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Art historian hired to direct the Getty

December 05, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Moving to steady an institution shaken by scandals that forced the resignation of top executive Barry Munitz in February, the Getty Trust announced on Monday the hiring of President James N. Wood, a 65-year-old art historian and former president of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Wood, lured out of retirement in Rhode Island, vowed to emphasize "focus and integrity," adding: "I want to make the visual arts the center of the decision-making for the entire institution."

On Feb. 15, he'll take the reins of the wealthiest arts organization in the world. Created by oilman J. Paul Getty, the Getty Trust draws from an endowment of about $5.8 billion to operate two museum sites -- one a modern campus on a hilltop in Brentwood, the other a villa at the edge of Malibu -- along with research and conservation institutes and a grant-making foundation with projects worldwide.

Over the last year, revelations of questionable spending and antiquities acquisition practices have sparked a crisis involving criminal charges in Europe (pending against former curator Marion True), a state investigation (by the attorney general) and extensive turnover among staffers and board members.

This year, the Getty Museum has returned two artworks to Greece, pledged 26 more to Italy and dramatically tightened its acquisition standards. But it remains stuck in increasingly hostile talks with Italian leaders over ancient treasures acquired through shadowy dealers.

Wood succeeds interim President Deborah Marrow, a veteran Getty administrator who took the post in February, after the abrupt resignation under fire of Munitz, who led the Getty for seven years but was forced out by the attorney general's probe.

The inquiry recommended no criminal charges, noting that Munitz had agreed to pay back $250,000 and forgo more than $2 million in payments called for by his contract.

Wood's base salary will be $700,000 -- about twice his last salary in Chicago yet $260,000 less than Munitz took home in 2005. Wood will also get a $20,000-per-month housing allowance, a $250,000 signing bonus, $150,000 for moving expenses and $100,000 more for each year in the job he completes through February 2011.

In choosing Wood, Getty board members elected to place their faith in a well-seasoned art scholar, rather than in somebody with corporate credentials like those of both Munitz and his predecessor, Harold Williams.

During the Getty's troubles in recent years, Wood said, "I think a lot of people's eyes were taken off the ball. I think there was a breakdown in oversight." In stressing focus and integrity, Wood said that "those both, at least for an outsider looking in, seemed to be in question."

"From the beginning," said Louise H. Bryson, chairwoman of the Getty Trust, "we were very interested in Jim. We weren't sure that he would do this, but he became very intrigued, for all the right reasons."

She said the presidential search team contacted 150 prospects, having resolved to search mostly among university presidents, heads of foundations, heads of museums and business executives.

"We wanted a person who asks all the hard questions and will help us to grow to be better and better," she said.

Wood, raised in New England and educated at Williams College in Massachusetts, specialized in European painting and sculpture from the 16th to 20th centuries, along with American painting and sculpture of the 19th and 20th centuries. He began his career with a series of academic and museum positions, including a post at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He took over as director of the St. Louis Art Museum in 1975, then became director of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980.

Arriving at that institution with its staff in disarray and a long list of deferred maintenance issues, "he hired a staff and he let them work. He didn't meddle," said Alan G. Artner, the Chicago Tribune's art critic since 1973.

In time, Artner said, Wood made over the museum, ascending to its presidency, renovating every department, reviving a publications program, raising standards for catalogs, building one new wing and planning another that's due to open in 2009.

Wood's tenure in Chicago also gave him experience with provenance issues. In 1988, he made headlines by resisting the return of a 900-year-old Thai sculpture with murky history that the museum had acquired in 1967. In 2000, the Art Institute was among the first U.S. museums to list holdings whose ownership records were unclear for 1933 through '45, when many works were stolen by Nazis.

Jeremy Strick, who worked for Wood as a curator at the Art Institute from 1996 to 1999 before becoming director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, called Wood "deeply reflective and at times quiet, but decisive." Wood "was at the top of my personal list" of best candidates, Strick said.

After he left the Chicago job, Wood and his wife retired to Bristol, R.I., not far from a daughter who is a teacher in Providence.

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