The sudden announcement Thursday that Michael Brand was stepping down as director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, one of the top jobs on the nation’s art scene, caught the museum world by surprise.
Brand, 51, will leave his post at the end of this month, 10 months shy of the end of the five-year contract he signed in 2005.
Leaving “is my decision,” Brand said, but he would not say why he was going: “I really don’t want to get into the reasons for my resignation.”
A spokeswoman for the J. Paul Getty Trust said that Brand will receive all the compensation his contract calls for through its Dec. 1 expiration.
According to financial documents posted on the Getty website, the package is worth $929,000 for the final full year of Brand’s contract.
That includes free housing in a Getty-owned home -- a perk valued at $280,000 a year. Brand also gets an additional $165,000 for moving expenses.
Current and former Getty officials, who asked for anonymity because they didn’t want to be seen as criticizing James Wood, the president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, pointed to a personality clash between Brand and Wood, as well as differences over a strategic vision that Wood proposed and the Getty adopted in 2008.
The new approach is said to emphasize a narrower focus for the trust, which houses divisions for global art conservation, research and grant-making, in addition to operating the museum.
John Walsh, who led the Getty Museum from 1983 to 2000, issued a statement Thursday saying he was “stunned” by Brand’s exit.
“Michael has been a very fine director, and he seemed glad to be at the museum,” Walsh said. “He has hired first-rate people, done wonderful shows and represented the Getty with a lot of skill and energy.”
Hugh Davies, director of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, said it was unusual for leaders of top museums to exit so suddenly.
“It’s very short notice” Davies said. Usually several months’ notice is given.
Although it remains the world’s richest visual arts institution, the Getty Trust has come under financial pressure: Its investment fund tumbled from $6 billion to $4.5 billion when the financial markets fell during 2008 and early 2009, prompting austerity measures that have included a 25% budget cut and the loss of 205 jobs, nearly 100 of them through layoffs.
Wood could not be reached Thursday. In the Getty’s announcement of Brand’s departure, Wood pointed to the museum director’s leadership in settling scandals over looted antiquities that the museum had acquired before Brand arrived. “I have every confidence that he will excel in whatever he chooses to do,” Wood said.
The Getty said that David Bomford, the museum’s associate director for collections, would step in as interim director.
The Getty Trust was in crisis when Brand arrived. Former President Barry Munitz was forced out over questionable spending and management two months later.
Through 2006 and much of 2007, Brand was the point man for the Getty in dealing with another scandal.
The governments of Italy and Greece alleged that the Getty’s outstanding antiquities collection, housed at the Getty Villa near Malibu, included dozens of looted artifacts that had been dug up illegally, funneled to dealers and bought by the Getty -- where officials, they allege, did not ask enough questions about their discovery and previous owners.
The Getty agreed to return 40 works to Italy, some of them signature pieces of the collection.
In exchange, Italy agreed to provide loans of equally prized artworks.
Under Brand, the Getty adopted stringent new policies designed to prevent further acquisitions of ancient art without solid documentation.
“It’s always hard to return great artworks,” said Davies, the San Diego museum director who is a former president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.
But Brand “was able to negotiate in a way that the Getty has kept its honorable position among museums.”
Brand’s departure once again highlights the unusual power structure of the Getty, where the museum director is not the chief executive answering only to a board of trustees, but the head of the biggest and most visible division of a larger operation.
On the plus side, the Getty Museum director doesn’t have to worry much about raising money.
The Getty Trust pays almost all of its bills from the earnings, typically $200 million to $300 million a year, of the pool of investments that originated with a 1976 bequest from oil baron J. Paul Getty.
David Ng contributed to this report.