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Crossroads on Getty hill

Times Staff Writer

The abrupt departure of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s highly respected director, Deborah Gribbon, has raised pointed questions: Who will succeed Gribbon -- who left last month, citing broad philosophical differences with Barry Munitz, president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust -- and what kind of museum will the next director inherit?

“We will do a full-blown, international search for a new director,” Munitz says. “But I do not feel a great sense of urgency. I have great confidence in Bill Griswold. He is in charge.”

William Griswold, who joined the museum’s staff in 2001 as associate director, is now acting director and chief curator. He may be a candidate for the long-term job, and Munitz says that others have expressed interest. But the search won’t begin until after the board of trustees’ February meeting, and the process is likely to take several months.

Meanwhile, the art world is watching.

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Since Gribbon’s resignation, people in the art community have grumbled about a “toxic” atmosphere and internal clash of cultures at the Getty. Some have expressed concern that the collection may no longer be the mission.

“John Walsh and Debbie did a brilliant job of developing the collections,” Anne Poulet, director of the Frick Collection in New York, says of Gribbon and her predecessor. “I very much hope that what they started in such a thoughtful, systematic and rational way will be continued. The Getty is one of the few institutions in the world with the means to add on a regular basis great masterpieces to the collection. It would be very sad to see them move away from that.”

The Getty Museum is like no other, Munitz says, and not only because of its buying power. Since fiscal 1983, when the Getty Trust received its fortune, it has spent almost $1.5 billion on art acquisitions -- $450 million of it during Munitz’s seven-year tenure. But that’s just part of the picture. During the last half century, the museum has evolved from oil baron J. Paul Getty’s quirky private collection into the centerpiece of a multifaceted institution with a global reach, through art research, conservation and philanthropy.

“The museum is the core of what we do, but it’s not all we do,” Munitz says. “The new director must have a great eye -- a passion for, and knowledge of, art. That’s the sine qua non.” The successful candidate also will be “an inspirational leader,” he says, and “a strong colleague, with the experience and skill to develop relationships” with the trust’s other programs.

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Established in 1953, the museum spent the first 21 years of its life in a ranch house on Getty’s 64-acre estate on the edge of Malibu. In 1976, the museum moved to a Roman-style villa built on the property, currently being refurbished as a museum and study center for antiquities. To the surprise of all concerned, Getty left his fortune to the museum at his death in 1976. Six years later, when the last legal challenge was laid to rest, his $700-million bequest had appreciated to $1.2 billion. That sum provided start-up funds for a private operating foundation, required to spend 4.25% of the average market value of its endowment in three out of four years.

Getty’s indenture specified only that his bequest be used for “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.” The money could have been used to upgrade and expand his collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, French decorative arts and European paintings. But, upon the recommendation of Harold M. Williams, the trust’s first president, the trustees made additional commitments -- to art scholarship, conservation and education. They created programs to fulfill those commitments, some of which have been reworked or disbanded, then added a grant-making branch.

The resulting mix -- housed at the Getty Center in Brentwood -- has led to confusion about what the Getty Trust does, and charges that the museum has gotten short shrift.

“The Getty is a rich museum that should be richer still in treasures,” New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman complained in 1997, when the greatly expanded collection was unveiled in Brentwood.

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Three years later, Wall Street Journal art reporter Alexandra Peers wrote that the collection still reflected an eccentric billionaire’s taste and dismissed the Getty Center as “a theme park run by librarians.”

Munitz takes such barbs in stride. “We will always be a young institution,” he says. “Because of our wealth and our location, we will always be envied and demeaned.”

But many art professionals give the museum high marks.

“It has certainly grown into a wonderfully rich collection,” says Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. “If you measure the Getty against itself, it has come a long way.”

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Poulet says the museum has become “one of the great institutions, not only in this country but in the world.”

A radical transformation of the closely watched collection began in the early 1980s with five guiding principles: “Get the greatest and rarest objects,” “seize the unexpected chance,” “build on strength,” “fill gaps, but only with superior examples” and “collect collections.”

Those principles still apply, Griswold says. The museum has enhanced its original, strong holdings of antiquities and decorative arts, while adding departments of drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts and photographs. The 644 drawings and 426 sculptures have been amassed piece by piece. The holding of illuminated manuscripts -- composed of 310 objects and 4,729 miniatures and alphabetical letters adorned with painted scenes -- was launched in 1983 with the purchase of the 144-piece collection amassed by German chocolate manufacturer Peter Ludwig and his wife, Irene. The photography collection -- encompassing 177,190 images -- began in 1984 with the purchase of some 26,000 master photographs and thousands of others in books and albums.

