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Finally, an art professional will direct the Getty

The State | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

December 05, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

From the time James N. Wood left Williams College in western Massachusetts with undergraduate honors in art history 43 years ago, he has spent his life immersed in art and art museums. The news that the J. Paul Getty Trust has named a new president and chief executive would be important in any case, but it takes on special significance because it is Wood. His record as an art professional marks a Getty first.

For a quarter of a century, ever since it became clear that the Getty would become the nation's wealthiest art institution, with an endowment now valued at about $5.8 billion, the trust's board has looked to businessmen and corporate chieftains to run the place.

First, lawyer Harold Williams (1981 to 1997), former chairman of Norton Simon Inc. and head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, and then Barry Munitz (1998 to 2006), former vice president of Maxxam Inc. and chancellor of Cal State University, took the reins.

Regardless of their records at the Getty -- Williams' mixed, Munitz's disastrous -- the refusal to "trust the Trust" to an art professional has been the Getty's principal undoing.

Much has been achieved, but no one believes the Getty has come close to reaching its extraordinary cultural promise. Wood's appointment changes the equation.

His resume could not be more different from those of his predecessors. Wood has been an administrator or curator at four important art museums. He's held board positions at two others as well as at two major art schools and an art foundation.

Williams and Munitz both had experience in educational administration. Wood does too, but of a tellingly different kind. Chicago's highly regarded Art Institute is an encyclopedic museum partnered with an impressive art school.

A president sets an institutional tone, which resonates in ways not always immediately perceptible to outsiders. Despite fulsome Getty rhetoric about art collecting, scholarship, conservation and public service both here and abroad -- indeed, despite demonstrable successes in all those areas -- the tacit focus of a hugely rich art institution entrusted to corporate leadership could be characterized in three disappointing words: \o7Protect the money\f7.

With the unprecedented appointment of a distinguished art professional, four challenging words describe the charge: \o7Spend the money well.\f7

The appointment represents nothing less than a sea change for the Getty. From an administrative standpoint, the importance of having one's work championed by another art professional of great accomplishment cannot be overestimated. For an organization populated with skilled art professionals, that is institutional oxygen. Decisions become meaningful -- consequential in ways that leadership from outside the field can never hope to match.

At 65, Wood might well be a transitional figure for the Getty. Known as a thoughtful and measured administrator, albeit one who is not afraid to think big, he will almost certainly be a stabilizing force at an organization still feeling battered from Munitz's ignominious tenure. The Getty is a complex place. Wood has the capacity to bring a measure of much-needed coherence to its far-flung program.

One immediate task will be to find a successor to Thomas Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute, who announced in October that he would leave next summer. A second pressing need is to assist the board's chairwoman, Louise H. Bryson, in building the ranks of trustees. Wood's extensive network of professional associations, accumulated over decades of art world leadership, ought to come in handy.

What might prove most difficult for the new president is grappling with a structural problem built into the Getty at its original home in Malibu and replicated, alas, at its Brentwood campus. The Getty Villa and the Getty Center both feel remote from the city's fabric, designed more for tourism than for civic engagement. The institution must function at both levels.

As director of Chicago's Art Institute, Wood brought a faltering museum back from the precipice. Leaving the post after 24 years, he told a local newspaper, "I can't imagine any other big city that I could really live in other than New York, I guess." Wood guessed wrong about that.

Los Angeles is its own peculiar beast with its own distinctive charms and challenges. The learning curve will be steep. For a pro, sitting atop the nation's wealthiest art institution ought to make the task, if not easy, certainly fun.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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