When he died in 1976, oilman J. Paul Getty stunned the art world by leaving an astonishing $700 million to the Malibu art museum that bears his name. Today, that endowment has swelled to six times its original size, valued at some $4.3 billion, making the Getty the wealthiest art institution in the world with a museum, five institutes and a grant program.
In January, longtime Getty President Harold M. Williams, the man most responsible for shaping the trust, will hand the reins to a successor Barry Munitz, chancellor of California State University, the nation's largest system of public higher education, with 23 campuses, more than 336,000 students and an annual budget of some $4 billion.
Munitz, who will assume his new post in January, takes over the Getty at a particularly opportune moment. In December, after years of construction, the institution will move into the new $1 billion Getty Center, conspicuously located on a Brentwood hilltop overlooking the San Diego (405) Freeway. The move gives the cultural behemoth an opportunity to play a much more significant role in L.A. social, cultural and political life than it could from its remote Malibu site.
Munitz who in addition to his career as a professor and university administrator, spent a decade in corporate America as head of the successful natural resources conglomerate Maxxam Inc. recently spoke with the Business Journal about his vision for the Getty.
Question: What are your thoughts as you prepare to take over at the Getty?
Answer: Obviously, it's a little early to look at the specifics. (Current CEO) Harold Williams is still in charge, so I see things only in very basic patterns. But it's a great opportunity. The physical construction will be over. I get the fun part which is to look at the programs, the policies, having everybody together at the same site for the first time.
What we'll be looking for is where we can be helpful, how to enhance the role of the arts and humanities in education. We cannot solve problems on our own, but there's a void out there and I hope we can facilitate addressing questions in society.
Q: What are some of the issues that arts organizations and cultural institutions can be better engaged in?
A: You've got gradual dimunition of the two national endowments that's obviously of great concern. Same with public television. The arts in K-12 have been cut back it's a lower and lower priority. How do you get younger people interested?
You've got a very large issue of an increasingly technical, decentralized, un-civil society. And for 5,000 years, one of the very few adhesives available has been the arts and the humanities. I want the Getty to be much more involved in social and economic issues. I want it to be much more than an arts organization. And with the Getty in such an amazing physical location, it's very unlikely that anyone invited for dinner is going to say no at least for the first decade or so.
Q: Does L.A.'s incredible ethnic diversity pose a challenge for the Getty, which specializes in the classics, antiquities and the like?
A: There is the perception; here is this beautiful palace up on the hill. Who owns it? Who is empowered to engage it? Who can connect to it? Why is it there? That problem is out there and we have to engage it. Because the assumption is that it is at a distance, that it serves the esoteric arts elite. We're going to have to reach out. We can't assume everything and everyone can come to us.
Q: The old Getty villa, up on the bluffs in Malibu, was very inaccessible to most of L.A. How accessible will the new facility be?
A: You'll still have to make reservations. It will be so visible that there will be that many more people wanting to come. But there will be dramatically more attention paid to (social and economic) issues than there was at the villa. We have to think about connectivity, dialogue, partnering with other public spaces with whom we can share exhibitions and events. It's all going to work against the isolation.
Q: Before you came to CSU, you spent a number of years in the private sector (as CEO of Maxxam Inc.) What was that like?
A: When I was president of the University of Houston, I had a friend (Maxxam head Charles Hurwitz) who I played tennis with and we always argued about whether it was harder to run a university or a corporation. I kept saying it's easier to run a corporation. And one day he said, 'You think you're so smart.' He had just bought a company called Simplicity Patterns, in New York. So I left the University of Houston, and we started working together. We ended up selling Simplicity Patterns, and buying Pacific Lumber, Kaiser Aluminum, McCollough Oil. And suddenly by 1989, we were 156 in the Fortune 500.
Q: How did you find the corporate world?
A: It was a great adventure for me. Running a university is like running a big business. But there are fundamental differences. The biggest shock coming to business was discovering that when you suggested that something be done, they actually tried to do it. In a university you have seven review committees and 18 months of memos going back and forth before anyone has decided they even have the inclination to do what you suggested.
I always knew that at some point I'd come back into the public sector. But I hoped that when I did, I'd be much more thoughtful about how the other side of table works.
Q: Maxxam has a fairly notorious reputation as the consumate '80s corporate raider. How does that fit with your experience in public service?
A: Some people characterize it that way; some people characterize it other ways. If people who care don't agree to work for big corporations, there's no chance of changing them.
Q: How handy has your private sector experience been at CSU?
A: You know, people are always in awe of size of the Getty's ($4.3 billion) endowment. But I've spent that amount every year at CSU; that's the university's annual budget.
That said, you don't run a university like a corporation; it's not a corporate model. But each has something to learn from the other.
Q: What are the biggest changes you've seen at CSU over the last seven years?
A: Students have gotten older. They've gotten much more practical coming in the evenings, on the weekends, studying at home, in the workplace. More and more are transfers from community colleges. More and more of them are involved in some sort of applied scholarship at the undergraduate level because they're older and working. The faculty loves them because they're focused.
This university system has 23 campuses and a third of a million students. This is the engine for socioeconomic mobility in California. This is the gatekeeper for keeping the workforce competitive.
Q: What do you make of the skill levels of today's high school graduates?
A: They're in trouble. CSU admits the top third of students. And too many of those people really aren't ready for college work. They are taking remedial courses or they take courses over again. We have to toughen up.
Q: How so?
A: Standards. Holding people to standards. We need mentoring and tutoring, family enhancement, community development it doesn't just happen in the classroom.
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