Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For the Gates of art museums, 2006 was no fun at all

The J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles just had the kind of year that could cripple a smaller non-profit; as the richest art institution on the planet they certainly have the resources to stabilize things but do they have the will? They've hired a guy from my hometown of Chicago to take over the captain's chair and find out.

The Getty consists of two large museums and a large grantmaking foundation, all devoted to visual art; their endowment alone currently stands at about $6 billion and a lot of the artwork in those museums is literally priceless (never mind the prime real estate). Early in 2006 Barry Munitz resigned as head of all that, under a large public cloud of accusations about lavish personal spending of Getty funds, steering grants to friends, and excessive pay while ordering budget cuts. The apparent lack of effective governance had caused the Council on Foundations to take the highly-unusual (and highly public) step of suspending the Getty's membership, which they restored a couple months after Munitz was forced out and the Getty board adopted various internal reforms. Several other top Getty staffers also resigned during the first half of 2006.

Meanwhile the Getty is having all sorts of problems with the issue of looted antiquities, mainly from Italy and Greece. It's fairly clear that well into the 20th century a lot of sculpture from the ancient world was ending up in major museums via, let us say, 18th- or 19th-century methods.
After years of pressure, the Getty Museum during 2006 agreed to return four major pieces to Greece and in October 2006 agreed to return 26 pieces to Italy. The Italian government, though, isn't interested in settling for half a loaf and is prosecuting a former Getty curator in Rome for criminal theft of national treasures; some newspaper reports say that the Greek government is contemplating similar pressure. For the Italians the fate of two of the Getty's best-known items, the well-known ancient statue of Aphrodite and the so-called "Getty Bronze", have apparently become deal-breakers.

The current director of the Getty Museum, Michael Brand, has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal claiming that the Italian government has gone back on an agreement and now won't even talk to him. Whether his version of those events is right or not seems to miss the real point, which is that those nations and others are no longer willing to accept the status quo of priceless indigenous works of art being kept on display halfway around the world just because they were dug up when no one was looking. Perhaps at some point the Getty board will realize that these issues are not going away and will just keep damaging the institution's reputation, and that the Getty has the resources to rebuild from the loss of even content of that caliber.

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