For the Getty: Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

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After an unprecedented fourteen month investigation by the California Attorney General's office, here comes the conclusion that surprises no one: the trustees of the J. Paul Getty Trust, one of the richest nonprofit foundations in the world, slept at the wheel for almost a decade, while Barry Munitz, its former chief executive, was left to do as he pleased.  For example, he appointed Jill Murphy, a glaringly unqualified young woman as the Getty Trust chief-of-staff. She was a waitress whom he hired as an assistant when he was Chancellor of the California State University system, and when he moved to the Getty she became a much feared and despised administrator ruling the Trust during Mr. Munitz's numerous trips abroad. Accompanied by his wife, he traveled first-class and stayed in five-star hotels, making the Trust pay for supposedly art-related expenses because on occasion Mr. Munitz would step out of a luxury yacht to see architectural ruins on Greek islands or have lunch with a museum official. Mr. Munitz had never been shy to say that his strength and passion were not in the field of art but in the area of education and business administration, the skills for which he was presumably hired to run the Trust. But with lazy trustees (half of them appointed by Mr. Munitz himself), he quickly became an arrogant and petty boss who would, for instance, take away from Getty employees such a small perk as free coffee, while agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the retiring Chairman of the Board to write a book about the Getty, a book that never materialized. You shouldn't miss the two articles about all these matters in today's LA Times: one on the front page of the California section and another by LA Times art critic Christopher Knight in the Calendar section. Trying to avoid similar mistakes in the future, the Getty Trust promises more transparency and accountability of its actions. I wonder if the Getty will ever have the courage to institute a democratic policy of holding regular press conferences, where its officials would be expected to answer pointed and sometimes uncomfortable questions. As we know, people in charge with a lot of power behind them would do anything to avoid such public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the attorney general appointed an independent monitor to oversee the necessary reforms at the Getty. Another good start could be reaffirming the primacy of the Getty Museum among the other branches of the Trust and strengthening its art collections. The Trust might also consider concentrating its generous grant program closer to home, taking a lesson from LA philanthropist, Eli Broad, who focuses his attention almost exclusively on Los Angeles. Only a few weeks ago UCLA unveiled the new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center designed by Richard Meier. Among other landmark buildings supported by the couple is Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, and Thom Mayne's Caltrans headquarters in downtown, not to mention the much anticipated, Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, designed by Renzo Piano. Though not without some controversy, the positive impact of the Broad's philanthropy on the cultural life of our city has been profound.

What's still unclear is whether the Getty Trust will ever be guided by a deep commitment to art and not by the self-aggrandizing of its administrators. Let's hope that the painful lesson of appointing business people with no background or interest in art as heads of cultural organizations has been learned, and people like Barry Munitz or Andrea Rich, former director and president of LACMA, will not be allowed to damage the spirit of their institutions. One hopes that the Getty trustees in their on-going search to find a new CEO and President of the Trust will opt for a truly inspiring leader with not only business acumen but also knowledge and passion for art.