SECTION REDIRECT: news

Getty's director needs artistry

FinanceArts and CultureArtBookPolitical FundraisingElectionsLibraries

Michael Brand has an excellent reputation and rock-solid credentials as an art museum man. That's a good thing, because he's going to need them.

On Monday, Brand, 47, was named director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the third person to occupy the coveted post since the museum opened eight years ago as the public jewel in the travertine crown of Brentwood's Getty Center. The primary difference between Brand and his two predecessors is that he will be charged with actively raising money, soliciting corporate sponsorship and securing gifts of art — all routine matters for ordinary art museums that do not have the luxury of access to a $5-billion endowment.

That unmatched wealth, however, means that the Getty is no ordinary art museum. The new director's charge is sure to further roil turbulent waters.

The museum and its parent, the Getty Trust, have been in turmoil for the better part of a year, ever since the abrupt resignation of Brand's predecessor, Deborah Gribbon, last October. An avalanche of bad news has followed that bombshell.

First came a revelation in The Times of the sale of Getty-owned land to a friend and business associate of Getty Trust President Barry Munitz, and of Munitz's role in guiding the transaction.

Then the Italian government indicted Getty curator of antiquities Marion True, accused of knowingly acquiring stolen artifacts, just months before the high-profile January 2006 public reopening of the Getty Villa in Malibu, where the antiquities collection will be housed.

Next came a lengthy story, also in The Times, of lavish and questionable spending by Munitz's office, and an inquiry into the trust's professional practices by the Council on Foundations, the industry group that represents nonprofits.

Finally, the California attorney general's office opened an inquiry into all of it — the land sale, the antiquities and the spending.

And did I mention that the chairman of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, which is looking into the operations of public charities nationally, denounced the failure of the Getty Trust's board to curb the shenanigans?

Oddly enough, these deeply disquieting events do not constitute the main reason why the new museum director will have to bring his considerable, proven skills to bear when he arrives in Los Angeles later this year. The incidents predate him, and most center on management of the Getty Trust, not its subsidiary art museum. The tumult surrounding the sudden departure of Brand's predecessor might even strengthen, not weaken, his hand: No one will want to go through that commotion again any time soon.

The one controversy that does directly involve the museum — the imminent opening of the expanded Getty Villa under the international cloud of a legal proceeding — will certainly require the public relations skills of a diplomat. Depending on the outcome of the trial in Rome, some hard professional determinations about the Villa's future are also likely. But there is no reason to believe that Brand is not up to either task.

The state-run Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is not a first-tier museum of the sort one might expect to provide the Getty with its next director, but it is certainly a quality institution. Brand's successful leadership there, as well as his experience at the Queensland Art Gallery and Canberra's National Gallery in his native Australia, have prepared him.

Certainly it's odd that Brand's scholarly specialty — Asian culture and Indian art — lies outside the Getty's current sphere of collecting. But a passion for art objects trumps the narrower concerns of specialization for any museum director.

A big career leap from Virginia might seem surprising. But, Munitz, as a former corporate chief executive, surely knows that such tactics likely enhance employee loyalty — something not always forthcoming from an inherited staff and not expected of a more seasoned director. Such has been Munitz's modus operandi throughout the Getty Trust.

Still, the big test Brand will face concerns something else entirely — something demonstrably disturbing to the museum field in Los Angeles and beyond. With a $5-billion endowment and $4 billion in other assets, the Getty Trust is the third-largest foundation in the country, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Despite this enormous wealth, however, the Getty has thrust out its hand for contributions.

Munitz announced in 1998, one year into his tenure as president, that with the support of his trustees, the Getty would begin to raise money, seek corporate sponsors for exhibitions and solicit large gifts of art. The news produced an uproar, causing colleagues at poorly endowed and perennially underfunded sister institutions, in L.A. and elsewhere, to loudly wonder why so rich an organization needed more, and how they could possibly compete with such a high-profile rival.

Since then Munitz has quietly made good on the promise. And the pace has lately quickened.

Last fall, for example, the financial management firm Merrill Lynch sponsored a special exhibition of Cézanne watercolors. In the spring, the Getty secured a multimillion-dollar gift of the Stark collection of modern sculpture — qualitatively a mixed bag, and in a field outside the Getty's established holdings, but a celebrity collection with connections to the deep-yet-elusive pockets of Hollywood. (The late Ray Stark was a noted movie producer.) Two years ago, Munitz, board member Barbara Fleischman and several Getty staff members entered into discussions with Jon Lovelace — president of the Capital Group, an international investment firm based in Los Angeles — about gifts for a new endowment of $15 million to $20 million to fund programs at the Villa.

The department of photographs has been most successful in attracting art gifts. The chance to join the nation's most distinguished such collection is a powerful lure, and there is no harm in expanding the collection through gifts of important art. But the museum has also ruffled feathers with its formation of a conventional support group, structured to enhance the shrinking acquisitions budget.

As one angry and influential person sputtered to me after declining an invitation to write a $10,000 check, "The arrogance!" Every dollar raised from a private individual or a corporation for the putative "world's richest art museum" is a dollar that cannot be raised by one of the other four major art museums in the city, never mind the numerous smaller institutions. Twenty-five "friends" could be supplanted just by the $250,000 paid by the Getty since February to a crisis-management firm hired to manage the public relations fallout of the mushrooming scandals.

Gribbon told The Times at her resignation last year that she and Munitz had "differences on a range of things." She declined to be specific, preferring to speak in the cryptic tongue so beloved by museum directors. But neither Gribbon nor her predecessor, John Walsh, was engaged in vigorous fundraising. Perhaps some of those unspecified "differences" have begun to emerge.

One puzzling inconsistency: Since he became president, Munitz has more than doubled the amount of money the trust gives away in grants — more than $20 million in 2003 versus $10 million in 1997 — while annual acquisition expenditures have fallen by one-third. Why give away more money if, simultaneously, the Getty sees a pressing need to fund-raise?

The search for outside funds also looks bad when management issues are drawing attention from the state attorney general's office, not to mention Congress. Extravagant spending on executive compensation, travel, gifts, spousal privileges and other silk-stocking perks do not signal need.

I would have asked Munitz about this, and about why the Getty Trust needs to raise funds, solicit corporate support and attract gifts of art. But Munitz has declined to speak with The Times for months. In comments to the New York Times, however, he stressed the expectation that fundraising will be "a fundamental burden" for the new director.

Central to Brand's many qualifications for the Getty job is his successful track record in attracting major gifts of money and art in Virginia.

Brand led a $163-million capital campaign for a building expansion that will begin this fall, and 97% of that goal has been pledged. He also shepherded the gift of a major private collection of American art, whose approximately 100 works date from the expansive period just after the Civil War to just before the Great Depression. In addition to paintings, sculptures and drawings by Homer, Heade, Cassatt, Sargent, Whistler and other important artists came a generous endowment for research and exhibitions.

In today's difficult climate, these achievements rightly draw the admiration of museum colleagues. But they also spell the potential for conflict. Don't expect the applause to continue when aggressive fundraising is applied to the Getty Museum.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading