Getty Museum's philosophy questioned

Critics say rich facility skimps on acquisitions

December 12, 2004|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES - High in California's Santa Monica Mountains sits one of the world's most spectacular museums, a Shangri-La of art and contemporary architecture clad in blinding white travertine.

A 4 1/2 -minute tram ride to a hilltop is required to reach this awe-inspiring campus with a panorama - on a clear day - of four other mountain ranges, the Pacific Ocean and the expansive Los Angeles basin. Clouds over the sea hover at eye level.

The exterior grounds seem to rival the masterworks indoors by van Gogh and Cezanne, and that has been something of a problem for the top administrator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, an establishment whose largess touches art institutions all over the world.

Director Deborah Gribbon recently broke the hush that normally surrounds the internal politics of art connoisseurs and abruptly announced her resignation, citing "differences on a range of things" with her boss, Barry Munitz, president and chief executive officer of the $4.8 billion J. Paul Getty Trust that funds the museum.

Gribbon, who made more than $400,000 a year, was the latest in a spate of high-ranking officials to leave the museum, which critics note included her predecessor and two senior administrators in the past four years.

Her statement that "museums best serve the public by collecting, exhibiting and interpreting works of art of the highest quality" pricked up ears in the art world. It was widely viewed as a criticism that the Getty is not serious enough about acquiring masterpieces, despite its fabulous wealth left by its namesake patron after his death in 1976.

Gribbon's resignation touches on an ongoing struggle for museums: How should precious money be spent in an expensive enterprise - on art or on programs promoting the arts?

"That's a really critical question for a lot of museums right now," said Jacqueline Terrassa, interim director of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. "Many museums are in a sense taking a look at the resources that they have devoted to their collection. We have been so focused on programs and other activities. I have heard a number of museums say that we need to look at our collections because, at our core, that is what makes us a museum.

"Ultimately, we will strike a balance," said Terrassa, adding that the Smart Museum and university faculty work with the Getty. "For us it's been a process of reflection on what is at our core. It's very difficult."

Because art society often is regarded as an elite circle, spending on programs can help fulfill an artist's hope for the widest audience.

"Museums weren't created for everybody. They were created for an elite group," said Carlos Tortolero, president of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago. "It's only in recent times that museums were created to serve more people," especially with an emphasis on outreach programs.

In fact, the Getty is unlike almost all other museums: It is so rich, its staff is not burdened by annual fund raising.

After 20 years at the Getty, including four years as museum director, Gribbon sent a message throughout the art community that a museum cannot lose sight of its essential purpose - being a hall of wonderworks. Her surprise departure indicated that the Getty, sometimes derided for not aggressively acquiring the Old Masters, was devoting too much to scholarships, education and other programs.

But Munitz disputes that accusation, saying the Getty complex is more than just a museum on a summit. There also are institutes devoted to visual arts conservation, research and grant making.

"Somebody is missing the story. This is not about I'm not giving enough money to buy paintings," said Munitz, who was a vice president at the University of Illinois in the 1970s and later became chancellor of the California State University system. "I've been here seven years, and we've spent half a billion dollars on just objects for the collections. That's an enormous amount."

The Getty collection includes Vincent van Gogh's Irises, Claude Monet's The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light and Paul Cezanne's Young Italian Woman at a Table.

The critics, however, have been acerbic about the collection, conjuring images of yet another Los Angeles institution long on show but short on real art.

A Wall Street Journal arts writer noted in 2001: "The Getty is a huge museum that refuses to recognize that, at any given time, scores of its visitors are crowded in one room staring at Irises. Get the telegram: With a $4 billion-plus endowment, you're rich. Buy another van Gogh."

On the Getty Center's opening on the hilltop in 1997, a New York Times critic wrote of "understandable noises about the center's being an art theme park in travertine and glass looking down on the city."

Munitz calls such criticism unfair for a museum conceived in 1983 when the Getty Trust bought about 750 acres in the southern foothills of the Santa Monicas, above the din of Interstate Highway 405.

We're always an easy target," he said. "This is a very young institution."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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