Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Barry Munitz received a bachelor's degree in classics and comparative literature from Brooklyn College before going on to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. from Princeton University.
He began his academic career in 1966 at the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor in the dramatic arts and literature department. From 1968 to 1970, he served under former University of California president Clark Kerr at the Carnegie Foundation Commission on Higher Education. In 1970, Dr. Munitz accepted a position at the University of Illinois, where he served for six years, first as associate provost and later as academic vice president. He became vice president and dean of faculties at the University of Houston-Central Campus in 1976 and was made chancellor of that university in 1977.
Dr. Munitz gained experience in the business world when he left the university in 1982 to become a senior executive at MAXXAM Inc., in Houston. He remained there until he was appointed chancellor of the California State University system in 1991. In January 1998 he succeeded Harold M. Williams as president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
He spoke with Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: You started off as a literature professor. Is there some connection between the young professor of literature at U.C. Berkeley 32 years ago and what you're doing today?
Barry Munitz: I think there's a connection, both for me and for the Getty board of trustees. I think the board wanted someone who had a humanities background but wasn't grounded in a particular genre of the visual arts.
I wasn't someone who was going to look over the museum director's shoulder thinking I could do John Walsh's job as well as, if not better than, John—which is, happily, out of the question. On the other hand, I have an understanding of the humanistic values and traditions that we are focusing on in this setting.
I went into literature because as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I thought that it had to be the greatest job in the universe to get paid to read and have other people have to sit and listen to you talk about what you read. It still seems to me the greatest assignment in the world. Coming to the Getty was a chance to get grounded again in the substance of what we do, instead of being eight levels removed from a classroom or a laboratory or a recital stage. The common threads are the values—the role the humanities and the arts can play in society. And the long-term commitment that any cultured community has to make to the arts.
What role do the arts have in society? How integral are they?
When you get past the food, clothing, and shelter stages, which are obviously critical, you can't have a full-blown, sophisticated, thoughtful, caring social community absent a humanistic tradition that includes the arts. That's the difference between a core society and a fully flowered social community. When the arts go, you lose the texture, as we are losing it now in our public schools because we're losing the arts. Art adds perspective, setting, comparison, and insight.
You're suggesting that the arts—and the understanding they give us of people—in and of themselves strengthen community . . .
I'd be hard pressed to think of a single more effective adhesive than that.
You've spent much of your life in education, and you clearly envision education as fundamental to the Getty. What are the connections between your background and what you want to do here?
Well, first it's this common denominator of reaching out to improve people's lives. I loved being at the California State University because it was the institution of opportunity, of socioeconomic mobility, of a second chance for people who didn't automatically have everything breaking for them from the day they were born.
Which you probably related to personally . . .
Well, in my life it was Brooklyn College. It was the only chance that I had. Similarly, that's why I was at the University of Houston instead of Rice, and at California State University instead of Stanford, and at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle instead of Urbana-Champaign. There was that common theme. Education is a very big instrument in the toolbox to improve people's lives.
For me, education at the Getty is not solely the Education Institute—it's the Education Institute and the joint conservation master's degree with UCLA and the Information Institute digitizing academic research libraries and the Grant Program supporting scholars, and the Research Institute supporting conferences and visiting scholars, and the education division of the museum. It's everyplace. Perhaps in some ways the Getty is just as much an educational institution as it is an arts organization.
One of your objectives is to create a greater sense of unity within the Trust. What do you see for the Getty for the next five years? What do you see as its mission?
I take the more collective, woven-together, synthesized Getty as the basic assumption. That is, whatever we do, we will examine how it can include many of our components. We're not all going to do every piece of it, but the basic, underlying ethos is going to have to be delivered by a woven-together, collaborative Getty.
Having said that, what makes us unique? We had a July board retreat where we talked about some of these things, and I left the meeting asking myself that question. At this point, the only thing I'm comfortable saying—and I've never really said this publicly—is that there is no other place in the world with this magnetic, seductive, physical site, this world-class, carefully focused museum, this superb little university, and a philanthropic foundation.
