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The Getty gets serious

November 02, 2005

HOPING TO DISPEL THE CLOUDS that have gathered over its head, the J. Paul Getty Trust board announced last week that five trustees had formed a special committee to review the Getty Museum's compliance with codes of law and ethics.

It's about time. The institution is mired in controversies on both sides of the Atlantic. The Italian and Greek governments are demanding that the Getty return objects that they claim were looted, and Italy is prosecuting the Getty's former curator of antiquities, Marion True. The highly regarded True resigned last month just ahead of revelations about an eyebrow-raising loan in Greece that Getty leaders had known about since 2002.

The California attorney general has opened an inquiry into several issues involving Getty Chief Executive Barry Munitz, including his pay, his perks and the sale of Getty land to Munitz's billionaire pal, Eli Broad. And the Getty has become a verbal punching bag for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who wants to tighten the tax exemption for nonprofits.

As we have noted before, the image problems at the Getty ripple across the rest of the art world, as well as nonprofits in general. Put simply, the public's trust in charities is at stake. And the antiquities disputes -- a thorny problem shared by several leading museums -- demand new safeguards.

Creating a review panel is a first step toward addressing those issues. It helps that the members have a good track record outside the Getty when it comes to corporate governance, particularly committee head and board Chairman John Biggs, former chief executive of retirement fund manager TIAA-CREF. But that's not enough. Their work won't be credible without the involvement of independent experts.

To that end, the committee has hired attorney Ronald L. Olson, a legal heavyweight with extensive experience serving on or advising corporate and nonprofit boards. Although he has indirect links to some of the committee members, Olson has no formal connection to the Getty. Biggs pledged that Olson and his firm will have "a completely free hand."

The trustees view much of the controversy around Munitz as unwarranted, yet the committee plans to have Olson review every bit of spending by the CEO. It plans similar scrutiny of the museum's antiquities policies and the art it has acquired.

The committee now needs to stay out of Olson's way. The institution has taken a lot of hits. He's got plenty of ground to cover.

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