The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been engulfed in controversy over disputed art works, but the new head of the Getty Trust, which oversees the museum, says the institution is moving beyond the disputes and regaining its focus. In Los Angeles, Mike O'Sullivan spoke with Getty Trust president and chief executive James Wood.
With its huge endowment from the estate of the late oilman J. Paul Getty, the Getty Trust oversees a museum, housed at two scenic Los Angeles locations, as well as institutes devoted to art research and conservation, and a philanthropic foundation that promotes and preserves the world's artistic heritage.
However, a torrent of bad publicity followed the 2005 indictment in Italy of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True. She was charged with trafficking in stolen art works. Then another controversy swirled around the former head of the Getty Trust, whom critics accused of enjoying a lavish lifestyle at the Getty's expense.
The Getty Trust's newly appointed president and chief executive, James Wood, comes to Los Angeles with 25 years of experience at the respected Art Institute of Chicago. He says it was frustrating and painful to watch developments unfolding at the Getty.
"The Getty had challenges, so it wasn't a matter of second guessing, but I think it was a pained feeling that with the resources, that with the extraordinary staff, with the broad reach, it had lost its way," said James Wood.
Wood says, as new head of the Getty Trust, his job is to restore the institution's focus.
The Getty has been involved in discussions with both Italy and Greece over contested art works. Getty officials have returned four disputed items to Greece, including a rare funerary wreath. They have also agreed with Italian authorities to return 26 items. Italy wants 46 returned, but Wood says the Getty has clear title to a number of them. Talks between the Getty and Italian officials have stalled.
"Just because something is asked to be returned does not mean that it should go back, legally, or perhaps for the best interests of the broadest number of people who have the chance to be exposed to those works of art," he said."So this is a complex field, as it should be."
He says the museum now has a strict acquisitions policy in place, and that in the art world, there will always be some disputes over ownership.
Wood addressed a civic group called Town Hall Los Angeles, and before the meeting, he spoke with VOA. He says the Getty is firmly rooted in Los Angeles. Wood says the West Coast city has become an art center, but that its treasures are dispersed across a sprawling metropolis.
The Getty's antiquities collection is housed in a seaside villa, while the hilltop Getty Center contains photographs, manuscripts, and European art. Separate museums in the region have collections of modern, Asian and Latin American art. Wood says a visitor to Los Angeles has a different experience from a visitor to New York, who may go to Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its comprehensive collections.
"In the Met, you come through the front door and you may go to the right or the left and choose Egypt or Greece or up to European paintings," said James Wood. "Here, you get in your car and you may go to three different institutions, but the experience can be extraordinary. You just have to plan your time a little differently. But I realize this is a very LA way of doing things."
He says Los Angeles museums face the challenge of coordinating their efforts to make their art works more accessible to the public.
He adds that the Getty plans to keep collecting the world's best art, and intends to follow strict procedures to ensure it is acquiring it legally.