A little tax haven by the sea: The J Paul Getty Trust

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Every day of the year, the Getty Trust spends half a million dollars on art. It has to. But it can't keep on buying Van Goghs, so now it runs a scheme to teach six-year-olds about the 'negative space' in modern sculpture, and funds seminars to authenticate its own Greek sculptures. It is building a modern Atlantis of Centers and Institutes, and doling out millions in grants and fellowships. All of which is made possible by a tax system that lets rich Americans off the hook if they donate money to art, and in moral terms puts statues before people

The J Paul Getty Trust will have to spend at least pounds 100m on art this year if it is to retain its tax-exempt status as a charitable institution. To put it another way, US federal tax laws require a charitable trust to spend at least four and a quarter per cent of its total endowment three years out of four. At the latest count, the Getty endowment stood at pounds 2.2bn.

I have just been to California to see how they do it. The sun and the sea, David Hockney palm trees and sprinkled lawns, Hollywood and traffic-laden freeways, the whole ambience speaks of affluent fantasy. The Getty was spending pounds 250,000 a day on art while rioters tore the centre of Los Angeles apart.

Let's put their wealth in context: in London, the National Gallery's total expenditure in 1991 was pounds 16m. The Getty is now, of course, more than a museum; it is very active in art education. But the Courtauld Institute, Britain's leading college of art history, now in Somerset House, cost pounds 2.8m to run last year.

You have to look at the great city-sized universities to find expenditure comparable to the Getty's. Oxford University spent pounds 179m last year, a little under double what the Getty is required to spend in order to avoid paying tax.

The foundations of the Getty Trust were laid in the early 1980s. Between 1981 and 1983, Harold Williams, the trust's president, and Nancy Englander, who is now his wife, invented, more or less from scratch, the outline of a new institution, somewhere between a museum and a university, which they hoped would be capable of spending the income from the Getty endowment in perpetuity. Last year, the architect Richard Meier, famous for his white- on-white modernist buildings, unveiled a model of the campus he had been commissioned to build for this hybrid institution on a wild and precipitous hilltop overlooking the Pacific on one side, and the panorama of greater Los Angeles on the other.

When Harold Williams first announced his plans for the hilltop campus in October 1983, it was expected to be ready by 1991 and to cost dollars 100m. It is now expected to be ready sometime in 1996 or 1997, with the final bill running to around dollars 1bn.

The main difficulties lay in deciding what kind of structures the new, and untried, institutions required; Meier was presented with staff proposals the size of telephone books, full of muddled thinking. And after the designs began to take shape, there were further lengthy battles with planning authorities and with local residents. So far, only the approach roads have been built; a start on the foundations is expected soon.

I was shown the scale models in Santa Monica last month. Meier has established a model shop where he makes wonderful dolls' houses to show the Getty staff what he plans. As well as the complete hilltop campus, there are sections blown up on a larger scale; you can even put your head into two massive boxes and see what the new museum galleries will look like with sunshine pouring through the skylights.

It is somehow rather spooky to see the perfect scale models of the new campus, crawling over two ridges beautifully simulated by wooden laminations, and including a tram stop, a lake, woodlands, massive air conditioning units and a quantity of imposing buildings. It holds echoes of Brasilia, or Welwyn Garden City, or EUR, Mussolini's palatial government headquarters on the edge of Rome. Like them, it is the product of a master plan with which humans will be expected to conform.

But that, of course, is dictated by the nature of the trust itself - an institution created out of thin air in order to spend Getty's money in conformity with US tax laws. The normal life- cycle of artistic or academic institutions begins with a need, and follows up with an attempt to meet it; if the institution is perceived as useful, it will grow. Williams and his 694 staff desperately want the trust to be useful, but it has not come into existence to meet any obvious need - except to spend the legacy.

THIS DOTTY situation results from the business genius of a cantankerous oil tycoon who was a notorious womaniser as well as an art collector. Paul Getty was known as the richest man in the world; by the time he died in 1976, only three of the five sons of his five marriages survived, though there were a lot of grandchildren. The bulk of the Getty Oil shares already belonged to his descendants through a trust established by his mother, Sarah C Getty - Paul was a second-generation oil tycoon. So the old man decided he would have the final satisfaction of cheating the US Internal Revenue Service of any share in his private fortune. He left it all, bar some legacies to former mistresses and friends, to the small museum he had established in Malibu, California. Money given to an American museum is tax exempt.

