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Getty rethinks buying its way to greatness

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He wanted it to be the perfect evening the kind of courting of collectors that 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 Lansing and Friedkin collect Dutch art, 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, immediately 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 Munitz's critics, such anecdotes are a kind of shorthand for explaining a range of troubles that have engulfed the Getty Museum. Today the Getty is under siege on many fronts. Its former antiquities curator faces an indictment in Italy, and allegations of lavish travel by Munitz have led to an investigation by the California attorney general into the Getty Trust's finances.

Overlooked in these controversies, some of Munitz's critics say, is the harm suffered by the museum itself, including acquisitions, curatorial choices and departures by talented staff members who bridled at Munitz's decisions and leadership style.

In 1982, when the museum received the estate of the oilman J. Paul Getty, it instantly became the one of the world's wealthiest. 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 not lived up to its early promise, a problem even before Munitz's arrival. And 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 becoming a great museum. It has decided to devote itself to what its poorer colleagues have always done: seeking donations of world-class private collections.

Yet as it places its hat in hand, the 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 Munitz, who has overseen the museum and the 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 Biggs, the chairman of the trust's board. But several former and current museum employees complain that 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 crucial areas, disregarding or overruling many museum decisions.

They describe a frustrating working environment in which Munitz has formed strong alliances with art institutions in Britain 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, on exhibitions that better illuminated its core collection of European paintings and Greek and Roman antiquities. As a result, they say, the museum's direction often appears erratic, and its reputation has suffered.

The departure last year of the museum's director, Deborah Gribbon, who cited philosophical differences with Munitz, was in large part a response to such interference, according to former and current employees, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. And they characterized many of Munitz's initiatives at home and around the world as propelled more by his social aspirations and connections than by considerations of what was best for the museum.

Munitz, a former university administrator and businessman with an easy confidence and keen political instincts, defends himself, saying that much of the rancor arises because the Getty Museum 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.

"There are powerful emotions here," he said. "There are very articulate and strong people here on both sides of the issue."

A new director Michael Brand, most recently the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was named in August to replace Gribbon, and, after years of planning, the 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, the antiquities curator, Marion True, resigned last month over accusations of improprieties involving a real estate deal. She faces a criminal trial, opening next week in Italy, where she is accused of conspiring to acquire looted antiquities for the museum.

Separately, the California attorney general's office, which oversees nonprofit foundations, has opened an investigation into the finances of the trust, spurred by recent articles in The Los Angeles Times that raised questions about Munitz's considerable travel expenses and perks.

The Getty's board has set up a committee to examine the antiquities matter and to monitor the attorney general's investigation. 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 the institution's priorities, not at Munitz.

But critics inside and outside the museum complain that the board has been increasingly disengaged. And, they say, because the board is made up of many of Munitz's business-world friends, there are few checks and balances on 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 the world's best. Some museum officials said they felt that a partnership with the Chatsworth did not make much sense for the Getty and that the drawings would not make a particularly interesting loan because many had already been shown in the United States several times.

Barbara Whitney, who left the museum last year as its associate director for administration and public affairs, said there was widespread dissatisfaction with Munitz's plan, "yet nobody felt they could say no." She and other persistent critics of Munitz said there was a strong 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 the art world, in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, by being very selective about the projects it took on and only doing things that fit the mission and added value," said 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 the Getty or the partners."

In a recent interview in his office, 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 the Getty's endowment, now at $5.2 billion, is relatively healthy after several years of unstable markets, the museum's collection cannot expand solely through buying. He emphasized that the museum, and its new director, Brand, would be working much harder to court collectors and land major donations, something the Getty had done only fitfully in the past.

But to be successful, he 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."

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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