Barry Munitz abruptly ended his controversial eight-year tenure as head of the J. Paul Getty Trust on Thursday, agreeing to resolve “any continuing disputes” by paying the Getty $250,000 and giving up severance pay and benefits that would have exceeded $1.2 million.
Munitz admitted no wrongdoing, and the trust did not specify the issues underlying his resignation. But the decision came after more than a year of relentless controversy at the Getty, much of which has centered on Munitz’s leadership.
The Times reported in June that he had lavishly spent Getty funds on first-class international travel with his wife, approved grants to friends and associates, and lobbied for a raise while he ordered budget cuts and layoffs. The report triggered a continuing investigation by the state attorney general into whether Munitz’s actions compromised the Getty’s nonprofit status.
The resignation marked a stunning downfall for a man who brought extensive business and academic experience to the world’s richest art institution, not to mention a bevy of friendships with Los Angeles’ power elite. An advisor to Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis and former head of the California State University system, Munitz counted billionaire Eli Broad and former Paramount Studios chief Sherry Lansing as close friends.
Late in 1997, he moved from Cal State to the trust, which includes the nation’s third-richest private foundation, days before the opening of the Getty Center.
His departure came after more than three months of steadily increasing pressure. In late October, the Getty board announced that it had hired Los Angeles attorney Ronald L. Olson to conduct an independent review of the trust’s operations. Olson’s investigation would examine Munitz’s spending as well as charges by Italian authorities that many of the Getty’s prized antiquities had been looted from that country.
At the time, the Getty board chairman, John Biggs, issued a statement saying Olson’s investigation was intended to ensure that “the board and each of its members and employees meets all legal requirements as well as the highest ethical standards.”
The board discussed Olson’s findings at a meeting this past weekend. Biggs said Thursday that Munitz had suggested resigning a couple of weeks ago but “made a firm decision during the early part of this week.”
Since then, Munitz had been negotiating with the board over “a severance arrangement that was satisfactory,” Biggs said.
Under the terms of his contract, Munitz would have been entitled to a lump-sum payment equal to two years’ worth of salary and benefits if he had resigned because he had been forced to take a pay cut, accept a lesser title or have his job definition changed without his consent.
But he would have received nothing if he left without reason. In the end, Biggs said, Munitz “voluntarily terminated without cause” and didn’t ask for a buyout, “although I’m sure he would have liked to have had it if we offered.”
Munitz, 64, did not return calls asking for comment. In the Getty’s statement, he is quoted as saying, “I’m taking this action, after lengthy consideration, so both the institution and I can move forward.”
Biggs would not comment on whether the departure related to the committee’s findings but said the $250,000 payment by Munitz was a “ballpark” figure to cover “disputed items” that are part of the attorney general’s review.
In return, Biggs said, the board agreed not to seek any other restitution for expenditures it believed were inappropriate. Munitz admitted no wrongdoing in connection with the payment.
“We’re not going to go back and say there was any travel expense that he has to reimburse us for,” Biggs said. “He’s given us $250,000 and that, as far as we’re concerned, takes care of it.”
Munitz’s departure was welcomed by many former Getty officials, some of whom left the trust over differences with his administration.
“Barry did the right thing. So did the trustees, who have obviously learned a lot,” said John Walsh, who directed the Getty Museum from 1983 to 2000. “Now they need a president who cares about what the Getty does and understands its potential.”
Walsh’s successor, Deborah Gribbon, who in 2004 quit one of the most sought-after museum jobs in the country because of differences with Munitz, declined to comment.
“I’m sad for Barry,” said Stephen Rountree, who worked as a high-ranking administrator at the Getty for more than 20 years before leaving in January 2003 to become president and chief executive of the Music Center of Los Angeles County.
Munitz “had many skills in terms of relationships with the board and a lot of creative ideas about wider partnerships between the Getty and institutions in Europe and in this country,” Rountree said. But he added, “I think he’s wise to have moved on.... We really need the Getty to be functioning without all these distractions.”
Vocal Munitz critic Barbara Whitney said, “I cannot begin to imagine how happy and relieved the thousand people who work there are.” In August 2004 she left her post as the Getty’s associate director for administration and public affairs.
“There has been a lot of damage done, and I have a lot of confidence in people who work in that organization and hope that they’ll not be so worn down,” she said.
Munitz was controversial from the start. He arrived days before the opening of the Getty Center in 1997 and almost immediately announced major changes, eliminating two of the trust’s seven programs and folding a third into the museum.
The shake-up embittered many longtime Getty employees. But many observers said it also focused the Getty on its strengths: the Getty Museum, with its antiquities and collection of pre-modern art; the Getty Research Institute; and the Getty Conservation Institute, widely respected for restoring art worldwide. Munitz also ramped up grant-giving by the Getty Foundation.
The overall thrust, Munitz said, was to “bring the Getty down the hill” by making it more accessible to the average citizen while instilling “a sense of economic reality” in the wealthy art institution.
Yet Munitz’s own travel and executive expenses became more extravagant. He used Getty money to buy a $72,000 Porsche Cayenne, repeatedly flew first-class, stayed in $1,000-a-night hotels and had his assistants express-mail umbrellas when he traveled.
Under the tax code, nonprofits must use their resources for the public good. The Internal Revenue Service considers excessive pay, travel and perks to be “self-dealing”: the illegal use of tax-exempt resources for private benefit.
While the line blurred between professional and personal expenses, Munitz also spent long stretches away from the Getty. In his absence, he delegated much of the day-to-day management to his chief of staff, Jill Murphy, a former waitress whom Munitz met at a Sacramento restaurant.
She became the focus of bitterness and frustration among Getty veterans, who resented her no-nonsense style, youth and lack of an arts background.
Staff discontent boiled over in October 2004, when Gribbon quit over her differences with Munitz.
After The Times wrote about Munitz’s free-spending ways, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, denounced the Getty board for “spending more time watching old episodes of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ than doing its job of protecting Getty’s assets for charitable purposes.”
The board has appointed Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation, to serve as interim president while it searches for a replacement for Munitz.
Times staff writers Christopher Reynolds and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.