BRISTOL, R.I. -- A generation ago, when Jim Wood of Chicago was a 44-year-old rising star among American museum leaders, he got an invitation to come west and brainstorm. Soon, he found himself standing atop a raw Brentwood hill, trying to imagine the future of the J. Paul Getty Trust and its young museum.
"They had to create a building at the same time they were creating an institution," Wood recalled last week. "It had tremendous potential, but there were questions."
To build Getty's quirky collection, trustees had hired Harold Williams as president and John Walsh as museum director and bought the hilltop. The endowment was $2.5 billion and growing. Big things were coming, and Wood, who'd spent the last five years scrambling to raise money and revive the troubled Art Institute of Chicago, was "a bit envious."
No more. On Dec. 4, the Getty's trustees named James N. Wood king of that Brentwood hill, summoning him from retirement at age 65 to become president of the rich but beleaguered Getty Trust. In hiring him, the Getty has put itself in the hands of an old-school museum man, one known for turning the Art Institute of Chicago around, for hiring shrewdly and for building consensus rather than racing ahead of the crowd.
Wood now takes charge of the $1-billion Richard Meier-designed Getty Center in Brentwood, with its museum and institutes, and the renovated Getty Villa at the edge of Malibu, along with a grant-making foundation and an endowment that's up to $5.8 billion.
But all that has been tainted in the last two years -- years that have seen more than a dozen resignations, including the abrupt departure of President Barry Munitz in February amid a state attorney general's investigation of his lavish spending and travel. The attorney general decided not to prosecute but appointed a monitor to oversee the trust until 2008.
And then there are the Getty's antiquities troubles. Despite the Getty's vows to return more than two dozen items that were apparently illegally smuggled out of Italy and Greece over the last three decades, the Italian government is prosecuting former Getty curator Marion True in a criminal conspiracy case, and Greek officials may do the same.
Given a choice between these responsibilities and a comfortable retirement in a seaside New England home with a trusty kayak and a 3 1/2 -year-old granddaughter close by, not everybody would come running west. But in a recent interview at his Rhode Island home, Wood called this a chance to match his experience against a singular challenge.
"The learning excites me as much as the application of knowledge," he said.
He said he will work hard to make Angelenos feel "they're invited" to Brentwood and the villa, but he will resist "blockbuster" thinking. He will start by listening to staffers and visitors, he said, but he's in no doubt about the heart of his job.
"This is much more than a museum, but the trust's core is around the visual arts," he said, adding: "Collecting is an essential piece of our mission."
As Wood spoke, geese squawked across silvery waters outside. Inside, the walls and shelves held photographs by Carleton Watkins and Hiroshi Sugimoto; a painting by Philip Guston; and a kayak paddle carved by contemporary sculptor Martin Puryear.
Wood, who devoted most of his curatorial time to European and American art created since the 16th century, is "a brilliant hire," said Stephanie Barron, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Not only is Wood "squeaky clean" ethically, Barron said, but "it's really exciting to look at works of art with him."
"He doesn't have a whole lot to learn," said Walsh, who retired as Getty Museum director in 2000 and remains friendly with Wood. "Jim is a master at helping people figure out what they want, and what they will let each other do."
Charles F. Stuckey, an independent scholar who worked as a curator at the Art Institute under Wood from 1987 to 1995, offered more pointed praise.
"His clear and comfortable relationship with right and wrong," Stuckey said, "can only do well for the Getty at this point."
'Dripping with integrity'
A risk-taker Wood isn't. Although he interned 39 years ago at the right hand of the boldest showman in modern American museum history -- Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- he has never been counted among director-entrepreneurs like Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim in New York. The year Wood left Chicago, local art critic James Yood plaintively compared him to the Art Institute's latest building addition: "Tasteful, appropriate, yet somehow disengaged at its core."
John Bryan, a longtime Art Institute board member who was chairman when Wood stepped down, acknowledged that "Jim's not someone who's warm and fuzzy and runs around hugging all the ladies."
He's "a little aloof," Bryan added, but "dripping with integrity.... There were two or three times I couldn't get him to take a raise.... Jim couldn't go first-class anywhere -- it's just not in him."
Since the Getty announcement, art world chatter has run heavily in Wood's favor. Part of this is a matter of symbolism: Although he's the Getty's third president, Wood is the first veteran art professional named to the post. And he has already made a point of stressing that background and declaring two watchwords for the institution: "focus" and "integrity."