Getty had turned his own ranch-style home into a museum in 1953 and continued to send his best art purchases there, although he was living in England. The Malibu house got fuller and fuller, and in 1968 he decided to build a new museum in the grounds. A passionate collector of classical antiquities, he lighted on the controversial fancy of building a replica of a Roman villa in Herculaneum which had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

When it opened in 1971, the press jeered at the design, but with the passing of the years it has come to be much loved. The colonnaded villa dominates a dramatically landscaped hillside that runs down to the sea. Cars approach up irregularly paved, fake Roman roads and are tucked out of sight in an underground car park. No expense was spared, with inlaid marble floors, massive columns, fake Roman sculptures and Pompeian frescos. Many people now come to use the garden restaurant just for the pleasure of being there. When the main museum moves to the new campus, the villa will be devoted to the antiquities collection.

At Getty's death, the museum collections were highly personal and eccentric. He had collected Greek and Roman antiquities, French furniture and Old Master paintings. Only the French furniture was superlative in its field; the paintings were abysmal. It was nevertheless deemed to be impossible to spend the income of Getty's legacy on further purchases alone, without upsetting the world market and running out of goods to buy.

Harold Williams, a clever lawyer - previously President Carter's choice to run the nation's investment watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington - was appointed president of the Getty Museum in 1981. His job was to work out how to spend the money and ensure it was done with propriety. He changed the name of the institution to the J Paul Getty Trust in 1983 to reflect the range of new activities he had dreamed up for it.

He had spent a year touring the world with his dazzlingly beautiful development officer, Nancy Englander, talking to museum curators, art historians, conservators and anyone else who could provide ideas on how to spend Getty's money usefully. At the end of it they had dreamed up six new programmes - and fallen in love. The programmes comprised the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Art History Information Programme, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, the Program for Art on Film, and the Museum Management Institute. In 1985 they added a Grant Programme, and Englander, who had been in charge of launching the new institutions, resigned at the request of the trustees; by then she and Williams were divorcing their respective spouses and planning to get married.

At the time, Williams was stricken by her resignation. He described his future wife to the Wall Street Journal as 'the creative genius who defined what the Getty was beyond the museum'. The institutions they invented together have now had time to gather a life of their own. I wanted to see how the procedures for spending Getty's legacy were working out in practice.

THE MUSEUM has always been the most high-profile feature of the trust, and I began my visit by bumping up the Roman road to the villa to see John Walsh, its director. When I got there I discovered that he was flying out next day to Athens - along with the press officer, the antiquities curator, most of the Conservation Institute and Harold Williams himself.

They were hosting a colloquium to discuss the authenticity of a Greek statue that they bought in 1985 for a reputed dollars 9m. The larger- than-life marble statue of a naked youth, or kouros, dated to the sixth century BC, has caused them no end of trouble.

When it was first offered to the museum in 1983, Federico Zeri, the Italian art historian who was then a museum trustee, branded it a fake and blocked its purchase. They got every scholar they could find to look at it, then bought it, published it, held a marble symposium to discuss it, and mounted it on ball-bearings and shock-absorbing pads to ensure it wouldn't fall in the event of an earthquake.

In 1990, a very similar fake turned up in Switzerland. The museum felt it had to buy it to make comparative studies; after more than a year of studying the kouros back in the laboratory, the Getty scientists concluded that they could not prove whether it was old or new. Hence the colloquium in Athens.

The 750lb statue was shipped to Athens and erected in the Goulandris Foundation Museum, where the colloquium was held. After two days of discussion between the distinguished scholars, invited from all over Europe and America, the chairman, Dr V Lambrinoudakis of Athens University, issued the following statement: 'According to my opinion, which I believe is shared by many of the Greek participants, the colloquium has strengthened my doubts about the statue's authenticity.' In other words, it is still a fake, nine years after Zeri first said so. Only an institution with the vast resources of the Getty could have wasted so much time and money on not believing him.