The paintings collection has been transformed as well, but it remains problematic. Art museums with varied holdings tend to be judged, fairly or not, by their paintings, and the Getty Museum didn’t get much help from its founder.

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“Mr. Getty was a bargain hunter,” says Scott Schaefer, the museum’s curator of paintings. “He collected about 100 paintings -- four great ones,” he says, referring to works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony Van Dyck, Georges de La Tour and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

After selling many of the not-so-great pieces and buying better examples, the museum now has 455 paintings, including rare pieces by Italian Renaissance masters, Dutch painters and French Impressionists. The most popular painting, gauged by postcard and poster sales, is Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises.”

Among other landmark acquisitions are Jacopo Pontormo’s “Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici,” Fra Bartolommeo’s “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint John the Baptist,” Claude Monet’s “The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light,” Paul Cezanne’s “Young Italian Woman at a Table” and James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889.” Last year, the major purchase was Venetian Renaissance master Titian’s “Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos, Marchese del Vasto,” which reportedly set the trust back $70 million.

There also have been disappointments. Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks” was lost to the National Gallery in London, Guercino’s “Erminia Finding the Wounded Tancred” to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh and Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents” to Canadian collector and media mogul Kenneth Thomson. The Raphael and the Guercino paintings were prizes of export wars, as was Antonio Canova’s sculpture “The Three Graces,” also lost to the National Gallery of Scotland. The Rubens was sold at an auction where the Getty dropped out of the bidding at about $60 million -- the top sum approved by Getty trustees but well short of the $76.6-million selling price.

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“We can’t buy everything,” Griswold says. “There is a diminishing supply of great art that will come on the market or can be exported, and market prices have soared.”

When considering an acquisition, he says, curators “investigate its exportability, examine its provenance, look at ways the work will complement our collection and other collections in Los Angeles, think about its potential for exhibition, publication and public programming. We also have a set of priorities, areas of the collection that we feel are a particular need to fill.” The museum’s staff can make purchases of up to $100,000 without higher authority. Acquisitions up to $5 million must be approved by Munitz. More expensive ones require the trustees’ consent.

Collecting art is only one part of the museum’s mission, which also calls for preserving, displaying and interpreting works of the highest quality to the broadest possible audience. Much of that work is done in exhibitions and educational programs designed to make the most of the museum’s collection and its capacity to do unusual projects.

Small galleries devoted to temporary shows of drawings, manuscripts and photography provide insights into those expanding collections. The relatively large temporary exhibition space presents more ambitious projects, often displaying works from other institutions in collaborative ventures.

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The exhibition program is a work in progress, Griswold says, noting that shows of contemporary and non-Western art may be added. Blockbusters are not on the agenda, however. With limited exhibition and parking space and no need to rely on ticket sales to pay the light bill, the Getty concentrates on introducing the public to art that is relatively unfamiliar.

The reopening of the Villa next year will probably happen on Griswold’s watch. The next director will be expected to build the museum’s collection, diversify the audience and maximize productive interaction with the trust’s other programs -- in short, to help shape an institution conceived as a multi-part patron of art history.

Putting all the Getty’s resources into art could have been a wonderful way to go, Munitz says, but the collection could never measure up to those at much older museums, such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery.

“We don’t want to be a struggling-to-catch-up institution,” he says. “We would rather be a distinctive new model that plays a unique role in the visual arts.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Besides the museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum is part of a visual arts organization, funded by the Getty Trust, that serves the public and specialized professionals. The trust’s other programs are:

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Getty Conservation Institute

Director: Timothy Whalen

Budget: $23.2 million

Mission: To enhance and encourage the preservation of the visual arts by addressing questions, demonstrating the best conservation practice and developing sustainable conservation solutions.

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Projects: Scientific research on modern paints, development of emergency response plans for museums, preservation of historic wall paintings in China.

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Getty Research Institute

Director: Thomas Crow

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Budget: $44.6 million

Mission: To encourage, enable and inspire the creation of new knowledge in the visual arts and provide intellectual leadership through research, publications, public programs and exhibitions.

Projects: Research library, special collections, visiting scholars program, documentation of Los Angeles’ art history, seminars for graduate students.

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Getty Grant Program

Director: Deborah Marrow

Budget: $25.2 million

Mission: To provide support to institutions and individuals in fields allied with the Getty’s strategic priorities by funding projects that promote the understanding and conservation of the visual arts.

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Projects: Research, conservation and interpretation of art museum collections; art historical publications; conservation training; multicultural graduate internships.


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