Munitz Gets the Boot

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Munitz Gets the Boot,
but Is It Enough to Clean the House of Getty?

Years ago, in the midst of the mega-scandal caused by the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum---appropriately titled "Sensation"--- NY mayor Rudy Guiliani made a fool of himself. Overstepping the boundaries of his office, Rudy threatened to cut museum funding over the perceived offense to his fellow Christians, in retaliation to Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary, with balls of elephant dung decorating the canvas. At least he didn't declare a fatwa against the artist, demanding Ofili's head. In covering this scandal I expressed a sort of jealousy toward New York, where artistic issues could cause such a furor: New Yorkers take their culture extremely seriously. At the time I wished, half jokingly, that Los Angeles would get its own cultural scandal as well, proving that, at last, our city had arrived and finally become a cultural metropolis. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for!

The Getty's Watergate has caused innumerable headlines around the world and, like Count Dracula, refuses to die. Numerous revelations, uncovered by the relentless investigation by the L.A. Times, not only brought down Barry Munitz, the embattled head of the Getty Trust, but also exposed an even bigger problem plaguing the institution, and that is the complete lack of accountability. Last August, in response to the news about Mr. Munitz selling the Getty Trust property to a friend for well under the market value, I posed the question, "Should Mr. Munitz be allowed to run the Getty as his own personal fiefdom?" And when Getty Trustees refused to comment on the matter, even when it came under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, it became all too painfully clear, to quote my own broadcast at the time, that "the board of trustees has been sleeping at the wheel rather than effectively monitoring Getty activities."

I said it then and I'll say it again: The Getty would be much better off by shedding its corporate mentality with its atmosphere of secrecy, and, instead, fully embracing the identity of a scholarly institution, whose educational goals are achieved with the maximum of transparency. Last November, in responding to the announcement that the Getty trustees created their own committee to do an internal investigation, I expressed a healthy doubt in the effectiveness of such an inquiry. After all, the committee was composed of five of its own board members, all with strong connections to Barry Munitz. Many people got upset with me then, when I expressed the hope that this committee would not embarrass themselves by saying, "You're doing a hell of a job, Barry!" the way President Bush did in his remark to the inept head of FEMA, Michael Brown.

To our collective astonishment and gratitude, the committee had the guts to rise to the occasion and they honestly assessed the damage done to the institution entrusted to their care. Barry Munitz got the boot. But it's not time to celebrate yet. It's just a start. Let's hope that the committee will go even further to eradicate the arrogance and corporate malfeasance that have plagued the Getty's leadership for far too long. How about initiating a new era of transparency and accountability, starting with frequent press conferences where, on a regular basis, issues can be openly discussed, instead of being pushed aside with a dismissive statement of "no comment." As I've mentioned before, even President Bush, in spite of his obvious dislike for press conferences, is required from time to time, to hold them. That's why we call it a democracy.