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Director of Getty Museum Steps Down

Times Staff Writers

The director of the J. Paul Getty Museum resigned Monday as head of the world’s richest art museum, citing broad philosophical differences with Barry Munitz, president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Deborah Gribbon announced she would leave at the end of the month, a move that some say underscores the dissension within the organization.

Although no one would state the precise reasons for her departure, Gribbon’s decision seems to turn on management style and a long-simmering debate about how the trust spends its money -- on the museum or on other programs.

“It has become increasingly clear that we differ on a number of critical issues,” Gribbon said in a letter to Munitz. She added that she would leave “believing as passionately as ever that museums best serve the public by collecting, exhibiting and interpreting works of art of the highest quality.”

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Munitz thanked Gribbon for her work, especially for strengthening the collection, but added in an interview that “we’ve been going through all summer what our priorities are and where the resources are. There’s still an enormous commitment to the museum -- the museum is the center and the core of what we do -- but the board feels very strongly that it’s not the only thing that we do.”

He added that he was “dumbfounded” over the departure.

Reached by phone Monday, Gribbon would not specify why she was leaving but said, “Barry and I have differences on a range of things. They are real differences. I think this is a very important moment for the Getty. Perhaps to a fault, I believe in the good of the institution. I think it’s better to resign than let differences become a distraction.”

A 20-year Getty veteran who came to the museum during the tenure of John Walsh, the previous director, Gribbon is the latest in a line of senior officials to leave the Getty in the last few years.

Walsh, who ran the museum from 1983 to 2000, called Gribbon’s departure “a black eye to the Getty Trust.”

But Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Grant Program and dean for external relations of the Getty Trust, said: “Barry has provided strong leadership for over six years. He is a great supporter of all of the Getty programs and has brought us into active engagement with the world at large as well.

“We love our museum,” Marrow added. “We have a beautiful, wonderful museum, but we have other programs as well.”

Said Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and past president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors: “My chief concern is that Barry Munitz, who came to the Getty without any background or knowledge of museums or art history, is making moves that have enormous consequence for Los Angeles, for culture in Southern California and beyond.

“I am very worried that there is a toxic atmosphere at the Getty, and I lay it at his door. This concerns a cultural legacy for all of us.”

John Cooke, a former member of the Getty board and now a Getty Villa board member, described Munitz as a “dynamic leader.”

“I think that he’s as stimulating a leader as you can find, very energetic and very smart and very savvy,” said Cooke, president and chief executive of Western Territories Group, a real estate investment company. “There are not any dark corners at the Getty.”

The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York expressed regret about Gribbon’s resignation. She “has very high standards, and that was reflected at the museum,” said Philippe de Montebello. “I am sorry that she is leaving.”

Former Getty trustee Rocco Siciliano said, “I don’t think it’s a matter of personalities. It turns on finances. I think it’s about a serious assessment that has been going on for a long time, about the future of the Getty and the budget for new acquisitions.”

The Getty is more than a museum, Siciliano said, and that creates differences of opinion about where the money should go.

“I’ve been here seven years,” Munitz said. “I know we’ve spent at least $1 billion on the museum, including hundred of millions of dollars for acquisition, and we’ll continue a very strong acquisition plan.”

Gribbon, appointed four years ago, announced her departure Monday morning in the museum’s lecture hall, where she received a standing ovation from her staff. Gribbon did not say what her plans were. According to tax documents for the fiscal year ended in June 2002, she earned a base salary of $425,378.

William Griswold, the museum’s associate director for collections, will become acting director and chief curator.

One employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the museum had become “an extremely tense environment” and that Gribbon wasn’t “allowed to be the director of the institution and make the decisions. There was a level of oversight and control from the trust that was significant. I think decisions were second-guessed pretty much constantly.”

Backed by the Getty endowment, the museum has vast resources but is only one of several components of the Getty cultural complex, which also includes the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Grant Program. Last year, more than 1.3 million people visited the museum.

Although the Getty Museum appears to have cut back on its collecting since the opening of the Getty Center, Gribbon oversaw hundreds of acquisitions, including paintings by Titian, the 16th century Italian master, and the French Impressionist Claude Monet. She presided over a curatorial staff that presented dozens of exhibitions of photography, paintings, sculptures, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and decorative art.

“I’ve watched with great sadness as much of the great people who created the Getty Center and had such great ambitions for it have left in recent years,” said Barbara Whitney, who in August resigned as the museum’s associate director for administration and public affairs.

“People have been talking for a long time about how bad things were at the Getty. I can only imagine how intolerable it must have become for her. Part of the reason why I left was that the place had become totally internally focused, with a lot of intrigue about who was in or out of favor, and, it seemed to me, that a huge number of really talented professionals were being wasted,” Whitney said.

Davies, the Museum of Contemporary Art director in San Diego, said: “First John Walsh left, then Stephen Rountree [executive vice president and chief operating officer], then Barbara Whitney. The last straw is Deborah Gribbon. I see this as part of a deliberate and deeply troubling purge of the best and the brightest people in the field.”

Munitz said Rountree’s departure to become head of the Music Center was a promotion. Rountree declined to comment.

“I would have loved to keep them,” Munitz said. “This is a complicated institution. It’s inevitable that people will be promoted and that some other people will be unhappy.”

Gribbon, 56, is a specialist in French Impressionism. She was educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University. From 1976 to 1984, she was chief curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where she worked with Walsh, then a curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

She joined the Getty Museum as assistant director for curatorial affairs in 1984, a year after Walsh took over. In 1998, Gribbon became deputy director and chief curator, as well as Walsh’s heir apparent.

When Munitz announced Gribbon’s appointment as director, he said there was no need to do a search for Walsh’s successor. “We’ve got the best person,” he said. “Had she been elsewhere, we would have gone after her.”

The departure comes at a time when the Getty Trust is involved in a $275-million renovation of the Getty Villa to house the museum’s Greek and Roman antiquities, a much-delayed project scheduled to open next fall. The collection also includes illuminated manuscripts, French decorative art, pre-20th century European paintings and sculptures as well as European and American photographs.

In the early 1970s, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty installed his collection in a Roman-style villa in Pacific Palisades. After his death in 1976, six years of legal battles ensued. Eventually, the J. Paul Getty Trust took over the estate and built the Getty Center in Brentwood, which opened in 1997.

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Times staff writer Diane Haithman contributed to this report.


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