|Rift Grows, Challenging Leadership at the Getty|
New York Times 06 11 2005
He wanted it to be the perfect evening - the kind of courting of collectors the museum should do more often, he told the staff.
Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, had invited his good friends Sherry Lansing, then the chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, and her husband, the director William Friedkin, to dinner last year in a house used for parties at the hilltop Getty complex in Los Angeles.
Because the couple collect Dutch art, Mr. Munitz wanted to impress them by having two 17th-century drawings by the Dutch artist Herman van Swanevelt from the Getty Museum taken to be displayed at the house.
Museum officials, who said they felt that the event was more about socializing than about wooing important collectors, protested. They argued that moving the drawings posed too many risks, and that the climate control in the house was inadequate for fragile works on paper.
The drawings were moved anyway.
For Mr. Munitz's critics, such anecdotes are a kind of shorthand for explaining a range of troubles that have engulfed the Getty Museum over the last few years.
Today the Getty is under siege. Its former antiquities curator faces an indictment in Italy, and allegations of lavish travel by Mr. Munitz have led to a wide-ranging investigation by the California attorney general into the trust's finances.
Overlooked in these contro versies, some of Mr. Munitz's critics say, is the harm suffered by thè museum itself, including acquisitions, curatorial choices and departures by talented staff members who bridled at Mr. Munitz's decisions and style.
In 1982, when the museum received the estate of the oilman J. Paul Getty, it instantly became one of the world's wealthiest. Given that it had six times more money than its next-richest American sibling, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, competing institutions anxiously waited to see how that fortune would reshape the museum world.
Over the next two decades, the Getty grew significantly, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to enlarge its collection. But many critics say it has failed to live up to its early promise, a problem even before Mr. Munitz's arrivai.
And far from tilting the playing field with its money, the Getty - which has lost several high-profile bidding battles for artwork in the last few years - has recently begun to see that it cannot buy its way to greatness. It has decided to devote itself to what its poorer colleagues have always done: seeking donations of world-class private collections.
Yet thè museum is facing serious questions about its worthiness as a home for such collections. Most of these questions revolve around the structure of the trust, its board and Mr. Munitz, who has overseen thè museum and thè trust's other art programs for eight years.
Many board members praise his vision and leadership. "I think he's really done a terrific job," said John H. Biggs, the chairman of the trust's board.
But several former and current museum employees complain that Mr. Munitz - who has no background in art - has significantly interfered with the museum's curatorial operations and demoralized much of its staff by imposing his own vision in several cruciai areas, disregarding or overruling many museum decisions.
They describe a frustrating work environment in which Mr. Munitz has formed strong alliances with art institutions in England and Germany and insisted on collaborating with them. While this has sometimes yielded loans of impressive works, they say, it has consumed time and resources that could have been directed elsewhere, organizing exhibitions that better illuminated its core collection of European paintings and Greek and Roman antiquities. As a result, they say, thè museum's direction often appears erratic, and its reputation has suffered nationally and globally.
The departure last year of the museum's previous director, Deborah Gribbon, who cited philosophical differences with Mr. Munitz, was in large part a response to such interference, said former and current employees, most speaking on condition of anonymity, partly because of fears of reprisals against current staff members. And they characterized many of Mr. Munitz's initiatives at home and around thè world as propelled more by his social aspirations and connections than by considerations of what was best for thè museum.
Mr. Munitz, a former university administrator and businessman with an easy confidence and keen politicai instincts, defends himself, saying that much of the rancor arises because the Getty Museum, unlike the Metropolitan or other large American museums, does not have the final word on its own fate. The Getty Trust, which also oversees a conservation institute, a research arm and a grant-making foundation, calls the shots.
"The fact is that they are one very important piece of what we do, but they are not the ultimate decision makers," Mr. Munitz said of the museum's leaders, adding that the tensions were part of "a philosophical, organizational issue that goes back 20 years."