On the face of it, the Athens colloquium looks like an exercise in maximising the museum's public embarrassment over the statue. But there may be more subtle legal issues involved. The kouros was discovered and put forward for purchase, complete with forged papers, by a Czech scholar, Jiri Frel, who was curator of antiquities at the museum from 1973 to 1984. Two other fakes were purchased under his aegis: an archaic relief for a reputed dollars 3.1m and a marble head attributed to Skopas for dollars 2.5m. In both these cases the museum has moved to get its money back. It would presumably be the legal duty of the trustees to do the same for the kouros if it were proved a fake. This could be the motive for the efforts to find a definite answer. Unfortunately, as Zeri could have told them at the start, there is no way of scientifically testing the age of marble sculptures; a consensus of scholarly opinion is probably the nearest they will ever get to 'proof'.

Despite a number of well publicised glitches of this kind, the museum's collection of antiquities is now very good indeed; they have a superb collection of Greek vases, some notable Cycladic pieces and some good sculpture. And the scope of the museum's other collections has been significantly extended since John Walsh took over as director in 1983. They even have Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers', briefly the most expensive painting in the world at dollars 54m. When Alan Bond, the busted Australian tycoon, couldn't pay for it, the Getty stepped in.

Walsh is seen as having made a great success of the museum. Earlier this year he was shortlisted for the nation's top museum job - director of the National Gallery, Washington. And it is widely believed he would have got it, had he not withdrawn of his own volition.

I have a soft spot for Walsh. He is a balding but boyish East Coaster who wears round gold- rimmed glasses which make him look permanently a little surprised. His greatest forte is his eloquence; he can make anything to do with art sound sensible, honest and - quite often - amusing. He makes a great ambassador for the Getty, and at the same time looks and sounds good on the museum's interactive video display system. Whatever part of a Greek vase you touch on screen, Walsh's head will pop up and give you a lecture about it.

He announced his withdrawal as a candidate for the Washington directorship after a full day's meeting of the Getty board. I could not persuade him to tell me what he had been offered to make him stay. Picking his words with care, he said that 'the position here, both for me and the museum, is very favourable'.

Walsh and Harold Williams are the two figureheads of the Getty operation, and naturally there have been clashes. On the question of where the money goes, Walsh wants more of the budget for the museum, while Williams favours nurturing the new institutions that he and his wife brought into being. It looks as if the National Gallery option has, for the moment, put Walsh ahead.

IN RECENT YEARS the museum has scored roughly half the trust's annual income, some pounds 50m. It's my bet that Walsh has managed to secure extra money for buying pictures at the expense of the trust's other activities.

These programmes, invented back in 1982, are curiously intangible endeavours whose usefulness it is intensely difficult to fathom. Williams and Englander did not want to duplicate work that was going on elsewhere, so each of their schemes was designed to provoke some departure from the existing order - 'to address needs not otherwise likely to be met' was how Englander put it. Williams still likes to talk about the trust acting as a 'catalyst'; each programme is meant to change the mind-set of people in the field all round the globe.

The most important and expensive programme - it spends some pounds 14m a year - is the Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. The two promoters had perceived that art history was getting drier - art historians were devoting years to solving problems about one or two artworks in which the world at large took little interest. The idea was to bring scholars from other disciplines together with art historians and get them interested in wider issues.

A Swiss scholar called Kurt Vorster was brought in to run the show. He was a terrific talker but somehow never managed to make sense of the disparate elements with which his institution was endowed. He has just resigned.

The bits and pieces which go to make the Center include 12 scholars-in-residence invited for one year each and drawn from various disciplines, and four 'fellows' per year, young art historians working on doctoral theses or books. Around these scholars the Center weaves an intricate programme of workshops, colloquia, international symposia and public lectures.

You can't have scholars without a library, and a central role is thus the formation of a superb art library. There were 750,000 volumes at the last count, as well as 3,500 periodical titles and about 1.5m photographs of art objects. 'Library operations' cost the Getty pounds 6m in 1990.

Then there are the archives: the Getty has become the great benefactor of art historians' widows, buying up their husbands' papers to add to their collections. But they also buy a rather miscellaneous mix of historic designs for architecture or the decorative arts, artists' diaries and other art-related ephemera.

