THE museum director has his eyes on a still life. It's a sun-splashed chair and cafe table, empty and gleaming like Hockney props on a private balcony overlooking an ocean.
The good news is his museum can afford it. In fact, his museum already owns it. But odds are Michael Brand will never enjoy this scene quite the way most people would like to.
It's his own balcony, seen from his corner office at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
"I sat there once," Brand says, half wistful, half kidding and entirely too burdened to spend a lot of office moments idling in the sun.
He's haggling with Greeks. He's dickering with Italians. He's looking to fill a couple of big jobs while waiting to see who his new boss will be. And most of all, he's trying to nudge the institution toward equilibrium after the most scandal-marred, morale-sapping year since the late J.P. Getty started showing off his art collection three decades ago.
Brand, a 48-year-old Australian who speaks softly and carries a Harvard PhD, knew he was taking a chance when the Getty Trust's recruiters came calling last year. The institution was in the middle of an international confrontation over its antiquities collection and a domestic brouhaha over executive perks. And the Getty Museum director slot has always carried less autonomy than at most institutions, because the museum is an arm of the larger Getty Trust. It's the Trust's president who wields the greatest power on that Brentwood hilltop.
But Brand couldn't help noticing that this was still the world's wealthiest art organization, an institution with globally coveted collections of antiquities and photography and vast resources for art research and conservation -- not to mention the view. Last August he said yes to the Getty and goodbye to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In January, he came west with his wife and two daughters and started work.
And so began his baptism -- by transatlantic tug-of-war (when Italy and Greece stepped up their demands for the Getty to hand back dozens of treasured objects), by hasty presidential exit (when Barry Munitz, the chief executive who hired Brand, abruptly resigned in February) and by household mold (the Getty bought a house for Brand's use for $3.5 million, then found it was fungus-riddled and uninhabitable).
These last nine months, Brand has seen plenty. But unless you count this window-gazing moment, none of it shows on his face.
"Yes, I was surprised when [Munitz] resigned five weeks after I started work," he says carefully. "On the other hand, I knew when I was coming here that there were complications."
Brand says he's eager to build and emphasize the Getty photography collection, to boost contemporary art programming -- without formally collecting it -- and, extravagant as it may sound, to restore order among the museum's more than 430 employees and 110,000 objects.
"It's photography that takes us into the 20th century, and the 21st century. And it's a natural for Los Angeles -- photography and its relation to film," Brand says. Last year, he notes, 15 collectors donated more than 360 photographs to Getty collections -- encouraging signs at an institution that has never made donor-courting a top priority.
Furthermore, he says, the pursuit of photography gives curators a chance to reach beyond Western Europe, where most of its paintings and decorative arts come from, to connect with cultures farther afield, "whether it's South Africa, Australia or China."
If those references sound far-flung, consider his resume. Born in Australia, he spent two of his high school years in the Washington, D.C., area, where his father was serving as a director for the International Monetary Fund. After earning his bachelor of arts from Australian National University, he specialized in Indian art and architecture at Harvard. Before he took the top job in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he put in stints at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. (At one of his early meetings, Brand introduced staffers to a useful term from Aussie slang: \o7shonky\f7, which means "dubious" or "unreliable.")
Brand's new job includes a $482,000 salary -- a $132,000 increase over that of the last permanent director, Deborah Gribbon, who resigned in October 2004, citing conflicts with Munitz. There's no telling when he'll get a new boss: The Getty trustees formed a presidential search committee only last month.
"He's been a very calming influence," says Karol Wight, the Getty's acting antiquities curator. And even amid the tension of Greek and Italian antiquities claims and reopening the Getty Villa, "he has encouraged me from Day One to not work myself to death -- that's something that American workaholics can appreciate."