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James N. Wood dies at 69; chief of J. Paul Getty Trust helped restore its reputation

Wood joined the Getty after revelations about questionable expenditures and controversies over antiquities. His mandate: Instill stability and restore the institution's credibility in the art world.

June 13, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

By 2009, the British archaeologist Colin Renfrew, a leading critic of museums harboring ancient works of questionable origin, praised the Getty as a model for others, based on policies it had adopted to ensure that it would forgo acquisitions whose provenance was in doubt.

But Wood's tenure became rocky. The Getty relies almost exclusively on its investment returns to fund operations, and the market meltdown in 2008-09 saw its endowment plummet 24%. Wood instituted severe staff reductions and executive pay cuts, saying that to do otherwise in a poor economy would put the Getty at risk of a "fall off a huge cliff."

He already had begun restructuring the Getty's spending priorities, and a dispute over who would control funds for art purchases was one source of friction between Wood and Brand, who resigned suddenly in January. Brand had been popular with museum staff, and some employees began venting their frustration on an anonymous blog. Some complained that Wood wasn't receptive enough to staff members' ideas — a notion he disputed.

In late April, Wood said the Getty's investments had bounced back enough to increase the trust's operating budget from $216 million to $245 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Wood said he was confident that a search for a new museum director that he launched in February would bring highly qualified candidates, despite the Getty's unusual setup that makes the museum director a subordinate of the trust president, rather than the top executive.

Siegel, the Getty Trust chairman, called Wood's unexpected death a double tragedy: the personal loss of a respected and accomplished human being, coupled with the institutional loss of a leader who, he said, had made great headway in unknotting a problem that had dogged the Getty since the 1980s: how to make the four branches, including the museum, function as a whole that is greater than the individual parts.

Siegel, an investment executive, said he had lunch with Wood in his office early last week and spoke with him by phone Thursday morning.

"We had a tremendously fun lunch together, and he seemed the picture of good health and happiness," Siegel said. "He was so comfortable in his own skin, that he was a person other people felt comfortable just being around."

In addition to his wife, Wood's survivors include daughters Lenke Moscarelli of Providence, R.I., and Rebecca Green of San Francisco, and three granddaughters. Services will be private.

Times staff writers Ruben Vives and David Ng contributed to this report.

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