"There are powerful emotions here," he said. "There are very articulate and strong people here on both sides of the issue."
Critics say that Mr. Munitz - with thè support of a board that includes many of his friends and allies, few with backgrounds as dedicated collectors - has placed far less emphasis on the museum than his predecessor, Harold M. Williams, did.
The amount of money annually available to the museum for buying art, for example, has dropped to among the lowest levels ever. And Mr. Munitz has recently built what critics see as ill-advised alliances - some accompanied by multimillion-dollar grants - with thè State Art Collections in Dresden, Germany; with the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; and with Chatsworth, one of England's grandest estates, which houses thè Duke of Devonshire's art collection.
These partnerships have been a source of frustration within the museum, where some curators question their value. Some of the Courtauld's most important masterpieces, for example, cannot
leave London because of restrictions in thè will of their donor.
"The Courtauld, Chatsworth and Dresden initiatives are Barry's," said a former museum employee. "They are not necessarily projects that the museum would have otherwise undertaken."
This dissension is roiling the Getty, which stands at a kind of crossroads. A new director - Michael Brand, most recently the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts - was named in August to replace Ms. Gribbon. After years of planning, thè Getty is scheduled in late January to reopen its renovated villa in Malibu, the new home of its collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
Yet the woman largely in charge of that project, thè museum's antiquities curator, Marion True, resigned last month over accusations of improprieties involving a real estate deal. She faces a criminal trial, opening Nov. 16 in Italy, where she is accused of conspiring to acquire looted antiquities for the museum.
Separately, the California attorney general's office, which oversees nonprofìt foundations, has opened an investigation into thè finances of the trust, spurred by recent articles in The Los Angeles Times that raised questions about Mr. Munitz's considerable travel expenses and perks, and about a 2002 real estate deal between the museum and Eli Broad, a billionaire investor who is a dose friend of Mr. Munitz's.
Late last month, the Getty's board set up a special committee to examine the antiquities matter and to monitor the attorney general's investigation.
Mr. Biggs said that while he believed there was "a legitimate policy issue driving some people's concerns" within the museum, he said that such anger should be directed primarily at the board, which sets thè institution's priorities, not at Mr. Munitz.
But critics inside and outside the museum complain that the board has been increasingly disengaged from thè issues facing the museum. And, they say, because thè board is made up of many of Mr. Munitz's business-world friends - including thè billionaire investor Ronald W. Burkle and Jay Wintrob, an insurance executive and protégé of Mr. Broad's - there are few checks and balances on Mr. Munitz.
In 2003, for example, he asked several senior officials of the museum and of other Getty programs to fly to England for a meeting at Chatsworth in Derbyshire to explore a partnership and possible loans from its collection, including its old master drawings, considered among thè world's best. Some museum officials, however, said they felt that a partnership with thè Chatsworth did not make much sense for the Getty and that the drawings would not make a particularly interesting loan because many had been shown in thè United States several times, some as recently as 1996, in an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library.
Barbara Whitney, who left the museum last year as its associate director for administration and public affairs, said there was widespread dissatisfaction with Mr. Munitz's pian, "yet nobody felt they could say no." Ms. Whitney and other persistent critics of Mr. Munitz said there was a feeling that his initiatives were making the Getty seem erratic and hurting its reputation.
"The Getty worked very hard for two decades to build its credibility in thè art world, in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, by being very selective about thè projects it took on and only doing things that fit thè mission and added value," said Ms. Whitney, who now works as a private-school administrator. "Many of us have become concerned in recent years that Munitz is diminishing that credibility through grants and partnerships that don't make much sense, either for thè Getty or the partners."
'Long Step Backward'
Given the largess that flows from the Getty's grant-making and conservation arms, officials at other museums are loath to comment about how they perceive the Getty and its accomplishments.
But John Walsh, who served as the Getty's director from 1983 to 2000, echoed Ms. Whitney's concerns, saying the museum had worked hard to overcome its reputation as an art-world arriviste and to become known as a piace with exhibitions "on interesting subjects, ideas and unfamiliar artists, with many surprises for visitors."
