January 21, 2019

Finders Keepers?

It’s definitely tsuris time at the pristine white acropolis complex of the Getty, which overlooks the San Diego Freeway, and at its wonderful, freshly renovated, fake Pompeian villa up the Pacific Coast Highway. Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust’s president and CEO since 1998, has been battered with press reports about apparently uncontrolled and self-indulgent personal expense-account spending of the kind that we have learned to associate with corporate malfeasance. The Getty’s vast assets may result from spectacular corporate earnings, but a trust is responsible to the public — to us! — not to stockholders. Insider staff dissatisfaction became most evident last fall, with the sudden resignation of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribben.

Last week’s overdue resignation of Getty trustee and major antiquities donor Barbara Fleischman appears to be an attempt to resolve conflict-of-interest charges, which earlier forced the resignation of Marion True, the Getty’s prominent curator for antiquities. True is currently being tried by Italian authorities, who claim that she was involved in the Getty’s acquisition of allegedly stolen archaeological material. (Her defenders argue that True was actually responsible for the museum’s adopting stricter policies to determine the legality of its acquisition of ancient art.) Meanwhile, the Getty trustees have been attacked for inadequate fiduciary oversight, while simultaneously creating an investigative committee to see whether anything wrong has happened in either the Trust’s or the museum’s actions.

Problems like the Getty’s grab headlines because the countries from which the antiquities came — Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico among them — are no longer shy in their very public demands for restitution. In response, our own sense of righteous indignation moves in one of two directions: outrage that a museum is holding objects that are alleged to have been stolen and/or outrage that a museum — society’s safe-haven for precious things — is being asked to return objects to people who didn’t know how to take care of them properly. (Hey, otherwise how would they have gotten out in the first place?) This problem of objects claimed by previous owners or countries of origin faces all museums with historical holdings like a looming epidemic, a sort of Asian bird flu of the arts: There are a few isolated cases so far, but the fear of contagion could spread panic.

The Getty’s initial opaque response to such external pressures seems to be typical of many of our most valued public institutions, although it’s just possible that the Getty’s stunning arrogance is exceptional, even in the uppity world of museums. The Getty’s very spot, at the top of mountains in Pacific Palisades and in Brentwood, is symbolic of the institution. Is there, in these locations, an innate sense of not belonging to all those freeway backups down below that is emblematic of the distance between the Getty and the necessary demands of the real world? And is this what we see in many of our museums — that is, while providing one kind of access (educational programs, audio guides, etc.), they are nevertheless making sure that there is a wall keeping the public from knowing anything about how the place is run, the role of the trustees, and whether there are questions surrounding how the collections got there?

In light of this, I’ve been remembering my own professional museum experiences, and how I functioned in my role as a public servant — for that’s what museum workers are. On an organization chart, I reported directly to the trustees, but I always knew that my real bosses were the museum visitors, or even the potential visitors I had yet to lure in. Guiding midsized museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and later the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, placed me in highly visible positions, but it never occurred to me that I needed an unlisted telephone number or other means to keep the public from my door. Even while working at the Smithsonian as assistant secretary for museums, with oversight responsibility for 15 of our national museums, I felt that anyone ought to have access to me, whether in my office or at home and, frankly, it never was a problem. Despite its size and wealth, the Getty management’s secrecy and absence of candor is not acceptable for an institution that is meant to serve as a public trust.

The criticism, nevertheless, is worth reviewing as well. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted expressing his concern “that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ than doing its job of protecting Getty’s assets for charitable purposes.” But then, the Senate is not exactly our first stop when seeking probity these days. And even though the Council on Foundations recently placed the Getty Trust on probation, that doesn’t give us license to rush to judgment.

Here are some Jewish ethical questions we might ask prior to a Getty visit: