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ART | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

At Getty Trust, the trust part is lacking

Can friends impartially investigate friends? That's only one question troubling the arts institution. One answer: Look for new leadership.

November 13, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

THE board of the J. Paul Getty Trust has formed a special committee to examine the burgeoning controversies that have engulfed the institution, the nation's third-largest private philanthropy, over the course of the last year. One might say it's about time.

One might also say it's a day late and a dollar short. (Or $5.2 billion short, given the Getty's vast wealth.) Not only does this plan not pass the smell test, it's an offense to the olfactory system. To be meaningful, a review committee should be independent and pristine, without a whiff of conflicting interests. Instead, this one seems designed to embrace a hot national trend: cronyism.

The Getty troubles trace back to trust President Barry Munitz -- to serious questions about his management of the city's most important art institution and the troubling possibility of misuse of Getty funds. Yet all three trustees named to serve with the board's chairman and vice chairman on the new committee have close personal and business ties to Munitz.

Worse, two of them connect to the chief executive through the same business relationship that launched the controversies in the first place.

Almost a year has passed since The Times reported that the Getty Trust sold a Brentwood property to financier Eli Broad for $700,000 less than its appraised value. That deal is suspect, even without the apparent discount. The law prohibits the use of tax-exempt charitable assets for personal benefit, but Munitz and Broad are close friends and business associates.

Munitz has denied being directly engaged in the land sale, but internal records prepared by Munitz and reviewed by The Times indicate that he instructed Getty staff to delay public listing of the property so he could first discuss its availability with Broad. The documents also include a staff directive to create the appearance of "reasonable distance from this decision" for Munitz.

Munitz has served on the corporate boards of two companies founded by Broad -- AIG SunAmerica and KB Home. The special Getty trustee committee now assigned to review his actions includes AIG SunAmerica's chief executive, Jay Wintrob, a Broad protege. A second committee member, Luis Nogales, sits with Munitz on AIG SunAmerica's board and on the board of KB Home. Rounding out the friendly trio is Lloyd Cotsen, who heads a local family foundation. Munitz sits on that foundation's board.

Can anyone reasonably expect an independent review from this group? The severely compromised committee is a symptom of the Getty's deep-rooted problem, not its solution.

Remarkably, the coziness doesn't end there. The board has also retained a well-regarded outside attorney, Ronald L. Olson, to assist in the inquiry into the trust's practices, launched last summer by the state attorney general's office. But, like Munitz directing his staff to create an outward show of distance from the land sale to Broad, the board has fabricated an appearance of diligent impartiality. The "outside attorney" represents the company headed by the spouse of the special committee's vice chair, Louise Bryson.

By now you will not be stunned to learn that his elite law firm has also worked for KB Home.

Los Angeles County is home to some 10 million souls, and this is the best they could do?

Given all of the entanglements, it is next to impossible to know who is working for whose interests. The only thing that's certain is that the public interest doesn't top the list.

The festering problems at the Getty Trust burst into view in October 2004, following the abrupt resignation of Getty Museum director Deborah Gribbon from one of the most coveted posts in the field. Without elaborating, Gribbon cited sharp philosophical differences with Munitz. Since then the scene has grown increasingly bleak. How did things get so bad?

At the time I noted one root cause: Munitz, since taking the helm in 1998, has done what a corporate chief executive would do. He remade the board in his own image.

More than half the 13 board members joined during Munitz's tenure. (Another joined this summer, and in 2006 two more who were appointed before he became chief executive will be replaced.) Like him, all are wealthy, even though the Getty does not need trustee donations. Reflecting his own art-free background, business and education figures dominate the board. Some are collectors, but there's not a scholar, artist, intellectual or major L.A. art figure in sight.

And unlike other arts organization boards, this one is only managing OPM: Other People's Money. Getty trustees have little invested in the institution they oversee.

Munitz has built a hollow but sympathetic echo chamber in the boardroom. The special committee duplicates that fix -- meaning it's not so special after all.

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