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Harold Williams to Retire; Led Getty Trust Growth Era

Museums: Executive presided over transformation of arts institution and increase of endowment to $4 billion.

June 11, 1996|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Harold M. Williams, the visionary leader and financial guru of the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Trust, announced Monday that he will retire as president and chief executive officer on his 70th birthday in 1998.

Since becoming the trust's first president in 1981, Williams has played a central role in transforming a sleepy museum in Malibu, founded by an eccentric oil baron, into a multifaceted, international institution dedicated to scholarship, conservation and education in the visual arts and humanities. At the same time, he has been instrumental in parlaying the $1.2-billion endowment the trust received in 1982 into a fortune now estimated at nearly $4 billion.

Williams also has presided over the planning and construction of the Getty Center, a six-building complex designed by architect Richard Meier, initially expected to cost $733 million but now edging up to about $800 million. The massive project, including a new Getty Museum, will unite the trust's scattered programs on a 110-acre hilltop site overlooking the San Diego Freeway. Since his retirement won't come until Jan. 5, 1998, Williams will preside over the center's opening in fall, 1997.

The Getty's new home is Williams' most visible legacy, but he said it is also his cue to depart. "I don't want to go, but I think it's right," Williams said in an interview in his office in Santa Monica. "The completion of the Getty Center implements the final stage of the plan I presented to the Getty trustees in 1982. It's a point of accomplishment. At the same time, the Getty assumes a new relationship to the city of Los Angeles and a new presence in the world.

"Having a physical visibility that we haven't had will change the organization, so in a way it's a new beginning. While I would enjoy participating in that, it seemed an appropriate time for the right successor to take it over from here."

Williams, who is on the board of Times Mirror, parent company of The Times, said he had decided to announce his retirement well in advance to allow Getty trustees adequate time to find a new leader.

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Robert F. Erburu, chairman of the Getty's board of trustees and former chairman and chief operating officer of Times Mirror, praised Williams' vision. "Harold is a unique individual who combines a business background with a great interest in the arts and the humanities. I'm sure that when those two came together at the Getty--which is unique in and of itself--it was in no small way because of Harold," he said.

"He was in an ideal situation because J. Paul Getty left a very broad field in which to operate, but Harold was willing to experiment and try new things. There are many museums, but there are no other Getty Conservation Institutes or any of the Getty's other programs. That is the unique contribution Harold has made to society, to realize the possibilities that existed," Erburu said.

Commenting on what she called Williams' "remarkable career," Andrea Rich, president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and former executive vice chancellor of UCLA, said Williams has shown a "profound commitment to Los Angeles" and an ability to build consensus for the public good.

At the Getty, "He has made something where nothing existed," she said. "There wasn't even an idea. He has pieced together what I think in 50 or 100 years will be considered one of the world's great cultural institutions. It's a hard act to follow."

Williams acknowledged that building the trust's programs entailed major challenges. "The first was the one I faced when I got here, which was what the Getty would become. Second, even after we agreed upon certain directions or areas where we would try to make a difference, we had to find where the leverage was and how best to attack the issues. Third was people. Finding the right leadership was critical."

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J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976, left the bulk of his fortune for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge." Today the Getty Trust consists of a museum, a grant program and five institutes--for conservation, education, information, research and museum management. Some detractors contend that the Getty might have had a bigger impact by concentrating on one area, but the mix of programs is unique.

In large part, the trust is the creation of a longtime Los Angeles resident with an unusual breadth of experience. Born in Philadelphia in 1928 to Russian immigrants, Williams moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1934. He sold shoes during his Roosevelt High School years and worked his way through UCLA, graduating as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in two years and four months, at the age of 18.

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