"It would be a long step backward to start doing shows that simply move a bunch of things from one museum to another," Mr. Walsh said. "You can see those in art museums everywhere else."
In a recent interview in his office overlooking the travertine Getty complex in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, Mr. Munitz said that such partnerships made perfect sense, not just for the museum, but also for the Getty as an educational institution.
He added that he and the board had long ago realized that even though thè Getty's endowment, now at $5.2 billion, is relatively healthy after several years of unstable markets, thè museum's collection cannot expand solely through buying. He emphasized that the museum, and its new director, Mr. Brand, would be working much harder to court collectors and land major donations, something thè Getty had done only fitfully in the past.
But to be successful, Mr. Munitz said, he and other officials must be more aggressive about spreading the Getty name, money and resources. "You need to go out there," he said. "You have to meet the great collectors, you have to meet the high-net-worth individuals, you have to do a great deal of traveling because people don't understand who we are." And, he added, many who do understand "don't like us."
The trust is trying hard to change that. Grants awarded by the Getty have risen to around $30 million a year, compared with $10 million a year in the mid- to late 1990's, even as money for buying art for the museum has declined to about $20 million budgeted for this fiscal year. (In the past, thè average was about $46 million a year, though in 2003, when the Getty paid a reported $70 million for a Titian masterpiece, the museum spent around $100 million.)
Speaking Up for Himself
In an interview that lasted almost two hours, Mr. Munitz - who earns $635,000 a year as well as retirement benefits that make his overall compensation about $1.2 million - was rarely defensive as he talked about the trust's recent troubles.
But he was accompanied by a public relations executive who specializes in crisis management, and he expressed exasperation with his critics at the museum. "Part of thè frustration," Mr. Munitz said, "is people didn't come to me and say - from thè museum - 'If you head in this direction, this a problem,' or 'Please don't do that,' or 'It's embarrassing here,' or 'It's awkward there.' Never. I promise."
But those who have dealt with Mr. Munitz said they did speak up, although his staff often insulated him and made communication difficult. And they added that when they did object openly to his decisions, he frequently overruled them. They cite the incident involving the dinner party and thè drawings as a prime example, one that angered and embarrassed thè museum staff.
"One of the most alarming things for me was that it was such a clear-cut demonstration of Barry's lack of concern for the works of art," said Ms. Whitney, who was about to depart from the museum around the time of the incident.
Mr. Munitz insists that the drawings were adequately protected, and he defended having used them to entertain Ms. Lansing and Mr. Friedkin. "The goal was to try to get them more interested in the institution," he said.
Asked whether the couple had a significant art collection, he said, "They are interesting collectors who are beginning to build a collection." He added that in campaigning on behalf of the museum, "you don't start with people that you don't know - you start with people you know."
But Mr. Munitz's critics complain that many of the people he knows best tend to be ones who cannot much help the Getty.
Mr. Broad, for example, is a renowned collector, but he specializes in contemporary art. Works he owns are to be displayed in a new building that will be part of the Los Angeles County Museum.
Mr. Munitz also has dose ties to Lord Rothschild, the English banker and arts patron, a relationship that has led to much deeper involvement by the Getty with the Courtauld Institute, a respected teaching center and museum. The Getty is in the process of giving it a $12 million gift.
Lord Rothschild praised thè links between the two institutions. "I think it's been a very symbiotic and positive relationship, both for the Courtauld and for the Getty," he said. But some at the Getty say that the Courtauld will get far more out of the relationship than the Getty ever will.
Mr. Munitz disagreed with that, yet again pointing out that the museum's interests might lose now and then to those of the other Getty programs, in research, education and conservation. While some may want the museum acquisitions budget to keep expanding, he said: "We're not the National Gallery and we're not the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We're a different kind of institution. Not everybody agrees with that. Change is a painful, difficult process."