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Getty's accord removes shadow

The specter of recent scandals is starting to lift from the museum and its programs on news of an agreement to return antiquities to Italy.

August 03, 2007|Jason Felch and Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writers

A day after the J. Paul Getty Museum announced the return of 40 prized artifacts to Italy, a sense of relief swept across the Getty Center's Brentwood campus, home to the Getty Trust and three other programs that had been largely overshadowed by the museum's antiquities scandal.

Many who work at the Getty said the accord Wednesday closed not just the painful dispute over allegedly looted artifacts but a period of relentless controversy under the trust's former chief executive, Barry Munitz.

"I had a staff member tear up Wednesday at the thought that this was all behind us and we could continue our work unfettered," said Timothy Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute since 1998. "It's affected the organization at a psychic level for a long time."

Munitz was forced out in 2005 after institutional unrest and an investigation by the California attorney general into his use of Getty resources for personal benefit.

The two overlapping scandals directly affected only a sliver of the trust's activities, but have made the Getty the subject of front-page stories for the past three years. It led -- directly or indirectly -- to the departure of much of the institution's senior leadership, including its executive staff, chief spokeswoman, board chairman, leading donor, museum director and antiquities curator, among others.

Many of the Getty's administrative troubles have been tackled over the last year, but the lingering antiquities fight with Italy was, for some, like a finger jabbing into unhealed institutional wounds. The 40 antiquities were purchased for nearly $40 million over 30 years. No compensation will be given for their return.

Although the scandal's toll will be felt most heavily by the museum, the dispute with Italy over Getty antiquities was registered across the institution's various programs.

The Conservation Institute works more closely with Italian colleagues than with any others at the trust, Whalen said, and would have suffered greatly under the cultural embargo Italy's Ministry of Culture threatened repeatedly during negotiations.

Whalen said several of the institute's Italian partners said they received letters from the ministry raising a real concern that their joint conservation projects across Italy would be jeopardized by the dispute.

The Getty's agreement has also helped heal what Whalen called an "intellectual tension" between the museum's drive to acquire antiquities and the Conservation Institute's work to protect archeological sites from looting.

"That tension will now be in less sharp relief," Whalen said.

There was the sense that the dual scandals had begun to define the institution, at the expense of the important work done in the Getty's other programs, said Deborah Marrow, the director of the Getty's grant-making foundation who acted as temporary chief executive after Munitz's sudden departure.

Marrow said she had four key goals during her brief time running the Getty Trust: recruiting a new chief executive, cooperating with investigations by the Council on Foundations and the state attorney general, and settling the dispute with Italy.

"Antiquities was the final piece," Marrow said with some relief.

The art historian said she welcomed the opportunity to refocus on such things as the Getty's grant of more than $450,000 for the conservation of paintings in Rome's Santuario Scala Santa, which had been nearly obscured by time.

Michael Brand, who became museum director in January 2006 in the midst of the controversy, said the resolution would allow him to embark on new projects and entertain new possibilities.

"Should we collect more non-Western art? Should we collect more contemporary art?"

He added that he hoped the new agreement with Italy might allow the country to contribute to a planned show of the Italian sculptor, painter and architect Bernini a year from now.

Getty officials said they were eager to turn over a new leaf and fulfill the potential that the Getty's wealth and talent has long promised.

Francesco Rutelli, Italy's minister of culture, announced at a news conference in Rome on Thursday that he was dropping a civil case demanding the return of the 40 artifacts. Italy continues to negotiate with the Getty over three additional artifacts, he said.

Rutelli also said the agreement would benefit Marion True, the Getty's former antiquities curator, who is on trial in Rome, accused of trafficking in looted art.

The Getty's troubles have not seemed to affect its loyal patrons, who flocked to the Getty Villa on Thursday to begin saying goodbye to many of their favorite works.

Janice Levich of Woodland Hills brought her 13-year old grandson, Noah Ross, to see the objects she had admired for years.

The two had debated the Getty's decision to return the objects on the drive out.

"How would you feel if [the Italians] came and took American artifacts?" Levich said she asked her grandson.

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