The Getty Evolves, 1976–1983

Curator Burton Fredericksen, about 1990.
Curator Burton Fredericksen, about 1990. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2009.IA.37)

J. Paul Getty's death in 1976 presented the Board with two immediate problems: Legal and tax issues related to the settlement of Getty's estate, which took several years to resolve. Then, as it became clear that these issues would be settled in favor of the Museum, the Board had to decide what the institution would do with the income produced by its new endowment.

The size of Getty's bequest posed an immediate challenge to the Board of Trustees and the staff. By law, the Trust was required to spend 4.25 percent of the average market value of its endowment per year. Because the Getty was an operating trust, these funds had to be spent primarily on the Getty's own programs. Increasing the endowment from $50 million to $700 million meant increasing expenditures from roughly $2 million to nearly $30 million in a very short time. The businessmen whom Getty had recruited to the Board of Trustees worried that such a sudden increase would lead to profligate spending.

Within days of the opening of the will, Getty staffers and Trustees began to imagine the future of the institution. By the spring of 1977, these conversations were reflected in memoranda developed for and by the Museum's Director Stephen Garrett.

A New Vision

Director Stephen Garrett, about 1984.
Director Stephen Garrett, about 1984. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (1986.IA.01)

Burton Fredericksen, curator of Painting, imagined a program separate from the Museum to be known as "the J. Paul Getty Institute for Art History." This new institute would invite art historians to study at the Getty and serve as guest faculty members at UCLA, USC or other Southern California institutions of higher education. (Read the memo.)

Garrett presented a draft plan to the Board of Trustees in June, 1977 that focused on acquisitions, scholars and "the creation of an art institute." Garrett underscored the importance of collaborating with other art museums and organizations in Southern California. He suggested expanding into other arenas of collecting, including old master drawings. He pointed out that to grow, the Getty would probably have to find a new site, but the Villa would be "best suited to the Antiquities collection." "Conservation is an area where I think we should make a major development," he told the Board and proposed new laboratories as well as teaching facilities to train conservators for the field. Garrett also noted that many other ideas had come in since Getty's bequest was announced: satellite programs in Minneapolis and England, a television series akin to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, a re-excavation of the Villa de Papiri, and the creation of a West Coast facility for the Archives of American Art.

Meanwhile, Board and staff discussed alliances with major art institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Trustee and Chief Curator Otto Wittmann, about 1984.
Trustee and Chief Curator Otto Wittmann, about 1984. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (1986.IA.01)

The Board sought outside advice as it wrestled with a vision for the future. Otto Wittmann, the former director of the Toledo Art Museum, became an advisor, chief curator and member of the Board. Wittmann modified and expanded the ideas put forward by the curators and staff. His plan called for an expanded conservation program, publications, grants to other institutions, and a research center and library for art historians and other scholars.

Throughout this period, the Board—made up of Getty's business associates and family members—struggled with a number of key issues. What would honor J. Paul Getty's interests and intentions? How should the Trust be organized to realize an expanded vision? What kind of expertise did the Trust need to implement a larger plan?