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Inheriting a Weighty Mantle

Getty Museum director John Walsh's designated successor will have to contend with big expectations, and that's OK by Deborah Gribbon.

August 13, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

When word came down from the pinnacle of the J. Paul Getty Trust that Deborah Gribbon, deputy director and chief curator of the Getty Museum, would be the successor to retiring director John Walsh, barely an eyebrow in the art world was raised. The mid-June timing of the news was unexpected, but Walsh--the scholarly prince and eloquent spokesman of American art museum directors--had made no secret of his desire to retreat into his own writing projects. Neither had he left any doubt about the person he had positioned to take over his job.

Walsh has worked with Gribbon since 1984, the year after he became director of the museum. She rose from assistant director for curatorial affairs to associate director in 1987, then added "chief curator" to her title in 1991. Two years ago--after the Getty Center opened and Barry Munitz succeeded Harold M. Williams as president of the trust--Gribbon was promoted to the position of deputy director and chief curator. At that point, assiduous readers of the art world's tea leaves knew that she was Walsh's heir apparent.

Sure enough, as the Getty's recent announcement confirmed, Gribbon, 52, will become director of the museum--on Oct. 1, when Walsh steps down, at 62.

"I'm thrilled with the possibilities," she said. "I'm in a very fortunate position here because I not only learned from the best, but this is a situation in which nothing is broken. John and I are different people, and I do need time to step back and think and consult before moving forward. But the fundamental values won't change. No one coming in here--whether from outside or up from the ranks--would step into this thinking that wholesale changes need to be made."

The prospect of "an orderly succession" is definitely a plus, Munitz said, praising Gribbon as "a very smart, skilled, elegant professional." But that's not to say her appointment was quite the foregone conclusion it may have seemed.

"I had lengthy and complex discussions with the board of trustees twice this spring about how I saw the job and different kinds of searches we might do," Munitz said. "We quickly put aside a formal search process because we thought we knew the museum world well enough to not have to do that. But we tested ourselves with a range of people around the world--who they are, where they are, what they might do, how they might fit at the Getty. At the end of it, we all looked at each other and said, 'We've got the best person.' Had she been elsewhere, we would have gone after her."

*

Walsh did go after her, in 1983, when she was curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They had met in Boston and occasionally worked together during the late 1970s and early '80s, when Walsh was curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts there.

"Debbie edited a couple of articles I wrote for the scholarly journal the Gardner puts out every year," Walsh recalled. "She was amazingly young, 28 or so at the time, but she was already the curator of a venerable museum and the best editor I'd ever had. She was also extremely acute on the things that I thought mattered a lot, the relative importance and value of individual works of art.

"When I was asked to do this job at the Getty, I had only one candidate for assistant director for curatorial affairs, and that was she," Walsh said. "I thought, 'I have no shot at this. I am going to ask her to go to Southern California, a person who knows as little about L.A. as I do and probably cares less?' But she had an amazing courage and sense of adventure."

Gribbon admits to lots of reservations, both personally and professionally, about what she calls Walsh's "wild idea." For one thing, she and her husband, psychiatrist Winston Alt, had just bought a house in Boston, the very day Walsh offered her the Getty job. "I really credit Winston with saying, 'This is something you just have to think about,' " Gribbon said. "He had never been to Los Angeles and was at Harvard's program in psychiatry at the time. Coincidentally, a position opened up for him at UCLA. If it hadn't, it wouldn't have been possible to move."

She began to take Walsh's offer seriously, if only as "a two-year gig," she said. But in May 1983, "a turning point came" when Sotheby Parke Bernet auctioned 16 works from the estate of Doris D. Havemeyer, the daughter-in-law of legendary collectors Henry O. and Louisine Havemeyer. "The Getty, with the Norton Simon Museum, bought the Degas pastel 'L'Attente,' which remains one of my favorite things in Los Angeles. And I thought to myself, 'I just have to be part of an organization that can do this,' " Gribbon said.

"Then, a couple of weeks after accepting the job, I learned that I was pregnant with Sarah, our first daughter. So I started the job as a mother. I hadn't anticipated that, but it's been great," she said. (Sarah is now 15 and their second daughter, Janie, is 12.)

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