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Critic's notebook: By not combining top trust and museum jobs, the Getty board ignores its donor's intent

The trust president and museum director have a history of clashes that have prevented the museum from becoming what J. Paul Getty envisioned.

May 14, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Getty president James Cuno.
Getty president James Cuno. (M. Spencer Green / AP )

Donor intent is the philanthropic doctrine that says the explicit intentions of a donor should be honored in the expenditure of his bequest. At the Getty Trust, donor intent has been thrown under the bus. The late J. Paul Getty never envisioned what the Getty Trust has become.

The Getty Trust's board of trustees announced Monday that James Cuno has been appointed president and chief executive of what is now routinely called the nation's wealthiest art institution. He starts work Aug.1.

But another declaration was also made: The search for a director of the Getty's museum, suspended 10 months ago after the unexpected death of trust president James Wood, will resume under Cuno's leadership.

In short, the two jobs of trust president and museum director will not be folded into one. The museum is the largest of four trust programs, the others being a fine research institute, respected international art conservation program and ambitious grants foundation. But like them, the museum will remain a subsidiary of the trust.

That isn't what J. Paul Getty had in mind when he bequeathed his huge estate to the museum. And when the oilman established his nonprofit California trust in late 1953, his aim of creating an art museum was explicit.

"[The] founder desires and purposes to found, maintain and perpetuate … a museum, gallery of art and library," the document said. "The object and purposes of The J. Paul Getty Museum shall be the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge."

After Getty's 1976 death, that intent became elastic. In many respects, it had to. Nonprofit law requires an average annual expenditure of certain percentages of endowment income, and Getty had left so much money to his museum that it simply couldn't spend it all.

So, the donor's aim of a "diffusion of artistic and general knowledge" was unhinged from his museum and yoked to an umbrella trust instead. Getty's museum became one among several programs the trust now administers. Originally the museum and trust were synonymous, but now the trust is preeminent.

The change was duly approved by the Superior Court of California. Four times between 1980 and 2004, the Getty Trust petitioned for alterations to its charter — sometimes for matters as small as allowing the original, Malibu-adjacent museum to be formally renamed the Getty Villa. (The original 1953 document required that it be known as the J. Paul Getty Museum.) Other modifications were bigger.

Most dramatically, the 1980 petition determined that Getty trustees were not restricted to "expending funds solely on facilities operated by and activities sponsored by the Museum." Directors hired to lead other programs, aside from the museum that the donor thought he was funding, were also allowed.

As I say, the changes were necessary because of the sudden, staggering wealth coming from the imminent settlement of Getty's estate. Courts provide a mechanism for established trusts to be modified based on "changed circumstances" — and that financial change was a big one.

Now, it is an old one — and long out of date. Circumstances have changed again, as budget cuts in recent years to the vastly enlarged Getty operation attest. The trust could use those changed circumstances to bring the place back in line with the donor's original intent, making the museum first among equals. With the stroke of a pen the research and conservation institutes and the grant program could easily be put under the museum's jurisdiction, and the jobs of trust president and museum director combined.

But that's not on the table.

Why not? One explanation comes from the makeup of the trust's board. It's heavy on corporate executives and college administrators, light on scholars and absent a single artist.

Museums elsewhere have been profoundly affected by the relatively recent preponderance of corporate boardroom leadership. Meanwhile, in the last decade many of the most prominent court challenges around donor intent have involved schools.

Donor intent has been in the spotlight often, thanks to thorny lawsuits challenging the use of bequests at Princeton, Tulane, Fisk and Vanderbilt universities. Donors to the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University went to court to block the liquidation of parts of its valuable painting collection to raise money to bolster the school's endowment.

Perhaps the noisiest controversy over a specific art bequest has been unfolding in Pennsylvania, where the Barnes Foundation is dismantling the unique Post-Impressionist, early Modern, African and other art collections at the suburban school carefully conceived by donor Albert C. Barnes. They will move to a tourist-oriented museum being built a few miles away in downtown Philadelphia.

The Getty is a different, much quieter situation — a kind of slow-motion version of the Barnes' reconfiguration of donor intent, without the nefarious shenanigans that garnered gruesome headlines for Philadelphia's art and philanthropy elite.

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