So, if what makes us genuinely unique is the combination, then synthesis and integration become all the more crucial. We're a museum, a cultural institution, and a philanthropic foundation devoted to acquisition and exhibition, to conservation and teaching, and to learning about the visual arts as they strengthen the humanistic tradition and humanistic values.
Well, how do we define visual arts, because that's a question that gets raised as well?
I'm not so much interested in drawing the line as I am trying to work where the edges seem fairly clear. For example, we can help other arts organizations, but I'm less inclined to say we'll contribute money to Disney Hall [the new concert hall for Los Angeles]. It's not so important to me that there's an exact line. Opera, for example, often breaks all the barriers. The heart and soul of the opera is music, but when Cocteau, Picasso, and Hockney paint screens and curtains for the opera, or for the ballet, it includes the visual arts.
So I think it's a waste of time to try for too precise a definition. My concern is focus. The Conservation Institute is a perfect example. If there are 50 different projects that the GCI could do related to the conservation of cultural heritage, we should stay close to some sense of core in the choices.
My view of defining the Getty mission is that I'm a lot less interested in what finally happens than that everybody is sitting around and arguing about it. The great thing about the in-house program reviews we've conducted is that very thoughtful Getty staff people—none of whom were from the program that they were looking at—had to argue incessantly about what they thought. It's exactly what they should be doing.
The Getty as a place of dialogue . . .
Oh, it has to be. It is thoughtful, candid, constant internal dialogue. And that's part of the collaboration.
Do you have specific initiatives in mind in terms of conservation?
Conservation is one of the building blocks of the Getty. I don't have any question about that, and neither does the board. As I said at the staff meeting at the GCI the other day, in terms of the Institute's mission, I think there has to be a strong training program. There's a general feeling that we've come away from the training program. I'm less interested in rehashing history than in having a strong training program. What matters to me is that it's there.
Similarly, everybody acknowledges that we've got a strong research and scholarship program that needs to stay right up with and include basic materials research. We've got a unique ability to combine science and application because we have works of art—different than if we were in a metallurgy lab at Caltech. That's why I feel so strongly about collaboration within the Getty.
The other theme is focusing on a smaller number of projects that are carefully selected, close to the core of what we do, with the ability to then write and talk about them soon after. People want to know what we did and what we learned from it.
Those are the three places in conservation: carefully focused and written-about field projects, a strengthened training program, and continued strong science.
And you still see the GCI as an international program?
I don't even know how you'd make the case against conservation being global. To me, with conservation, everything we do is international. The only place where I feel a special obligation is local, where we've already done some work—the Landmarks project, the Siqueiros mural, and other instances [see The Getty Conservation Institute At Work In And Around Los Angeles].
You're suggesting that the Getty does have a special responsibility to Los Angeles.
I think it does. As Harold Williams has pointed out, when the decision was made that the Malibu museum wasn't enough, it didn't automatically come to pass that the new center would be in L.A. There was a lot of debate about where, and, as Harold says, it could have been in Canada, it could have been in the eastern United States. But the fact is, we're a Los Angeles organization and we're now an extraordinarily visible Los Angeles cultural site. We've got to take a convening, facilitating, coordinating, gathering, partnering role because we're blessed to have the combination I referred to earlier. There isn't any other organization like us in the city. UCLA has spectacular academics, but to make their budget work, they have to raise the money and always will. The County Museum of Art has wonderful works of art but they don't have the foundation. There are large foundations, but they don't have the subject matter and the academics. So we have an obligation—not just in what we do with and for the city, but in pulling together other institutions in the city.
How well, up until now, has the Getty addressed the diversity that exists in Los Angeles?
It probably comes in chapters. Up until the end of 1997, you've got years of Harold thinking every day about the diversity issue and the community issue. You're talking about someone raised in Boyle Heights. In some ways I found that the most moving part of the whole opening ceremony was watching the band Los Lobos and then having Harold come up and say that they were from the adjoining competitive high school from where he went to school. It was always on his mind. But he had a museum that was difficult to get to, fairly isolated, and perceived as full of esoteric objects. And so everything he did was to push back against that.
