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An artful choice

The Getty Trust appears to have found the man to rejuvenate L.A.'s most underachieving institution.

December 05, 2006

THE DIRECTORS OF the J. Paul Getty Trust picked a successor Monday to former President and Chief Executive Barry Munitz, who left the Getty under a cloud in February after months of disclosures about lavish perks and ethical lapses. And although the trustees say they weren't specifically looking for Munitz's polar opposite, they found one in James N. Wood, former head of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Wood, 65, has significant training and experience in the arts -- in contrast not only to Munitz but also to the only other president the trust has had, Harold Williams. Munitz's background was in higher education, and Williams' was primarily in industry and finance. Wood is an arts scholar who worked as a curator and museum director before running the Art Institute, one of the country's leading art museums and schools, for 24 years.

Why does that matter? Because the Getty, despite its riches (its endowment, at more than $5 billion, is larger than any other art institution's), has been an artistic underachiever. Its acquisitions and exhibitions have never lived up to its resources. Its wealth may be obvious in its buildings but not in its collection.

Michael Brand, director of the Getty Museum since August 2005, is primarily responsible for rounding up better art. But having a chief executive with Wood's sensibilities and priorities can only be helpful. His tenure in Chicago was marked by several major acquisitions, so there's reason to believe the same will be true at the Getty. In addition, he's a different manager than Munitz, whose meddlesome style drove off some talented underlings and depressed morale. Wood is known for hiring good people and letting them do their jobs.

He also brings a reputation for scrupulous ethics. This is not the kind of guy who asks for a Porsche SUV as a company car, as Munitz did. Having just endured a state investigation of its leader's spending practices, the last thing the Getty needs is another leader who rents yachts.

The trust still has some festering problems to solve, including demands by Italy and Greece to return antiquities that were allegedly looted. Notably, Wood was one of the earliest to try to clear up such problems. The Art Institute of Chicago made pioneering use of the Internet to investigate those of its pieces with uncertain provenance.

And the Getty board, which seemed indifferent to Munitz's indiscretions, needs to demonstrate its engagement. By selecting Wood, the trustees have shown that they listen to critics. Wood's appointment is for just five years, but that could be ample time for the Getty to put the scandals behind it and start living up to its potential.

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