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."
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."