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Museum Crimes and Misdemeanors

When a museum's name is in the news, it usually spells trouble for the institution. And there's been plenty of it lately. There was a theft at mybeloved Hermitage in St. Petersburg: 221 pieces of Russian silver were missing from the museum storage room. When this was discovered, museum officials had the smarts to immediately go public about the theft. As a result, dealers and collectors who had unsuspectingly acquired some of the stolen silver have already returned a few of the missing items. And here's a Hollywood-worthy plot twist: suspicion initially fell on the Museum curator who died last year, and now Russian authorities have announced the arrest of her husband and son, implicating them in the theft. The Director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, called the crime "a stab in the back" and promptly acknowledged a deficiency in the Museum's security.

Meanwhile, our friends at the Pompidou Center in Paris chose quite a different tack in dealing with breaking news -- pun intended ---- news about the destruction of two artworks entrusted to their care during the just-closed exhibition of contemporary Los Angeles art.

It was revealed, with much delay, that one work fell off the wall and broke into pieces right before the show opened four months ago, while the other artwork was smashed toward the end of the exhibition a couple of weeks ago. And that's not counting a third piece, which was slightly damaged and had to be moved from a heavily trafficked hallway to a more appropriate location.

Instead of taking responsibility, Catherine Grenier, the Museum's Chief Curator, obliquely hinted at the strange coincidence that the destroyed artworks were both made around 40 years ago, 'and isn't it strange' that they met their untimely death at roughly the same time? It's as if she's implying that there was something wrong with these artworks that caused their destruction. Makes me think of that infuriating remark in reference to a rape victim: "she asked for it." Now we're hearing from a number of art professionals speaking on and off the record about horror stories in dealing with the Pompidou Center. Hmm. Maybe Congress was right after all in renaming their cafeteria French fries, "freedom fries."

And now about museum developments closer to home. Following last year's resignation of several Getty trustees, John Biggs, the Chairman of the Board of the Getty Trust, has announced his own plan to depart several months before the end of his term. The Los Angeles Times claims that "his impeccable Wall Street credentials as a stickler for corporate accountability" was the main reason that he was appointed as the Chairman. However, when last year California State authorities initiated an investigation into the financial scandals surrounding Getty Chief Executive Barry Munitz, neither his boss, John Biggs, nor any other board member had the courage or decency to acknowledge the trouble, or accept responsibility. The only statement issued by them was, "No comment." And months later, when John Biggs was scheduled to review Munitz's excessive expense accounts, he delegated this job -- instead of doing it himself -- to Munitz's own assistants. I'm not sure if I would characterize it as na--ve, or simply irresponsible, to expect subordinates to investigate and report on their own powerful boss. And this is from a business leader with a stellar reputation as a "stickler for corporate accountability?" If this is an indication of how the business world operates in this country, then God save America.

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