And finally, the Center is an art publisher, determinedly putting its back into uneconomic projects. It has decided to publish three kinds of book: translations of important art historical works written in languages other than English, facsimile reproductions of sketchbooks and albums, and volumes of interdisciplinary essays. So far it has issued two works on architecture, translated from German.

There is no apparent link between these disparate activities. The visiting scholars don't get their books published, nor are they required to research items in the archival collection - which seems to exist for no other reason than that it may someday be useful to someone. What is also incredible is spending pounds 6m a year on a library which is basically designed to service 16 scholars - though many others already use it, and more are likely to do so on the hilltop.

The Center has no difficulty in attracting candidates from all over the world. Academics are usually penurious and it offers the dream deal of an all-expenses-paid year in the sun, with a fully equipped office next to the library. The museum also has scholars- in-residence, usually invited for a few months at a time. They also get offices next to the library.

The difference between the two programmes is that the museum has a reason for inviting its guests: it wants help researching its collection. The Center invites scholars solely to get them to inter-react; choosing whom to invite is a little like sticking a pin in an international directory. Each year a theme is chosen to narrow the field. They've done 'antiquity' and 'avant-garde' - this year it's 'popular and mass culture'.

Everything will begin to make more sense, no doubt, when all the Getty Trust's operations move to the hilltop campus. In recent years there has been a sense of competition between the Center and the museum, with each tending to duplicate the other's activity rather than collaborate. At the top of the hill, people will meet in the various restaurants and snack bars - to which Richard Meier devoted one of the most prominent buildings - and maybe have ideas they can work on jointly.

AT PRESENT, the Center is located on two floors of the First Federal Bank in Santa Monica. It's a brown glass tower, four blocks in from the ocean, and contains all the Getty Trust's operations, bar the Museum and the Conservation Institute. It has recently been redecorated by Richard Meier as an experiment to see what his interiors will be like on the hilltop; the staff are finding them rather painfully white.

Here we find the Art History Information Programme, which grew out of Williams' and Englander's perception that there was a great future for the computerisation of art history. I remember interviewing Williams in London, in 1983, when newspapers were running banner headlines about the Getty stealing Britain's 'heritage'. Williams told me with a glitter in his eye that he was not in England to buy art but to buy art history; he was looking for projects suitable for computerisation.

He found them at the Courtauld Institute and the Warburg. In March this year, the Census of Antique Art and Architecture Known

to the Renaissance, 'a unique art-historical database of text and video images', was unveiled in London. I wonder who will use it.

The Courtauld project, the computerised indexing of the Witt Library, a famous collection of photographs of art works and magazine cuttings, has had to be cut back and partially shelved. Michael Ester, who was appointed director of the Art History Information Programme in 1985, well after the Courtauld project was launched, tells me that no one had noticed that the approximate time required to input the Witt Library data was 350 years.

He has also had a Promethean struggle with another project he inherited, the Bibliography of the History of Art, which computerises and merges an English language and a French language directory of recently published art books, articles and catalogues - he seems to have won that battle and got it off the ground.

According to Ester, the future of art history on computers now depends on getting everyone to spell artists' names the same way - or persuading computers to recognise variants. He has thrown himself into a massive 'vocabulary co-ordination' project.

Down the corridor, Leilani Lattin Duke, director of the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, is spearheading a mission to get art teaching into schools. She has taken up and developed 'discipline-based art education', or DBAE for short - it means not just teaching kids to paint, but teaching them art history, criticism and aesthetics as well. Leilani is lobbying state and federal government to get DBAE introduced nationwide; she is lobbying parents, commissioning model curricula, helping to design training courses, and dropping Getty money wherever she thinks it will best fertilise the growth of DBAE.

I visited a kindergarten where some exceptionally charming six-year-olds were being taught to admire a very ugly Calder statue; it was pointed out to them by their Getty-trained teacher that a hole in a lump of clay was 'negative space'. I find DBAE hard to swallow. Discipline, it seems to me, is liable to ruin the children's enjoyment of art.

