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How to bring the Getty down from the hill

February 26, 2006|Tyler Green | TYLER GREEN writes and edits Modern Art Notes, a blog about art at artsjournal.com/man.

WITH CHIEF executive Barry Munitz gone, the state attorney general investigating its dealings and a foundation watchdog having put it on probation, the J. Paul Getty Trust is considering reforms. In weighing what to do, the trustees must acknowledge that although the Getty Trust is a multiheaded beast -- museum, grant-making foundation, research institute and conservation institute -- art is what holds its programs together. Equally important, they must work to restore public confidence in the Getty, not just because it's the United States' largest art foundation, but because it's the nation's third-largest private foundation overall.

Here are some recommendations:

* A study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that trustees of foundations believe that they are most effective when their boards have a mix of capabilities and skills, particularly expertise in the organization's mission. The current Getty board is a perfect example of one that doesn't.

The overwhelming majority of the Getty's 14 trustees are from the business world. Three are bankers, two run investment firms and two work for financial services companies. Few have any expertise in art, art education, art history, art-making or even art-related fields. That's stupefying.

To correct the deficit, the Getty should add prominent local art experts -- not just art donors -- to its board. Possible candidates include Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, writer and artist Peter Plagens, Ann Philbin, director of UCLA's Hammer Museum, and Lisa Lyons, a former foundation executive and curator.

Because there can be no arts without artists, it is especially disappointing that the Getty has no art-makers among its trustees. Los Angeles is one of the world's four capitals of art-making, so there are plenty of candidates, among them Lari Pittman, Catherine Opie, Bill Viola and Liz Larner.

* The board should more closely reflect the demographics of its home. Only two trustees are Latino, three are women, one is African American and there are no Asians. The board also personifies the Southland's wealthy elite. The presence of wealth on the board is important at most nonprofits, but not at the Getty, where trustees don't have to be donors or fundraisers. How can Getty trustees fully understand their mission to "strengthen and inspire aesthetic and humanistic values" for all Angelenos if they are drawn from a tiny, elite cross-section of Southland society?

* The Getty Trust needs to restore public faith in how it spends money. In recent years, one of the most-told stories about Getty spending involved the taste of Anne Munitz, wife of the former chief executive, for blood oranges, not the museum's appetite for Gauguins.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is one model of financial transparency. Its website includes the foundation's tax filings, details about executive compensation and financial audits.

But that's not enough. About half of the Getty trustees have business or nonprofit ties with billionaire Eli Broad. When the board sold a parcel of land to him, it looked fishy. Sunshine is the best defense against suspicion: The Getty should open trustee meetings to the public.

* A more trusting environment should be created at the Getty. During the Munitz years, many staffers complained of a climate of fear in which they were afraid to raise concerns about institutional practices. They also felt disconnected from senior staff, and senior staff felt cut off from the trustees.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy's grantee perception report offers one remedy. It helps a foundation learn what its grantees think of it and how the foundation can do a better job spending its money wisely. The Getty's grant program, of course, is just one of many the trust administers. Yet the trustees should get to know who Getty grantees are and what the programs do, not just the trust's finances.

* The trust should hire an art person to lead it. Ideally, the person would also be an Angeleno with experience in the world of the foundations. Joel Wachs, the former city councilman and current president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, is someone with the right qualifications. So is former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine, who now serves on the board of the Barnes Foundation and is chairman of ARTstor.

None of these proposed changes can be made overnight. But the time for reform is now, as the Getty is reexamining its governance practices after Munitz.

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