Last Known Activity|
Otto Wittmann, world-renowned director of the Toledo Museum of Art, began his military career in 1941 upon being drafted into the U.S. Army. For nearly a year he worked as an interviewer of incoming draftees, then was granted reserve status for several months, at which time he moved to the Portland Art Museum to become an Assistant Director. Following the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Wittmann was once again called to service but was soon offered the opportunity to attend officer’s training school in Miami Beach. In December of 1942, he joined the Air Transport Command as part of the first worldwide airline, built specifically to move troops and supplies by plane. While stationed in Washinton, D.C. towards the end of the war, Wittmann learned from his friend Charles Sawyer of the formation of the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) in the Office of Strategic Services. He was granted a transfer to the department and became the officer in charge of the OSS Washington Office. Wittman also traveled to Europe to conduct investigations on the looting of artworks, perhaps most notable the dealings of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and their theft of French Jewish collections. Along with MFAA officer Bernard Taper, he interviewed the art dealer Hans Wendland, who was involved in the transfer of ERR looted artworks to the infamous Fischer Gallery sale in Lucerne. During his time in Europe, Wittmann gained an extensive knowledge of the European museum collections and built relationships with many European museum officials and scholars that would prove useful in his later career as a museum director. For his work with the ALIU, he was named Officer, Legion of Honor of France, Officer, Order of Orange-Nassau of The Netherlands, and Commander, Order of Merit of Italy. The Otto Wittmann collection of papers relating to the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the U.S. War Department’s Office of Strategic Services, 1945-1946 can be found at The Getty Research Institute in California.
Prior to his military service, Wittmann was graduated from Harvard University in 1933. He then returned to his home in Kansas City for several years where he worked at the Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) as the Curator of Prints. Due to the depression, Wittmann could not afford to reenroll at Harvard for graduate studies, but in 1937 Paul Sachs offered him a position as his assistant so that Wittmann might take his museum studies course. From 1938 to 1941, he was an instructor of art history at Skidmore College, as well as curator of the Hyde Collection, both in upstate New York. The Hyde Collection was a privately owned collection of largely Renaissance and 18th century artworks housed in a private residence in Glen Falls, New York. At this time, Wittmann worked with Mrs. Hyde to turn her home into a small museum where her collection could be preserved.
Upon returning home from World War II, Wittmann commenced his career at the Toledo Museum of Art. He was named Associate Director in 1946, and in 1959 became the museum’s third Director. During his lengthy tenure, Wittmann built the museum into a world-class institution, tripled the museum’s collection, and became internationally recognized for his community and education programs, as well as outstanding connoisseurship. He expanded weak areas in the collection, and paid particular interest to American art, Dutch art, and 17th century Italian and French painting. It was said that Wittmann “always gave higher priority to the quality of the pieces he purchased than in their monetary worth,” an indication of his talent as a museum director, his keen eye, and his intimate understanding of the art market. Never a director afraid to defy convention, he was also the first to integrate furniture, sculpture, and decorative arts into the painting galleries. Wittmann organized many special exhibitions, including “France: The Splendid Century” in 1961, “The Age of Rembrandt” in 1966, and “Treasures for Toledo” which displayed works he acquired for the museum and was exhibited in 1976, the year he retired.
The Toledo Museum of Art published Otto Wittmann: A Museum Man For All Seasons in 2001, the centennial celebration of the museum, as a tribute to the director who truly built the institution into an exemplary museum. Wittmann remained at the Toledo Museum of Art as a trustee after his retirement, and also served on the boards of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. He was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts, and also an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wittmann served twice as president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors, from 1961-62 and 1971-72, and served as the director of the College Art Association. He was a member of the American Association of Museums, and received their Distinguished Service to Museums award in 1987. Wittmann died in 2001 at the age of 89 in Montecito, California.