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Getty boss makes a case for keeping Trust management structure as is

April 29, 2010 |  3:04 pm

James Wood, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, sent an e-mail to the Getty staff earlier this week, defending the management structure of the institution after a commentary in the Los Angeles Times recommended abolishing the job of Trust president.

Wood (pictured above) sent the in-house message, which was obtained by The Times, in response to art critic Christopher Knight's argument that the Getty won't function properly as long as its setup calls for trying to make four separate parts work as a unit.

Knight said it's time to dismantle that structure, which has prevailed, often uneasily, since the 1980s. At the Getty, the museum director is not the top boss, as is the case almost everywhere else except for most university and municipal art museums. Instead, the museum director has a higher-up: the trust's president. The museum director is on more or less equal footing with the directors of three other operations -- the Getty Foundation (for grantmaking), the Getty Research Institute (for art scholarship) and the Getty Conservation Institute (for protecting and repairing works not only in its own collection, but in projects worldwide).

Knight wrote that given the history of conflict between the Getty's presidents and museum directors, which culminated in the sudden resignations of the last two museum directors, it's time to let the museum director run the whole show. Make the change now, he urged, before continuing the search for a new museum director to replace Michael Brand, who resigned in January.

Wood's response to the Getty staff is printed at the end of this post.

Interviewed on Wednesday, Wood said he is not concerned that well-qualified candidates for museum director might be deterred by a history of two resignations from that job in little more than five years, or by the fact that the director is under the trust president. "I'm sure you could find people out there who would say, legitimately, that they'd rather be in a position that doesn't have that reporting structure," Wood said. "I don't anticipate that being a problem in getting the best candidate for the job." He said the search began in February, and that its time frame is open-ended.

MichaelBrandMelMelcon Insiders told The Times after Brand resigned that, among other things, Wood and Brand had clashed over how much the museum could draw from a major acquisitions and strategic initiatives fund that Wood had created in 2008, largely using money saved by streamlining support operations such as security, maintenance and information technology. In his memo to the Getty staff on Tuesday, Wood said museum acquisitions had accounted for $16.9 million of the $19.1 million spent from the fund so far.

The purse strings figure to be loosening at the Getty soon, after a year that saw its budget shrink 24%, from $284 million to $216 million. Wood said he will propose a $245-million budget for the year beginning July 1, with the Getty's board expected to act at its meeting in June.

Unlike virtually all other American arts institutions, which count heavily on donations to meet their expenses, the Getty draws almost exclusively on earnings from the hefty endowment that oil baron J. Paul Getty created as a bequest. Wood said the policy is to use 5% of its investments' value to fund annual operations. By early last year, as stocks continued to slide, the endowment had shrunk to $4.2 billion from a 2007 high of $6.4 billion. But by the end of 2009 the markets' recovery had lifted the endowment close to $5 billion, making possible the anticipated 13.4% budget increase for 2010-11.

-- Mike Boehm


James Wood's memo:

Getty Staff:

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight expressed his views about the Getty's structure in the context of the search now underway for the director of the Getty Museum in an article that appeared online and in print in the Sunday paper (,0,1379932,full.story).  Mr. Knight has written before about his belief that the Getty's programs should be consolidated as part of the Museum, with the Getty CEO's position eliminated.  I respect Mr. Knight, but I do not agree with his analysis.

As I have learned since arriving in the spring of 2007, the J. Paul Getty Trust is a unique organization.  It is responsible for ensuring that the endowment is managed in a way that assures revenue for the Getty's current and long-term financial needs.  It operates two major campuses, the Getty Center and Getty Villa, has an annual operating budget which in FY11 will be $245 million, employs nearly 1,400 people, and includes four operating programs: the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Foundation. 

The president and CEO of the Getty Trust, with the input and guidance of the Getty's Trustees, is responsible for establishing its overall direction and ensuring that everything the Getty does advances its mission. This is achieved by working collaboratively with the Getty's senior management, at the core of which are the directors of the Getty's four programs.  Sometimes there are differences of opinion within the group. The CEO's responsibility is to manage those differences of opinion. The process is essential and healthy for an organization as ambitious and complex as ours.

Contrary to Mr. Knight's perception that the CEO holds all the cards, the directors of the Getty's four programs have both the responsibility and authority to operate their respective units.  And it should be noted that the program directors attend and participate in all Board meetings including those where the Trustees are presented with and approve the annual budget. The Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, for example, establishes the Museum's priorities; decides how to spend the Museum's budget, including staffing decisions; and makes decisions on acquisitions. The Trustees have established approval levels for acquisitions that apply both to the Museum director and the Trust CEO, which is prudent governance policy. It should also be recognized that in today's museum world the collections we need to build will be increasingly dependent on gifts as well as purchases and that the Museum's sister programs provide a compelling argument that the Getty can provide a level of research, conservation, and physical facilities unmatched by our competitors.

Much has been made of the question of our acquisitions budgets and how they affect the Museum Director's authority. Central to the strategic plan developed in my first year was the recognition that our operating budget was not aligned with our newly defined strategic goals which stressed the need for more funds for major acquisitions and strategic initiatives. A new fund was created, dedicated to these two priorities. It was achieved through substantial reductions in the budgets of the support departments reporting to my office and the size of the Foundation.

A comparison of the FY07 budget to the budget proposed for FY11 shows an 11% increase in the combined four programs' budgets and a 15% decrease in the Trust's support budgets, a shift that was difficult, but essential to the fulfillment of our mission, and which clearly benefitted the Museum. This is underlined by the fact that from its inception the Major Acquisitions and Strategic Initiatives Fund has provided $1.5 million for an initiative in the GCI, $728,000 for acquisitions in the GRI, and $16,862,000 for acquisitions by the Museum.

Mr. Knight has called for the Trust CEO's position to be eliminated, and for the other three Getty programs to be consolidated under the leadership of the Museum director. I believe that would be short-sighted.  Each of the Getty's programs has unique responsibilities to support the visual arts locally and internationally.  Frequently all four programs work collaboratively on a project, but often what the others do goes well beyond the Museum's responsibilities.  Given the Getty's overall mission, this healthy tension between the Museum's priorities and those of the other three programs is an asset, stimulating new thinking and creativity that would be less likely to occur if all the Getty's activities were consolidated under the Museum director. 

Mr. Knight seems to believe that the Getty is remote from involvement in Los Angeles because it has engaged in far-flung initiatives while not investing in the growth of the Museum's permanent collection.  To the contrary, the Getty is deeply involved in Los Angeles, even as it supports the arts internationally.  In fact, given the Getty's financial resources and the expertise of its programs, we believe the Getty has a particular obligation to serve our community and to encourage collaboration between Los Angeles' many visual arts institutions.  On average over 80% of our annual budget is spent in Los Angeles. The major project entitled "Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980" underlines that point.  This unprecedented series of exhibitions that will occur at over 40 museums in Southern California and featuring the work of Los Angeles artists in the post World War II period will open in the fall of 2011.  A project of this magnitude, led jointly by the Getty Foundation and Getty Research Institute, with participation by the Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute, and made possible by over $10 million in funding by the Foundation, is a unique undertaking that I believe makes a contribution as important to Los Angeles as the parallel growth of our permanent collections. Surely the Getty can and should do both.

Yes, the Getty could contract to a more traditional museum structure. However, would that meet the unique challenge and opportunity presented by J. Paul Getty's extraordinary bequest and satisfy the ambition that has built our four core programs and their unsurpassed professional staffs?  I have no doubt that the correct answer to this fundamental question is no.




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Photos: James Wood (top); Michael Brand. Credits: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times; Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times (Brand).