A question of leadership for Getty Trust after CEO James Wood’s death

As the J. Paul Getty Trust grappled Monday with the void left by the sudden death of President and Chief Executive James Wood, current and former officials expressed both trepidation and hope about the future of the world’s wealthiest visual art institution.

Wood was found dead in the sauna of his Brentwood home late Friday evening after failing to appear at an appointment in Chicago, authorities said. The cause of death was a heart attack, said Lt. Fred Corral of the L.A. County Coroner’s Investigation Division, adding that there were no signs of trauma or foul play.

Wood’s death leaves the top two positions at the institution vacant. Wood dismissed Getty museum director Michael Brand in January, and instead of using an executive search firm, was personally overseeing the search for a replacement. That process will likely now be put on hold until a replacement for Wood is found, extending the vacancy at the helm of the museum, which is the most prominent of the Getty Trust’s four programs.

Five days before Wood’s death, longtime Trust chairwoman Louise Bryson retired from the board. Her successor, Los Angeles investor Mark S. Siegel, will guide the typically hands-off board through a period when a more hands-on approach will be needed.

The board is expected to appoint Getty Foundation director Deborah Marrow as interim CEO Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with board members’ discussions. Marrow filled the same role in February 2006 after former CEO Barry Munitz was forced to retire after a scandal over his leadership and spending. She is seen as a steady but temporary leader under whose watch the Getty made a number of the important governance reforms that have stabilized the institution.

Wood was a widely admired art historian and museum leader, guiding the Chicago Art Institute for 24 years. He was hired out of retirement to guide the Getty out of its tumultuous period of controversy. His five-year contract ended in 2012, but in recent months he had spoken of extending the contract, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig. There was no transition plan in the works.

“I don’t think he’s replaceable,” said Angelica Rudenstein, who knew Wood through her work at the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s Museum and conservation program and whose husband Neil Rudenstein is a current Getty trustee. “He was one of these very rare thoughtful, wise, intelligent people who thinks about the field as well as being one of its really important leaders.”

Getty officials said Monday that it was too early to discuss the Trust’s future, out of respect for Wood’s family. But current and former Getty officials, most speaking on background to avoid offending Wood’s family, said Wood’s passing presented the Getty with a unique opportunity to resolve a longstanding issue.

The Getty’s unusual organizational structure — a nonprofit trust run by a chief executive who oversees four operating programs, the largest of which is the museum — has been a source of internal conflict over the years. Given the completion of the Getty’s ambitious building projects and recent budget struggles, many said Monday that it should be reconsidered.

“With both of those major positions vacant, it’s time to reflect on the best possible structure for the Trust,” Munitz said. “It’s clearly worth revisiting.”

“In the past, they’ve been totally hamstrung by the inability to ask the questions beyond the personalities,” said a former senior museum official. “Now they’ve got that chance.”

Curiously, Wood faced a similar issue when he was being courted for the position at the Chicago Art Institute, said Jim Cuno, who succeeded Wood. Wood led the museum from 1980 to 2004.

“He accepted the job under the condition that he would be in charge of the museum, reporting directly to museum trustees, and that there would not be a paid president to whom he would report,” Cuno said. “In so doing, he secured the authority needed to realize his vision for the museum.”

But when Times art critic Christopher Knight proposed combining the positions of Trust president and museum director in a Critic’s Notebook column in April, Wood sent a sharp rejoinder to all Getty employees calling Knight’s position “short-sighted.”

On Monday, Getty spokesman Hartwig said the board had carefully considered whether to make structural changes during a 2007 strategic planning process and shared Wood’s conclusion.

“The board made it very clear that the structure was as it should be,” Hartwig said.

“The time for such talk is in the future,” he added. “This is a time to honor Jim.”

Times staff writer Jori Finkel contributed to this report.