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Getty chairman says it's a time to mourn James Wood; leadership void can wait

June 12, 2010 |  8:04 pm

Jameswood With the sudden death of J. Paul Getty Trust President James Wood on Friday at age 69, the top two positions at the world's largest visual art institution now stand vacant.

In February, Wood had launched a search to find a new director for the Getty Museum, after the January resignation of Michael Brand, who had clashed with Wood about management issues such as control over art acquisition funds.

And now Wood too is gone, found dead late Friday at his Brentwood home -- a shocking development since he seemed to be in good health.

The leadership void "is a question we'll get to," Mark S. Siegel, elected last weekend as the new chairman of the Getty Trust's board, said Saturday. "What we need to do next takes a back seat today to respect for Jim and reaching out to his family,"

Siegel, a Los Angeles investment executive who joined the board in November 2005 in the waning days of Barry Munitz's tenure before Munitz resigned under fire the following February, credits Wood with having largely untangled the decades-old Gordian knot of Getty governance: how to make its four separate divisions -- the museum, a grant-making program and institutes for art scholarship and art conservation -- function as a whole that's more than the sum of their separate parts.

While some consider the setup inherently unworkable, Siegel said there was a sense at the Getty's top level that the independent divisions had begun functioning properly as a collective. "It was the first time in which they really solidified," he said. "Jim was the kind of person who could get the best out of other people. Collegiality is his earmark."

Wood's achievements, Siegel said, include his hiring of strong executives including Thomas Gaehtgens, head of the Getty Research Institute, and Patricia Woodworth, the Trust's chief financial officer. For the public, the chairman said, the fruits of Wood's three-plus years in charge of the Getty should be most evident in 2011, when "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980" opens. It's an unprecedented collaboration among museums from San Diego to Santa Barbara that will mount exhibitions illuminating the years in which Southern California became a leading force in contemporary art. The Getty has spearheaded the project, fueling it with nearly $7 million in grants.

"It was developed with all the elements of the Getty working together. It's a classic example of what Jim could do," Siegel said. "I'll be sad that it's not something he will have been able to see."

JamesCuno Praise for Wood also came Saturday from James Cuno (pictured at right), his successor as director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Cuno said  Wood had accomplished one major expansion project, the 1988 Rice Building that houses the Art Institute's holdings in pre-World War II American art, and was well underway with the design work and fundraising for an even bigger one, a new, $390-million wing designed by Renzo Piano that opened in 2009.

Wood easily could have stayed through its opening and reaped the glory, Cuno said, but he stepped down in 2004 because "he wanted his successor to have a stake in the project. What's inspiring is that he left a far stronger museum than he inherited, and he left it willingly so his successor would have an investment in it."

Cuno had been at Harvard before taking over from Wood in Chicago, but got to know him well during a series of thrice-yearly Harvard seminars for museum directors that they organized together for five years starting in the late 1990s.

He said that Wood didn't intend to retire, but was waiting for another big challenge to come along -- and it proved to be the Getty.

For the Times' obituary of James Wood, click here.

-- Mike Boehm


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Photos: Top, James N. Wood. Below, James Cuno. Credits: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times (Wood); M. Spencer Green/Associated Press.