Will Barry Munitz Find the Courage to Listen to his Critics?

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Will Barry Munitz find the courage to listen to his critics?

For years I've been lamenting over the fact that the L.A. art scene is lacking in cultural scandal, which, in my mind, would indicate that we Angelinos are taking the cultural developments in our city seriously. I have to admit that during the brouhaha over the exhibition of young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum that I felt pangs of jealousy. Perceived religious blasphemy of the artist who dared to use elephant dung to embellish his painting of the Virgin Mary erupted into a scandal that remained in the headlines for days and weeks to come. Even Rudy Giuliani jumped into the fray, threatening to cut any future financial support to the museum. For me it appeared as a clear indication of the intensity with which cultural issues are fought over in a city which takes it's culture damn seriously.

Something like that has been brewing since last Monday right here in the City of Angels. The abrupt resignation a week ago of Getty Museum director Deborah Gribbon over the alleged disagreements with the Getty Trust president Barry Munitz, became a front-page story in the L.A. Times, and since then, the story has refused to die. It's been covered in the New York Times, on NPR news and in papers around the nation. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times has been uncharacteristically relentless in its coverage of this story about the troubles at the Getty, publishing a new article nearly every other day.

Let's start with the question of why Deborah Gribbon, a much-respected curator, decided to resign after 20 years of working with the museum, the last four as it's director. Like her predecessor John Walsh, Gribbon has tried to defend the priority of the museum over other Getty Trust programs. At stake is not only how many millions of dollars are spent on the acquisition of new masterpieces or the organization of new exhibitions, but just what kind of museum The Getty should be. Will it ever have an excellent collection similar to, let's say, the Norton Simon Museum, which, as we know, requires passion, commitment and united leadership. John Walsh had his own battles with former Getty C.E.O. Harold Williams, who, disregarding the wishes of J. Paul Getty himself, decided that the huge fortune left to the museum should be split with other cultural and educational projects. When Barry Munitz arrived on the scene, he wisely curtailed some of these additional projects, deeming them unessential. He also made the poignant statement acknowledging the leading role of the museum among the Trust's various programs. Unfortunately, in ensuing years, he seems to have changed his mind. Regrettably, we don't know what he's thinking because he rarely speaks publicly, and when he does he pleads unawareness and surprise at the deep discontent among the museum's personnel.

With a solid background in the banking business and educational administration, Munitz was a logical choice for the role of president and CEO of the Getty Trust. But the future success of his leadership will depend on his recognition of the fact that his professional knowledge of art and museums is rather limited. For the Getty Trust to excel, its leadership needs to sum up the courage to have open debates concerning its priorities and the role of the museum versus its other endeavors. Hopefully Mr. Munitz will hear the criticism offered by a number of esteemed museum professionals. Until the "toxic atmosphere at the Getty", as one of them put it, is resolved, it's difficult to imagine who among the internationally respected museum scholars would consider an offer to become The Getty's new director.