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A Trouble With Museum Boards

When I started writing that headline, above, I wrote “the” trouble with… But I quickly corrected myself because, as financial and other troubles have plagued many art museums of late (not least the Metropolitan Museum of Art*), it’s very clear that many museum boards have more than one fault.

But a press release today from the J. Paul Getty Trust irked me; it announced: Bruce W. Dunlevie joins J. Paul Getty Board of Trustees. I kept reading, looking for the word “art.” As in, perhaps, art collector. The word was nowhere to be seen. Nor did a Google search of his name + art produce anything in the top couple of pages. Previous board service does not appear to include any at arts institutions.

I know–the Getty is more than an art museum. Yet its mission statement uses this description: “a cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy.” But I could find no trace of Dunlevie’s interest in art online. I hope he has one.

I did find that he has plenty of money. As the press release says:

…Dunlevie has worked in the early stage technology venture capital industry for 30 years and is a founder and General Partner of Benchmark Capital, based in Silicon Valley. Benchmark is responsible for the early stage funding of numerous successful startups including ebay, Twitter, Uber, Snapchat, WeWork and Instagram.

Prior to co-founding Benchmark Capital, Mr. Dunlevie worked in investment banking at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Mr. Dunlevie is currently the Chairman of the Board of the Stanford Management Company, the entity which oversees The Stanford University Endowment. He is a former trustee of Stanford University (serving from 2006 to 2016) and of his alma mater, Rice University. He is also a Fellow Benefactor of Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

A quick search did not turn up his net worth, but he was on Forbes’s 2014 Midas List, which annually ranks “the best dealmakers in high-tech and life science venture capital.”

I am sure that Dunlevie has many attributes, aside from financial wherewithal. And perhaps because Getty Trust President James Cuno has an interest in how digital technology can advance the arts and art history, Dunlevie can help out there.

But I would like to see a stronger connection between museum trustees and art; too many nowadays are not looking for collectors or people with other artistic connections. Non-profits and for-profits share some organizational characteristics, of course. But they have different missions with different expectations, different circumstances and different dynamics.

Photo Credit: 2006 photo courtesy of Stanford University

*I consult to a foundation that supports the Met.



  1. Christopher Crosman says

    Having spent most of my life working with Boards of Trustees, I do not entirely agree that they should have an extensive portfolio of art collecting and prior formal experience on other art related boards. They simple need to have a serious interest in and appreciation for art and a willingness to learn. In my experience the latter is crucial. Indeed, high level collecting in an area where the museum is also actively collecting can present numerous conflicts of interest. And while museums often court collectors with hope that the collector’s own collection will one day become part of the institution’s collection, having someone smart enough (and rich enough) to identify start-ups like Uber, Twitter and Snapshot, is obviously someone who can perform multiple useful functions on a museum board–including in Mr. Dunlevie’s case, managing a large and complex endowments including that of the Getty, one of the largest non-profit endowments in the world.

    • Once again, you are objecting to something I did not say. Nowhere in my post is the word “extensive” adjacent to the word “art.” I simply said “perhaps a collector” and later said that a quick search about him revealed no interest in art.

      • Christopher Crosman says

        I’m pretty sure a “quick search” of any individual would yield pretty much nothing. I am objecting to a narrow view of museum trusteeship. There are many ways a Board Member without prior art knowledge or experience can be helpful to a museum. It certainly is helpful if Board members understand their role within the context of an art museum and, clearly, should have an interest in art and/or curiosity about same. In the case of Mr. Dunlevie, his impressive accomplishments seem tailor made for a large and complex institution with a singularly huge endowment like the Getty.

        • A “quick search” yields plenty, and I do not have a narrow view of museum trusteeship. I do not know how you could possibly conclude that from what I have written.

          • Christopher Crosman says

            Okay, your views are, of course, your own and I simply disagree in this instance about this individual. My only real quibble with you is that museum trustees fill an important fiduciary responsibility beyond simply making financial (or art) donations. In a major institution like the Getty, they need sophisticated financial managers in terms of oversight and it is extremely helpful if they are savvy about endowment investment strategies. No cowboys need apply! Dunleavie, based on your “quick search” clearly fulfills these fiscal criteria although such a search in the absence of direct queries might not reveal his enthusiasm for the Getty and its broader educational mission, if not in a particular area of the collection. I’ve dealt with all kinds of trustees and it is often those with obsessive art interests, and an inability to separate their passions from the best interests of the museum who can be the most difficult to “manage.” Give me a brilliant finance person any day.

          • I don’t think you need to disagree at all. Just because I mention one criterion does mean that I am unaware of another criterion for board membership. An interest in art and knowledge of finance, or tecchnology, for that matter, are not mutually exclusive. As they seek new members, a board like the Getty’s should seek both. Not one or the other. And I am well aware of the duties of boards of directors, having been–as my bio describes–a business reporter for even more years than I have been a culture writer. Corporate governance was a specialty of mine.

            BTW, even a quick search of me would have turned that up.

  2. David Allan says

    Indeed, evidence of some serious interest in art generally, if not specifically would be helpful…

  3. One of the things we require of all trustee candidates is that they create a short (2-3 sentence) paragraph that articulates why they are interested in serving on our Arts Council board. It seems like the minimum that should be required of an organization like the Getty or the Met. It would serve as a ready “go to” quote for releases like this as well. But Ms. Dobrzynski’s point is well taken…

  4. As an artist and as a former art curator, I have found that Trustees tend to come from an executive class which allows them to make all the big decisions, including how to run a museum. Even if they don’t know doodly-squat about art or education or conservation or curating, or how art collections fit into the life of their communities.

    We have a situation in my hometown of a Board Chairman who thinks he can run a museum without a Director. It means the only Curator has to curate and run the everyday operations of the Museum. The former Director (a woman) “resigned” following a controversial exhibition. No search is on for a replacement.

    Such a situation means that there can be no long term planning for exhibitions, mission objectives, etc. And, a no-nothing is in charge of something he knows nothing about; something his ego will not acknowledge.

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