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Getty CEO James Wood, 69, Dies: A Leader of Integrity and Fair-Mindedness

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James Wood, 69, the late president of the J. Paul Getty Trust

The best obit I could write for James Wood, the late president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles (formerly director of the Art Institute of Chicago and St. Louis Museum of Art), is something that I’ve already written—my Solid Wood profile that I produced on the occasion of his ascension to the Getty position.

Getty chairman Mark Siegel yesterday announced that Wood had died “suddenly of natural causes” at the age of 69. Mike Boehm of the LA Times quoted Getty spokesperson Ron Hartwig saying that Wood’s body was found late Friday at his home.

My brief 2006 profile of him included this tribute, which still stands:

He conceives his artworld role not so much as that of a brilliant
scholar, a high-profile spokesman or a social schmoozer, but as a public
servant in the best sense.

Without grabbing headlines, Wood has quietly sought to do the right
thing, through the conscientious exercise of his institution’s civic
responsibilities as a good local, national and world citizen. He
projects an unflashy but solid integrity and decency.

The Getty staff collectively issued a deep sigh of relief when it was announced four and a half years ago that Wood would be steadying the helm of the controversy-tossed Trust. Succeeding Barry Munitz, who resigned under pressure in February 2006, Wood brought a sense of probity and normalcy back to the beleaguered quadripartite institution’s operations and presided over improved relations with Italian cultural officials—now largely characterized by cooperation, rather than confrontation. He also led the Trust through a series of painful, sometimes controversial cuts that were prompted by the current recession.

Even on an issue about which I had recently disagreed with him—the Getty’s termination of updates to the Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA) that had been under the auspices of its Research Institute—Wood acted with due consideration, weighing support for this important scholars’ tool against what he considered to be the Trust’s more pressing priorities.

Here is an outtake from my last conversation with Jim—an Apr. 15 phone interview that I did for my Wall Street Journal article on the BHA. This excerpt (not in my article) is an example of his good-faith efforts to balance competing interests during a difficult time of fiscal austerity (and also of his willingness to explain himself to critics):

At the end of the day, everyone has the right to ask us, “Did we pick the right thing? Should we have done less school busing and kept BHA? Should we have reduced the size of the grant program for some of our initiatives?

They’re valid questions. We looked at all of that….If we said that BHA is sacrosanct—that [for example] we’re going after buildings and grounds for another cut—you would have seen it somewhere else. Maybe it would have affected the general public more than a group of scholars; We had to take that into account.

Taking everything about Jim Wood into account, I’d call him a consummate museum professional who made major contributions to the smooth functioning and high distinction of the cultural facilities he led. You could disagree with him (as I did), on some issues of style and substance, but you could never doubt his motives or his integrity: What he did was executed with the best interests of his institution at heart.

The Getty has now lost two class acts in rapid succession: In January, the Getty Museum’s director, Michael Brand, resigned amidst differences with Wood. With the untimely passing of the Trust’s CEO, the recent suggestion by LA Times art critic Christopher Knight—that the Getty rethink its problematic administrative structure—now becomes all the more timely.

an ArtsJournal blog