The Getty: For Better and Worse

The Getty Villa

by Marion True and Jorge Silvetti, with an introduction by Salvatore Settis
J. Paul Getty Trust, 231 pp., $65.00; $39.95 (paper)

The catastrophes that have lately befallen the J. Paul Getty Trust—established by the eponymous oil tycoon in 1953 for “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge”—are of such magnitude that only classical mythology seems to offer archetypes equal to this present-day epic of hubris and retribution. Over the past two years, the J. Paul Getty Museum, which during the 1980s became the world’s most envied and profligate art institution, has seen a director, Deborah Gribbon, and its senior antiquities curator, Marion True, resign. The Getty Trust’s president since 1997, Barry Munitz, was compelled to quit in February, forgo his severance package of more than $2 million, and reimburse the trust for $250,000 after alleged improprieties including lavish expense account spending. Those and other irregularities prompted a United States senator to call for the revocation of the Getty’s tax-exempt status.

This summer, the board chairman of the Getty Trust stepped down, months before his term was due to end. In October, California’s attorney general ended a fourteen-month investigation of the Getty Trust and issued a report concluding that Munitz and his board had acted illegally. However, he decided not to pursue criminal or civil actions against them, and appointed an independent monitor to supervise the trust’s activities. Worst of all in the opinion of many museum professionals, the Getty’s longtime, highly respected curator of Greek and Roman art, Marion True, was indicted by the Italian government and charged with complicity in the trafficking of illegally excavated and exported antiquities.

No cultural institution in recent memory has suffered such a stunning reversal of fortune, which seemed more poignant during the muted inauguration festivities last January for its newly renovated $275 million classical art branch, the Getty Villa. The project’s official publication bears the bylines of True, who was absent from the opening while standing trial in Rome (part of sporadic proceedings that resumed in October), and the Boston-based architect Jorge Silvetti, who had the bad luck to see the finest work of his career overshadowed by events he had nothing to do with. Indeed, were it not for the comprehensive disasters confronting the Getty, this unanticipated architectural triumph would have been properly celebrated as a proud turning point in the institution’s checkered museological history.

The first incarnation of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which to comply with the new trust opened in 1954 in its namesake’s Spanish colonial house on a hilltop Malibu citrus ranch, was a transparent tax dodge, fulfilling the barest statutory requirements to maintain its charitable status. Public access to the Getty collection was limited to six hours per week and by appointment only. Persistent art lovers who made it through the gates in Malibu were in for a letdown. Getty never progressed beyond the conventional tycoon taste that during his young adulthood prevailed among rich Americans in thrall to the London art and antiques merchant Joseph Duveen. The cautious collector bought several pieces from Duveen …

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Letters

Half the Fun April 12, 2007