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Getty Names a Respected but Low-Profile Director

Despite the museum's recent difficulties, Michael Brand says he is 'here with enthusiasm.'

August 16, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The troubled J. Paul Getty Museum's highly publicized search for a leader came to an end Monday with the appointment of Michael Brand, a Harvard-educated Australian who has headed the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond for the last five years.

Brand, 47, will take charge of the Los Angeles museum Dec. 1, succeeding Deborah Gribbon, who resigned in October, citing "critical differences" with Barry Munitz, president and chief executive of the umbrella Getty Trust.

The appointment by the trust comes at a time of mounting woes for the Getty.

The state attorney general's office recently launched an inquiry into the trust's financial practices in response to a Times story describing Munitz's lavish pay, travel and perks.

And as the trust prepares to reopen the Getty Villa as a museum and study center for antiquities, senior curator and program coordinator Marion True faces trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to receive stolen artwork.

"I have read the articles," Brand said in a telephone interview from the Getty Center in Brentwood. "During the selection process, I talked about a whole range of issues with Barry and the trustees and the selection committee. I'm here and I want to be here. I'm here with enthusiasm."

Munitz declined to comment to The Times about Brand's appointment but praised him in a press release as "a creative individual with the proficiency, energy and intelligence to represent all of us in our local and global commitments." In an earlier interview with The Times, he had said the Getty would "look very aggressively internationally" for a well-qualified leader who could handle "a very public job" in a time of controversy.

Steven D. Lavine, president of CalArts, a Valencia arts college, said Brand's breadth of experience with building the collection, audience and physical plant at the Virginia museum bodes well, despite his relatively low profile.

"What you want for the Getty at this stage," Lavine said, "is someone who has comprehensive views of what a museum is and is ready to work across the whole range of possibilities. You want a young person who wants to carry the Getty to the next step.

"For me," he added, "that means much closer integration with the Getty Research Institute and the Conservation Institute. The manifest destiny there and what will bring them greatness is when they find a way for all the parts to work together. He seems like the kind of person who could do that."

Despite the Getty's difficulties, Lavine said that instead of following the tendency to hire someone who has essentially "done the job," it's often much better to bring in a leader who has not been in the same circumstances but is up to the challenge and sees problems with fresh eyes.

Considered a rising star in the art world and highly regarded among his peers, Brand has compiled an impressive resume but one that might not seem suited to the Getty's needs.

His academic specialty is Indian art, a field that the Getty Museum does not collect. One of his primary achievements at the Virginia museum was having spearheaded a successful capital campaign for expansion, a skill that might not seem to be in great demand at the wealthy California museum but that Munitz has said will be important.

The Getty made the appointment a month ahead of its self-imposed schedule, and it won praise for its choice from Brand's professional associates.

"I am very pleased that the museum has found someone of such experience and energy as a leader," Gribbon said. "I can't say I know him well, but I have worked with him on several occasions and have been very impressed with him."

Jeremy Strick, director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, called the Getty's decision "a very good appointment. He's a serious scholar, and he has been an excellent director in Virginia. I think he will be very effective, both within the Getty and in the broader community."

Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum, said: "Michael Brand is a fantastic and surprising choice for the Getty. While he has been somewhat under the radar since he arrived in the States, he has quietly transformed the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in a very short time."

Like two of his colleagues who specialize in Islamic art -- Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Thomas Lentz, head of Harvard University's museums -- Brand sees no conflict in working for a museum that does not directly reflect his training.

"The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is an encyclopedic museum with a fabulous collection of South Asian art," he said, "but that collection wasn't the main reason I went there. I am interested in art from all areas.

"My first significant experience with art was as a 17-year-old, going to Italy to study Italian in Perugia and Siena," he said. "I also love popular culture and contemporary culture.

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