Art: New Getty CEO Shares His Vision

Plagued by scandal in recent years, the J. Paul Getty Trust is getting a much-needed infusion of new blood. The trial of former antiquities curator Marion True, for allegedly conspiring to deal in looted classical artifacts, drags on in Italy. Last February saw the departure of president Barry Munitz, and just last month negotiations broke off after Italian authorities rejected a Getty offer to return 26 artifacts (they want 40). Now trustees have announced they have picked veteran arts-museum director James Wood as new president and chief executive of America's wealthiest arts organization.

For Wood, 65, it means coming out of retirement; he stepped down in 2004 after 24 years as head of the Art Institute of Chicago. A respected museum director, he's expected to restore stability to the Getty Trust. Despite the continuing ferment, Wood believes that Getty officials have already made most of the fixes necessary to get beyond the scandals. Speaking from his home in Rhode Island by telephone with NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr, Wood stressed the importance of negotiating a settlement with Italy, following new stricter acquisition guidelines while still buying "aggressively" to expand the young museum's collections. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You will be first president of the Getty who has a long background in the arts. What do you see as the key elements of your vision for the museum and the trust?

James Wood: I'm not looking to make business decisions first. It's really starting with the impact of the works of art—through conservation, through research, through grants. We have these different areas, but no matter how much money you've got, it depends on focus whether you make good use of the money. My focus is really starting with the work of art itself.

With the management difficulty and the acquisitions problems, do you feel you'll need to bring in new people?

The first thing I have to do is sit down, listen and learn a lot. I am not up to speed on a number of these issues. I've followed it, as a number of people have, from the outside. I don't think there's a great need for new personnel. There are a number of new players [already]. The director of the museum, Michael Brand, has been there barely a year. He is excellent. The board, most of it, is very new … It is very committed to moving ahead, making changes that are needed. I don't think it's a matter of changing people. I think it's just a matter of getting down to work.

Last month, the Getty, through Brand, broke off negotiations with Italy—or negotiations ceased, depending which account you believe—over the question of what artifacts will be returned and whether the list was acceptable to both sides. Do you plan to direct that those negotiations start again?

First I need to get up to speed. Michael is the point person on that, and should be. I need to see what productive role I can play in it. I think I'm another set of eyes and experience. I am very eager to resolve this in a way that is fair, and that allows us to go ahead. There are so many cooperative ventures that we and the Italians want to take. Getting there may not be easy. But I'm confident.

Do you expect to see the issues resolved quickly?

That's probably being too optimistic. I don't see it going on forever. I don't think that's in anyone's best interests.

Will the Getty continue to support Marian True's defense?

I would certainly think so.

With regard to the acquisition of antiquities, what new rules govern acquisitions? Are the recent changes—requiring clear documentary proof that all artifacts brought into the United States after 1970 were imported legally—acceptable to you?

The new rules have already been put in place. The Getty has announced its new acquisition policy, using the UNESCO date of 1970. It's is certainly one of the strictest acquisition guidelines there is. I think it's appropriate for us to do that, and that's done. They have given it a lot of thought, though of course I wasn't involved. But it's in everyone's best interests for us to continue to collect and collect aggressively. But obviously, only in the context of the guidelines.

Speaking more broadly about acquisitions, I'm told the pace of the Getty's acquisitions has slowed in recent years. Do you expect to pick up the pace? If so, what areas do you expect to concentrate on?

It's a fair question. I can't give you a detailed answer. I can say that for any institution, particularly a young institution like the Getty, acquisition is the life's blood. It's a real priority. One of the advantages of a place like the Getty is that they can choose where they want to focus, where their means would make the greatest contribution to the collections. The trick for me is not numbers, but the level of quality.

Aside from the museum itself, where do you expect to have to focus at the trust?

Well, when you have a foundation to fund major scholarship, this is quite a different demand. Most museums aren't in a position to give money to others. This is a wonderful reversal—although I'm learning quickly that begging is difficult, but giving isn't so easy, either. The demand is to do it right, and that's a challenge. It's a good moment to step back and re-evaluate the entire organization.

People in Los Angeles talk a lot about whether or not the Getty is really integrated into the fabric of Los Angeles.

The first thing is for an outsider to come in and get your arms around the fabric of L.A., which is a very dynamic but totally different urban phenomenon. What it's making me appreciate is that to some degree the Getty isn't in the center, but there isn't a center. [In Chicago,] the Art Institute is where the lines cross at the heart of the urban core. L.A. is such a diffuse animal with its cultural parts spread all over the place. It seems to me that the responsibility of the Getty is to make sure you don't just stay on the mountaintop. Being on the mountaintop isn't so bad. It's a wonderful destination and people love it. But our responsibility is going beyond. It would be foolish and arrogant for me to say I have a plan all worked out. But there are plenty of possibilities.

Do you expect the programming to change?

If it's identical several years from now, that's a fault on all of our parts. In today's museum world, if you are not evolving, you have a problem. But I can't be specific.

What will you do in the couple of months before you start in February?

Well, I'm going to spend two weeks in India. It's a trip we've planned for years. But as Michael Brand's specialty is India and southeast Asia, it probably won't hurt to get a little caught up.