THE LAST major operation run from the bank building in Santa Monica is the Getty Grant Programme. In the early days, Williams used to claim that the trust could not give money away since it was legally constituted as an 'operating foundation', not a grant-giving foundation. Then in 1985 it was discovered that an operating foundation was permitted to give away three-quarters of 1 per cent of its endowment each year. That means they could give away pounds 17m a year, but they've limited it to pounds 3m.

The immediate motivation for introducing a grant programme was the bad feeling locally that the wealthy Getty was not helping the community's arts projects. After giving away some largish lumps of money to local institutions, the Grant Programme now concentrates on giving small grants to individual scholars worldwide, helping to finance the publication of books, and paying for conservation and conservation training; this last accounts for almost half their grants this year - the Tate, the British Museum, and London and Cambridge Universities all received money to pay trainees.

Eastern Europe is being given special priority with grants, particularly to help libraries catch up with art books published in the West since the Second World War and to give individual scholars who have never travelled abroad small grants to do so. Out of 25 travel fellowships awarded this year, however, only 24 will be taken up. The curator of European art at the Lvov Art Gallery in Ukraine, who was to spend dollars 10,000 looking at drawings in Western collections, died last month trying to defend his gallery from armed robbers.

Last but not least of the new programmes is the Getty Conservation Institute. Thanks to two dynamic Latin directors, Luis Monreal and Miguel Corzo, it has managed to develop a much clearer identity than the others. Williams and Englander envisaged the institute undertaking original research into conservation problems and offering advanced courses to young conservators. Monreal pulled the operation into the real world by offering to tackle specific third world problems; he squared it with his instructions by linking the institute's research to the projects he undertook and by drawing in young staff to train on site.

The colourful and miscellaneous projects that the institute has tackled include restoring the wall paintings in one of the most spectacular Egyptian tombs, that of Queen Nefertari, favourite wife of Ramses II; developing the perfect showcase for Egyptian mummies and for the Dead Sea Scrolls; lifting and preserving a Roman mosaic in Cyprus; developing a hardening agent to preserve mud buildings in Mexico and elsewhere; installing environmental monitoring equipment on the posterior of the Sphinx, and a variant of the same equipment in Buddhist caves in China, to take measurements that should indicate what pollutants the monuments must be protected from.

The institute has also taken over responsibility for publishing Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, the major reference publication in conservation. It is developing a computerised database on conservation, it has built up the world's best conservation library, and it publishes its own reports and books. On top of all that, it helped set up the Getty Museum's conservation labs and tackles research problems for them - that poor old kouros, for instance, has been investigated and re-investigated many times at the institute's labs.

THE CONSERVATION Institute cost almost pounds 8m to run in 1990, the last year for which figures are available. That looks quite expensive beside the pounds 6m spent by the trust on education. But both departments pale beside the trust's administration costs.

The 1990 accounts record that 'program support services' cost pounds 8m and 'investment administration' pounds 5.6m. They have 11 separate investment companies looking after the pounds 2.2bn endowment to spread the risk of mistakes. So far, the strategy has been resoundingly successful - the endowment was worth pounds 400m when Getty died and dollars 750m when Harold Williams took over 10 years ago.

Williams has brilliantly husbanded the trust's resources. Whether he and his wife devised a sensible plan for spending the endowment income is open to debate, but any scheme for spending so many millions on art would inevitably have had its critics. You can see clearly from the way they set it up that neither of them was an artist, art scholar or curator. But history suggests that institutions eventually shake down and find themselves a useful role.

The world of art history is a very small one and the Getty Trust is a huge fish in this pond. After 10 years of operation there are probably no art historians left whose lives have not in some way been affected by it. Some have been visiting fellows, others have had the publication of their books or catalogues subsidised, some may have contributed data to its data- bases or simply attended lectures and symposia it has sponsored. In London this year, the Tate, the British Museum, the Courtauld, the Warburg Institute and London University have all received help in cash or kind.

I have to confess a residual disquiet that the whole affair is a gigantic waste of money. But it is a waste that is structured and supported by the American tax system. The channelling of tax-free money to good causes by private foundations has become an American sub-culture. The Ford Foundation is the richest in the country; the Getty Trust is number two. If I were a black in downtown Los Angeles, I think that such structured waste might make me explode with mindless hate.