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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Now Getty should speak up

The errant institution must issue a searching report that goes beyond the attorney general's.

October 03, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Like something out of a Jane Austen novel, California's attorney general on Monday named a chaperon to accompany the J. Paul Getty Trust for two fiscal years. The Getty, headstrong and wayward, apparently requires some adult supervision.

Fourteen months after launching a civil investigation, the attorney general issued his findings on the shenanigans that disrupted the Getty Trust with escalating intensity since the elaborate Brentwood campus opened more than eight years ago. The 13-page report can be frustrating to read, since it necessarily hews close to the legal issues of the investigation. Those legalities commonly concern finances, not program goals or institutional ethics.

Essentially, the report's two conclusions confirm what we already knew.

First, former Getty Trust President Barry Munitz repeatedly engaged in self-dealing -- the improper use of tax-exempt charitable funds for personal benefit. Second, the Getty's board of trustees repeatedly failed to exercise adequate oversight of the $5.5-billion institution, the nation's largest art philanthropy. Munitz resigned last February and made financial restitution; board Chairman John Biggs left in August.

The 13-page document says no crimes were committed and, with both men gone, no legal action will be taken. But the chaperon will be watching, taking notes and reporting back at regular intervals to the putative parents back in Sacramento. The state has never before had to assign a monitor to a California charity, which at the very least ought to chasten the committee of Getty trustees now engaged in a search for a new president and chief executive.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty Trust: An article about the Getty Trust in the Oct. 3 Calendar section said that the board of trustees failed to exercise adequate oversight of the $5.5-billion institution. The $5.5-billion figure represents the Getty Trust's endowment; the trust's assets are about $10 billion.

Beyond the blot on institutional reputation, the bigger tragedy is that eight years have been squandered.

Yes, the Getty Trust's four operating programs have continued on, often to superlative effect. The museum, research library, conservation institute and grant foundation are staffed by some of the best professionals in the field, and they can rightly claim their share of distinctive achievements.

But they operate under the umbrella of the trust -- and the trust itself ought to perform an innovative artistic leadership role for Los Angeles and the world. You would be hard-pressed to name many major art initiatives to have emanated from its gleaming Brentwood offices. The trust has mostly been missing in action.

With art, opportunities missed can be opportunities forever lost. A gut-wrenching example unfolded over the last six months, when a rudderless Getty engulfed in turmoil stayed out of the contest to acquire five early Modern paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Among the works is a paramount masterpiece of 20th century art.

To acquire the sought-after group, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put $150 million on the table -- a huge sum, surely without precedent in the history of American art museums, but not enough to secure so large and coveted a prize. Had the Getty Trust taken note and stepped forward to add to the pot -- something around half of LACMA's ante might well have done the trick -- there is good reason to believe the incomparable Klimt ensemble would have stayed in L.A. But the world's richest art institution stayed mum and the paintings left town.

The report absolves the trust from error in selling a land parcel whose market value was in dispute. But it says nothing about the transaction's conflict of interest, in which Munitz improperly steered the deal toward a friend and business associate, Eli Broad, while instructing staff to cover up the fact.

The report absolves the trust for having paid a surprising $3-million severance to former Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribbon, whose sudden resignation in October 2004 broke open the scandal's floodgates. Gribbon is revealed to have had a claim against the trust for unlawful "constructive discharge" -- typically, harassment to the point where an employee feels reasonably compelled to resign -- and the damages could have exceeded the severance. But the claim's grim details are not explained.

The report absolves the trust of guilt in spending millions of dollars to fund a movie on elementary school teachers, redecorate a new office for a former employee, publicize a White House education initiative about Mars and send an employee to a chess tournament in Israel. The expenditures were legal because they were made to other charities. Understandably, the attorney general makes no comment about those gifts' obvious irrelevance to the trust's own mission statement, which "focuses on the visual arts" so that "cultural enlightenment and community involvement in the arts can help lead to a more civil society." Mars is not mentioned.

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