Should the Getty merge its president and museum director positions?

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The death of J. Paul Getty Trust President and CEO James Wood last week followed the resignation in January of Getty Museum director Michael Brand. With both positions vacant, now is a good time rethink their relationship; indeed, The Times’ June 15 article, “Getty faces a question of leadership,” reports that such a debate is taking place.

The two executive posts have a history of conflict. Brand clashed with Wood about control of acquisition funds. Wood, a former museum director himself, wanted to exercise his authority to approve large purchases and have a say in programming. Brand’s predecessor Deborah Gribbon also resigned in conflict with then-president and CEO Barry Munitz, who like Wood felt he could manage aspects of the museum’s affairs.

Times art critic Christopher Knight argued in his April 25 column that the two positions should be merged. He bases his argument mainly on the premise that expanding the permanent collection of the museum is a priority, that the cost of art has risen, and if the museum director were made president of the Getty Trust he would have free access to tens of millions of dollars currently divided among the trust’s conservation, research and grant-making programs. Advocates of the museum’s supremacy within the trust have long suggested such a move.

Those who favor consolidation acknowledge that it was prudent during the early years of the Getty Trust to have a fiscal and administrative manager at the helm to sort out J. Paul Getty’s bequest and set up the trust’s various programs. Harold Williams served that role for many years. Now that the trust is set up, they argue, let a museum director with expertise in art head the entire organization.

There are precedents that appear to support the proposal. In the 1980s and 90s, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Art Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art separated administrative and artistic responsibility into two positions, but the bifurcated leadership proved unsuccessful in each case. In 1986 the Met board divided the museum’s leadership role among co-equals, giving responsibility for operations, finances and legal matters to president Bill Luers, and the artistic direction of the museum to Philippe de Montebello. The two clashed for years until Luers retired in 1999 and the Met made de Montebello the sole CEO.

A similar sequence of events took place at LACMA. In 1995 the museum made Andrea Rich administrative head of the museum; the following year it hired Graham Beal as artistic director reporting to Rich. Within three years Beal left to head the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Rich, with no training in art history, absorbed his portfolio into hers. It would appear that the Getty should follow suit.

Why not simplify the management structure and streamline reporting by making the museum director in charge of the entire trust, with separate leaders for the three other programs? As Knight observes, “Deputies reporting to the museum director wouldn’t be much different from program directors reporting to the Trust president now.” Museums typically have diverse departments overseen by a single director. Why should the Getty be any different?

Here’s why: The $4.5 billion Getty Trust is more than a museum.

Knight’s proposition assumes that the Getty Museum has priority over the trust’s other programs. In a way, it does. The museum is the public face of the Getty, the main attraction that draws visitors to the Getty Center in Brentwood. The trust CEO tends to want to manipulate the museum’s activities for trust-wide ends, often at odds with the museum director’s goals. That friction would ease if the positions were consolidated.

But leadership of the museum alone requires the full attention of an executive. I doubt that a Getty CEO/museum director would want to oversee the activities, operations and budgets of the Getty Conservation and Research Institutes and the grant-making Getty Foundation. The museum director has enough to do planning exhibitions, managing staff, pursuing acquisitions and collaborating with the other divisions on related initiatives. The CEO/museum director would have to hire a deputy to lead the museum — which is how the Getty Trust is set up now.

There is another reason I would argue against the proposal. Knight wants to merge the Getty CEO and museum director positions to open the Trust’s purse strings for more costly art acquisitions. The idea is to turn the Trust into a museum with a big conservation department and library. The next step, to be sure, would be to abolish the foundation and spend the money on buying art. But as good as the Getty Museum’s collection is, no amount of money can elevate it into the top ranks of the world’s art museums.

Old Master artworks of the highest quality are too rarely available to purchase, and when one does come up for sale export restrictions by another country often prevent the trust from acquiring it. The museum’s excellent but embattled collection of antiquities has been depleted by legal demands for restitution, and the likelihood of expanding in that area is slim. It makes sense to question the efficacy of even attempting to create a museum of antiquities and Old Masters today. There may be an occasional superb painting, drawing or illuminated manuscript to buy, but other than expanding its already outstanding collection in photography, the truth is that the Getty Museum will remain a boutique collection, no matter how much money it has to buy art. And with LACMA, MOCA, the Hammer, Eli Broad and others collecting contemporary art in Los Angeles, there is no reason for the Getty to further dilute its activities by extending into that area.

The trust’s money is well spent on other functions. The Getty Conservation Institute is one of the largest, most productive and respected organizations of its kind, and the Getty Research Institute has voluminous holdings — nearly 1 million items — on the history of art and related areas. These programs are a unique resource not only for L.A. but for the world, and their activities and collections can grow. The Getty Foundation funds art-related initiatives around the world, in partnership with the trust’s other programs. For example, the $7-million Pacific Standard Time project supports nonprofits throughout the region undertaking research, exhibitions and publications about mid-20th-century art and design in Southern California. This money would not be better spent adding another painting to the Getty Museum.

Assuming the two executive posts remain separate, how can conflicts between the Getty CEO and museum director be resolved? Put in place governance rules that guarantee the museum director (1) independence in programming exhibitions, (2) a fixed percentage of the trust’s annual operating budget, (3) a portion of the trust endowment dedicated to museum acquisitions, and (4) direct access to the board of trustees when seeking additional funds for extraordinary acquisition opportunities. There are ways of providing the museum director independence and authority without overburdening the position with responsibilities better left to others.

Jason Edward Kaufman is an art journalist living in New York. His blog IN VIEW is at