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The Getty has Trust issues

J. Paul Getty Trust President James Wood asked his museum director, Michael Brand, to resign after mounting disagreements made it clear they had different views of the museum’s role, according to three sources with knowledge of the decision.

During a brief meeting late last year, Wood calmly told Brand he would likely be happier at a museum where he was his own boss, the sources said.

The Getty announced on Jan. 7 that Brand was stepping down at the end of the month after serving four years of his five-year contract. Wood and Brand have refused to comment on what the Trust has said was Brand’s decision to leave the Getty.

Current and former senior Getty officials interviewed for this story asked not be named. Some were not authorized to discuss personnel issues, and others did not want to be seen as criticizing Wood or damaging Brand’s prospects for future employment.

Brand’s ouster is a setback for one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, just as it emerged from a period of turmoil -- disturbing the very waters Brand and Wood were hired to calm.

But more alarming to some observers is that Brand’s resignation suggests the Getty has failed to resolve a tension inherent in its management structure from its earliest days.

The Getty Museum is the largest and most prominent of the Trust’s four programs, despite an art collection seen by many as uneven and narrowly focused. It accounts for by far the largest proportion of the Trust’s $216-million annual operating budget, dwarfing the research, grantmaking and conservation programs. The museum’s two campuses and ambitious exhibitions and scholarship make it a peer of some of the country’s leading art museums.

But the Trust’s management structure gives the museum director far less authority than the position at comparable institutions. The Getty Museum director reports to a chief executive rather than to the board.

That structure -- and a corresponding debate about how to best use the Getty’s vast but finite resources -- has fueled tension between three generations of Getty leadership.

History of conflict

Harold Williams, the Getty’s founding president, clashed with his museum director John Walsh over how aggressively the Getty’s resources should be dedicated to building the art collection. Williams’ successor, Barry Munitz, was seen as wavering on his commitment to collecting and concentrated authority in the Trust. In the process, he developed a rancorous relationship with Walsh’s successor, Deborah Gribbon, who quit suddenly in 2004. “There’s always going to be a tension between the trust president and the museum director,” a former trustee said. “The question is, can you manage it and make it healthy, or does it undermine the organization?”

Tension between Brand and Wood began during Wood’s attempt to answer those lingering questions during a strategic planning process completed in May 2008.

Several sources called it an “empty process,” “a waste of time” and “frustratingly vague.”

Rather than bring in an outside mediator, as is often done, Wood led the process himself, effectively taking questions about his role off the table, one participant said. The result was a concise strategic plan that sets priorities in the broadest possible terms.

“If we knew what Jim’s vision was, life would be easier,” said one senior Getty official. “He keeps his cards very close to his chest.”

One contentious change to emerge was Wood’s decision to take increased control over major art acquisitions. The Getty museum director controls a sizable acquisition budget funded largely by bond sales. But that pool has shrunk in recent years, and Wood proposed supplementing it with a new fund for major art acquisitions and “strategic initiatives.”

The money was culled largely from cuts in the trust’s administration and operations, supplemented by reductions in the Getty’s grantmaking and conservation work. In 2008, it contained between $30 million and $40 million -- nearly four times larger than the museum’s acquisition budget of roughly $11 million, according to two sources with access to budget information.

Brand and the three other program directors can propose uses for the money, but ultimately it is controlled by Wood.

Sources close to Brand suggest he perceived the move as stripping away a key source of his authority. Wood is said to believe the move brought “rationality” to how the Getty paid for major acquisitions.

Then last year all Getty programs were asked to cut about 25% from their budgets amid a 25% decline in the Getty endowment. Brand’s vigorous efforts to shield the museum’s staff from cuts while meeting the budget target became a source of recurring friction with Wood, sources said.

The museum lost some 60 positions, more than any other program, but some felt the museum hadn’t taken its share of the hit. Some observers point to Wood’s background as another source of tension.

Both his predecessors were chosen because they were outsiders to the art world, a strategy intended to shield the museum director from meddling by the Trust president. But their lack of art expertise drew criticism over the years, and when Munitz was pushed out in 2006 amid a spending scandal, the board replaced him with Wood, a longtime museum director.

Wood has been careful not to micromanage the museum, sources say, but his move to take greater authority over acquisitions was likely perceived as a power grab.

The historical tension has led some observers to suggest the Getty move to a management structure in which the museum director has oversight over the other programs, a change similar to one the Metropolitan Museum of Art made in 1999.

Will it change?

In an interview, Williams said the tension between the Getty Trust president and the museum director is largely “a matter of perception and ego,” and can be a source of creative energy if managed properly. “I don’t think it should be restructured or rethought,” he said. Given the Getty’s unique activities, “there’s no other sensible way to organize it.”

One senior Getty official agreed with Williams, attributing the clash between Wood and Brand largely to personality issues. “Given the Getty’s past, this is not very interesting,” the official said, referring to Gribbon’s heated battles with Munitz. “No one’s happy that the Getty’s going through this, but it’s different from the last time.”

The lingering questions will make it challenging to recruit a new museum director. Wood will choose the next director, but has indicated he will retire when his contract ends in 2012. The new museum director, then, would get a new boss not long after arriving, just as Brand did when Munitz was replaced by Wood.

“Why would anyone take that job now?” the former trustee asked.

As one senior Getty official said, “It’s a very big, important organization that is dangled by this one thread.”

jason.felch@latimes.com


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