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Getty-Brand Face-Off: Ex-Director Gives Me His Side of the Story

Michael Brand, ex-director of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Michael Brand has now left the building and the Getty Museum is beset by yet another period of administrative instability. There has been no official explanation of why Brand threw in the towel, creating an informational vacuum inadequately filled by Jason Felch‘s analysis of the contretemps in the LA Times (which was entirely dependent on anonymous sources), and the Silence Dogetty blog, used by anonymous staffers to vent gripes about the administration. (See the 38 comments). In that blog’s online poll, some 56 of 58 respondents said “No” to the statement, “I approve of the leadership actions of Mr. James Wood [president of the Getty Trust].” (Their views on Michael Brand were not polled.)

Trying to put his post-Getty life in order without benefit of secretaries or assistants, Brand has now decided to break his silence in a CultureGrrl Q&A. He provides significant details about his dissatisfaction with the direction the Getty has been taking and candidly discusses some of his differences with Wood. He also told me that the decision to part company was his alone: There was “no precipitating event,” he said, and he was not asked to leave.

Here are his written answers to my written questions. Although he dodged my first query, he does get into substantive issues in subsequent responses:

Rosenbaum: Why did you decide to leave?

: I prefer to not go into details, but I think it is fair to say that the environment became untenable.

Rosenbaum: What were your professional differences with James Wood?

Brand: With respect to the art acquisition budget, the director of the Getty Museum needs to know what level of funding is available for art acquisitions in order to be able to plan ahead strategically. It is especially important in the case of major acquisitions to be able to establish priorities.

I felt the recent centralization of most art acquisition funds in the President’s office, where they can be used for several other different purposes as well, made such strategic planning much more difficult. The purposes for those funds are: “major” art acquisitions for the Getty Museum, “major” acquisitions for
the Getty Research Institute, “strategic initiatives” and, less
formally, contingency. The museum has retained a much smaller art
acquisition fund for purchases not deemed “major.”

The main difference in philosophy was in our approach to the budget cuts last spring, where, like the directors of many other major art museums, I decided to prioritize the retention of staff and their expertise when implementing the mandated 25% cut to the Getty Museum’s operating budget.

Another, more specific, example was my inability last year to introduce a student and teacher discount for our museum visitors after the Getty Trust raised the parking fee from $7 to $15.

Rosenbaum: What are the problems inherent in the Getty’s structure and how did those problems manifest themselves during your time there? How might this problem of structure be constructively addressed in the future?

Brand: The issues facing the next director of the Getty Museum have a history that began well before my tenure. Part of this is due to a unique structure that is unlike either the usual stand-alone museum model (where the museum director is the CEO and reports directly to a board of trustees) or the university model (where the art museum is usually one of the smaller units of a much larger group of faculties, schools and other related bodies). History shows that this has made the position of director of the Getty Museum an especially challenging one.

I believe that any constructive approach to resolving this situation would need to start by examining the intention of Mr. Getty’s original gift, to look at how and why the Getty expanded and contracted over the subsequent years, and then to continue with an analysis of how best the Getty might maximize its potential as a visual arts organization in the new economic environment. Finally, it should include a discussion of what support the Getty Museum needs in order to maintain its standing as a world leader among art museums and the public face of the Getty in Los Angeles.

Rosenbaum: Is it accurate, as Ron Hartwig [the Getty Trust’s vice president for communications] told me, that you have received no other benefit in connection with your departure other than the ones published in the “Compensation Disclosure” section of the Getty’s website (as well as pension payment)?

Brand: This is correct. I received no further benefits upon my resignation from the Getty beyond those stipulated in my contract, with the exception of some minor details such as keeping for the next year the notebook computer on which I have my research writing and images, and which is part of my office in the Museum Director’s Residence [which he can continue to occupy for a 10 months, under the severance provisions in his contract].

Rosenbaum: Are you already in talks with other future employers
in the museum field? And are you also investigating other fields (which
ones)? Are you hoping to direct another museum?

Brand: I
have already had some informal discussions about possible future
opportunities, not all of which are in the museum field, even though
directing another art museum is still my central focus.

Brand also told me that he did NOT renegotiate his severance package in anticipation of his departure, as I had previously (and erroneously) stated. The Getty’s website, which excerpts the severance provisions, had added more details about his contract (which had not changed) in its most recent compensation report (now updated to reflect his departure), compared to the 2008 report. This made it appear that the deal had changed, when, in fact, only the online description of it had.

My attempts to speak to James Wood about this contretemps, or at least about his vision for the Getty going forward, have thus far been unsuccessful.

In other Getty news, the Trust recently issued a stern rebuttal to this LA Times piece by Jason Felch, which now bears a correction. Felch had cited a “1976 letter in which one of J. Paul Getty‘s closest advisors refers to
the museum’s ‘exploits over the bronze statue’ as a “crime.'” He said that the letter had been “uncovered by a Times reporter” and was likely to be cited in closing arguments in a court case (decision now pending) in Italy regarding the ownership of the Getty Bronze.

The Getty Trust states that the “bronze statue” referred to in that letter was not the “Statue of a Victorious Youth” that is now the subject of legal proceedings in Italy.

This from the statement sent to the Getty’s staff:

It would be a tragedy
for the Getty, and LA residents who have come to love the “Statue of a
Victorious Youth,” if incorrect information contained in a Times story,
available to the prosecution in Italy at a critical moment, played a
role in a verdict against the Getty.

And in another Getty development, the museum, under the interim directorship of David Bomford, former associate director for collections, recently announced Brand’s last major acquisitions coup—the $4.56-million purchase on Jan. 27 at Christie’s, New York, of Boilly‘s “The Entrance to the Turkish Garden Café,” 1812:


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