himself.”

Francis Bernard Gettings was born Feb. 27, 1931, in Boston. He studied at institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was an assistant to the abstract expressionist Franz Kline before coming to the Hirshhorn, Kavanagh said.

In other exhibitions, Mr. Gettings highlighted more widely known figures. A 1994 exhibit featured the leftist illustrator Sue Coe. In the late 1970s, he curated shows on the artistic works of poet e.e. cummings and drawings by the German-born artist George Grosz.

For many years, Mr. Gettings was the companion of Nancy Foster Kirkpatrick, a Hirshhorn employee who died in 1995. He had no immediate survivors.

A friend of the late Joseph H. Hirshhorn, the museum’s founding donor, Mr. Gettings often advised him and his wife Olga Hirshhorn on their purchases.

He was “very helpful with any art problem I had to find the answer to,” Olga Hirshhorn said in a phone interview from her home on Martha’s Vineyard. “He had a very strong opinion about what he thought was good art and what he thought was mediocre art.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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