The question now, said Stuckey, is "Can he be a visionary?"
An immersion in art
One of four sons born to a Boston banker and homemaker, Wood headed to Williams College in Massachusetts only vaguely aware of its reputation as a training ground for art historians. He was more interested in history, motorcycles, hockey and football -- for a year, he was a 6-foot-2, 185-pound defensive end.
But in his sophomore year, a series of "riveting" lectures on Goya by scholar Fred Licht persuaded Wood to change his major. For his senior year, the art department's chairman, S. Lane Faison, suggested he take his bike to Italy and spend nine months looking at art and writing papers. "I thought long and hard for 30 seconds and said yes," said Wood. "It really was one of those crucial decisions in one's life."
After that came grad school at New York University, where he met his wife, Emese, and an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1967, just as Hoving was turning it sideways. Wood stayed about three years.
By 1979, when the Art Institute of Chicago first approached him, he had had a curatorial post at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and had spent four years as director of the St. Louis Art Museum.
The Art Institute was messy. Despite the grandeur of its collection, its building needed updating, its staff was divided, its board had been accused of alienating donors with anti-Semitism, and it hadn't had an art specialist at its helm for several years. After a thief stole three Cezannes (since recovered) in 1978, "60 Minutes" caught Art Institute President E. Laurence Chalmers Jr. -- a former university chancellor -- unable to recognize reproductions of the stolen works.
Wood declined the job. But a year later, the institute was still searching and board leadership was shifting. This time, Wood said he would come if he could report to the board and not the president.
The board agreed -- thereby undercutting but not firing its own president. Wood moved in and set about raising money, filling empty jobs and rallying board members to the cause of upgrading the building. Six years later, when Chalmers resigned and Wood took on the presidential title as well, the evolution was complete.
"We all admired how deftly that was done," said Walsh. "Nobody got hurt, but the right thing happened."
By 1988, a new wing had been built and the museum had made several key acquisitions. By 1995, the original building had been restored, and attendance records had been set at a thoughtful Claude Monet blockbuster. By 2003, every department had been renovated, publications and conservation programs had been boosted, and a Van Gogh-and-Gauguin blockbuster (in 2001-02) had drawn in more crowds.
Faced with demands for the returns of items with murky histories, Wood was willing to listen and bend: After digging into provenance, he agreed to return a set of Mimbres altarpieces that had been a centennial celebration acquisition for the museum. After nine months of stalemate and warnings that he didn't want to set a dangerous precedent, Wood crafted a three-way compromise that returned a contested Thai sculpture while giving the Art Institute a comparable piece.
In 2000, Wood became one of the first museum leaders in the country to make public the backgrounds of every museum piece with ownership gaps during the theft-plagued years of 1933 to 1945. "It wasn't immediately obvious to me that that was a good idea," said Bryan, but "Jim took charge of those kinds of things."
Still, there were problems. Risky investments cost the Art Institute more than $40 million in 2001, and a series of cutbacks followed. Plans to build an additional wing were reduced and delayed. Many wondered whether Wood was up for another fund-raising blitz.
Then in fall 2003, Wood announced he would retire. By late 2004, when James Cuno took over, the Woods were set up in Rhode Island.
Now comes the move west. Wood, who begins in February after a long-planned trip to India, said he'd met with eight of the Getty's nine trustees (and spoken at length by phone with the ninth). Because of the secrecy of the Getty's search process, he has had only minimal contact with Museum Director Michael Brand, who arrived less than a year ago.
The comforts of Wood's new job will include no major fundraising, no big facilities issues (since the Getty is largely prevented from expanding at either of its current sites), no pressure to assemble blockbusters and a five-year contract calling for base pay of $700,000 a year. Also, although Wood may be losing proximity to his Rhode Island daughter and granddaughter, he'll be closer to his other daughter in San Francisco.
As for the challenges of making peace with Italy and Greece; the acquisition, conservation, exhibition and explanation of art; the balancing of the Getty's local, national and international ambitions -- most of these, said Wood, are more nuanced versions of the same question he toyed with on that Brentwood hilltop 21 years ago: What should the Getty be?
"The wording in Mr. Getty's will is very, very broadly stated," said Wood. "It's wonderful."