Now we open here, and you've got this much more complex and wonderful place. We reserved a year's worth of school visits in an hour. Eighty thousand kids. We opened up the phone line, and in one hour the entire year was committed. One thing I suggested was that we give priority to those zip codes that had the fewest parking reservations. Now you walk around here any morning and you see Los Angeles.
Even with the base that Harold laid, you have to work at it every day. If you don't, the momentum will fall back to the more exclusive aspect of a museum in Brentwood. But if you look at the tram, if you look at the bookstore line, if you walk through the café, if you come up on a Sunday and see the church groups picnicking on the plaza outside the restaurant, if you see the school visits—you know we've achieved something that all the know-it-alls said not only was impossible but that we didn't care about doing.
Are there places significant to you from your own life that that would be important for you to see preserved?
Well, there's one we already lost—Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I would have had the Getty Conservation Institute right in there.
The Brooklyn Museum transformed my sense of culture. There it was on Eastern Parkway, free when we were going there. Then there was the New York Planetarium. One of the great things about being raised in New York is that you'd go to every possible museum. I'm sure the teachers loved it. It was a day off. But we loved it too.
It's a wonderful question. What I would want to see preserved isn't necessarily what the world would want to have preserved. That's what's difficult—you have to leap from what made a difference in your life to what things possess enough common value to others that they would want them preserved.
How different is your view of the Getty today than it was the day you first walked in the door?
To my spouse's everlasting bemusement, the first time I was on this site was for the press conference after I was appointed. Because the search was conducted with such confidentiality, no one let me get up here. So the physical reality of it was a surprise. And I still get lost. The range of programs, the strength of professional expertise, the caring and commitment of the support staff, the security people, the landscape people. I'm here late at night a lot, just because it's an easy, quiet time to do work, and everybody loves and cares for the place. Nobody's sloppy, nobody's nonchalant. That's been a wonderful surprise.
The Center has been open to the public and you've been the Getty president for a year. Over the course of that year, what do you think the Getty community has learned and what have you learned?
A pleasant surprise has been just what a spectacularly seductive place this is. And how easy it's been to diversify the crowds. Contrary to those who thought that once we brought in all these first-time, "different" museum visitors we'd jeopardize the works of art, we haven't had any trouble at all. People have been extraordinarily respectful of everything, which is why we've been able to keep it so open and accessible.
Another surprise is that folks want to support the place, whether it's paying to get in—something I don't want to do—or donating works of art, which is something I very much want to do, or even special memberships or paying for the right to use it for an evening for a function that relates to something we do. The interest, the commitment, the international attention, the love for the space have all been pleasant surprises.
The unpleasant discoveries have been the lack of integration, the separateness of programs, the self-satisfaction of too many people, the expectation of too many people, inside and outside, that we can fund everything for everybody—that there's this endless cornucopia of resources—and hurt feelings when we make choices or establish priorities among the wonderful things we want to do.
A pleasant discovery for me has been how easy it's been to translate the literary side of the arts background to the visual side of the arts background. And, although I expected this, the surprise of how generous and gracious the people inside have been in coaching and mentoring and counseling me through their areas of expertise. That's been a wonderful surprise.
Speaking for myself, it's intellectually engaging and gratifying to be working in a place where people care so deeply about what they do.
Yes, and that means for certain groups and on certain issues, there is extraordinary tension, because it's very smart, very committed, emotionally energized people who disagree. My job is not to make that tension go away. My job is to keep it creative rather than destructive, so that there is synergy and collaboration and you reach a higher level of resolution after banging heads on complicated, challenging issues. But it comes with such caring and such devotion to who we are and what we do. I think the way it has to end is everybody's remembering that we are here for the public. We're a public arts site serving a range of audiences and constituencies. Therefore, there is now a programmatic reality to the Getty Center, and we have to budget for it and plan for it. We're a tax-exempt trust, the beneficiaries of an extraordinarily generous gift—Mr. Getty's will expected "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge"—and therefore we have a social and civic responsibility.