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July 4, 2005

The Talented Mr. Munitz

munitz1.jpgAlmost thirty years ago, the University of Houston Board of Regents was faced with a difficult decision -- replacing longtime UH president Philip G. Hoffman.

President Hoffman was the quintessential tough act to follow. The unusual administrator who was respected by faculty, administrators, and regents alike, President Hoffman sheparded UH during the era from early 1960's to the late 1970's as the university transformed from a sleepy city college into Texas' first dynamic urban university. An example of President Hoffman's influence is the fact that, when he took office in 1962, UH was admitting its first minority student and, when he retired as UH president in 1977, UH had become Texas' most fully-integrated state university by far. Other accomplishments during his tenure included reorganization of UH's administration into that of a major university, completion of the university's first real master plan for campus development, implementation of the initial stages of the University of Houston System of campuses, and overseeing the rise of UH's athletic teams into national powers.

munitz2.jpgSo, given President Hoffman's accomplishments and stature, the UH Board really needed to make a splash in naming his replacement. Their choice? 35 year-old wunderkind, Barry A. Munitz.

Mr. Munitz was an interesting choice. Hired a year or so earlier as Vice-President and Dean of Faculties at UH's central campus, the young Mr. Munitz and his glamorous wife cut a sophisticated and trendy swath through UH social circles. The theory behind Mr. Munitz's appointment was that he represented the new wave of college administrator who encouraged ties between the business and university communities.

Although Munitz has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University, he had only two years of teaching experience and -- unlike President Hoffman, who had been a respected history professor -- had never been involved in scholarship or scholarly activities. Instead, Mr. Munitz sold himself as a manager interested primarily in hiring, raising money and policy making. Given the long-standing Texas legislative policy of underfunding the University of Houston's endowment in comparison to that of the other major Texas state universities, the thought of Mr. Munitz increasing the UH endowment through creative relationships with Houston's business community must have been attractive to UH regents.

Alas, as is often the case when money collides with academia, Mr. Munitz's UH tenure did not turn out to be as promising as the UH regents had hoped. Although I can find absolutely nothing on the web about the incident, I recall that, during Mr. Munitz's tenure, his financial administrator at UH was fired (and perhaps prosecuted, although Mr. Munitz was not implicated) in regard to a scandal involving his investment of UH's endowment in highly speculative investment vehicles that ultimately cost the endowment a considerable amount of money. The initial speculation that Mr. Munitz would increase private funding to UH from Houston's business community turned out to be mostly a pipe dream as Mr. Munitz's administrative abilities increasingly took on the shine of elevating form over substance. After a record number of wine-and-cheese parties at the workmanlike UH, Mr. Munitz left in 1982 to become an executive at Charles Hurwitz's MAXXAM, Inc.

Mr. Munitz stayed at MAXXAM for almost ten years, long enough to get intimately involved in the company's controversial Pacific Lumber subsidiary and its ill-advised investment in the now defunct United Savings. Mr. Munitz then moved back into academic administration in 1991 as the Chancellor of the California State University system, where he again generated a fair amount of controversy over his goals and management style before leaving that post in 1998 to become President and CEO of The J. Paul Getty Trust, which includes the Getty Art Museum, Research Institute, Conservation Institute, the Grant Program, educational initiatives and an endowment portfolio.

But frankly, the string of controversies that Mr Munitz experienced before taking on the Getty Trust job pales in comparison to the one that he has gotten himself into now. This past October, the L.A. Observed blog began a series of blog posts that was triggered by a management shakeup at the Getty Museum in which the Museum's director, Deborah Gribbon, announced her resignation. An unnamed source told L.A. Observed the following in the first post about the management shakeup:

"[T]he art world has been buzzing for over a year about the increasingly toxic" working environment up on the Brentwood hill and the departures of long-time staff. Writes the source: "It's gotten to the point where senior staff don't have any time to do serious work -- it's now all about internal politics and palace intrigue."

That broadside was followed by the next post on another L.A. Times article that contained the following observations about Mr. Munitz:

Said Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and past president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors: "My chief concern is that Barry Munitz, who came to the Getty without any background or knowledge of museums or art history, is making moves that have enormous consequence for Los Angeles, for culture in Southern California and beyond. "I am very worried that there is a toxic atmosphere at the Getty, and I lay it at his door. This concerns a cultural legacy for all of us" . . .

"I've watched with great sadness as much of the great people who created the Getty Center and had such great ambitions for it have left in recent years," said Barbara Whitney, who in August resigned as the museum's associate director for administration and public affairs. "People have been talking for a long time about how bad things were at the Getty. I can only imagine how intolerable it must have become for her. Part of the reason why I left was that the place had become totally internally focused, with a lot of intrigue about who was in or out of favor, and, it seemed to me, that a huge number of really talented professionals were being wasted."

And if that were not enough, after another post the next day, Tyler Green, art critic for Bloomberg News based in Washington, stated the following at ArtsJournal.com:

My email overfloweth. If I were a Getty boardmember, I would be on the phone to prominent, long-term ex-employees trying to learn whatever I can . . .

In three years of doing this site, no single issue has generated more email than Gribbon's ouster . . . Literally 100 percent of my email, from Getty staff and ex-staff, is running against Munitz. Nearly every emailer is saying morale is pitiful, Munitz' decisions regarding staff and dismissal have been caustic and destructive, and everyone knows that it's only going to get worse. There are more major stories about Munitz' tenure coming down the pike. From what I'm hearing, his board will not be able to ignore what's coming."

Those three posts were followed by this next one -- interestingly entitled "Does the Getty monitor email?" -- that includes the following comment from L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight:

True or false: For more than 20 years, the person running the J. Paul Getty Museum has had not a whit of professional experience in art, art history, art collecting, art museum management or curatorial practice.

Time's up. If you answered "false," go sit in the back of the class.

The correct response is "true." The final word on the Getty Museum has been in the hands of an amateur since at least 1983, bizarre as that might seem . . .

Munitz, a former university administrator and businessman, raised a lot of eyebrows when he assumed the Getty CEO job nearly seven years ago. Some of it came from his involvement in the 1988 collapse of a Texas savings and loan. But partly the consternation was caused by the absence of any art, cultural or museum experience on his resume. . .

On the volatile matter of the resignation of his most important employee, Munitz is surely compromised. Either he's mendacious or a bad manager. The choice is not encouraging.

But all of that is simply a lead-in to the most recent development, which is this post on an L.A. Times report from early June (already archived) that chronicles Mr. Munitz's lavish spending and petty demands, and the resentment of the Getty Museum staff members that has resulted. The following are a few excerpts from the Times article:

Munitz is a man of grand appetites, a player among Los Angeles' elite whose effusive personality and risk-taking management style have won praise even as they have alienated some of the trust's most respected staff members. . .

Records show that he has employed the Getty's money and reputation to do favors for friends, once using trust letterhead to petition a state agency on behalf of a securities trader -- related to his wife by marriage -- convicted of fraud in the 1980s.

He has dispatched his office's driver to pick up videotapes of recent episodes of "Law & Order" and "The West Wing," instructed his assistants to express mail him umbrellas when he travels, and asked them to track down items for his wife, Anne T. Munitz.

"ATM saw in Europe but can't find her Tropicana blood orange juice, no pulp, not from concentrate," Munitz said in one dictation. "Can you look on the website and find out where we can get this on a regular basis locally?"

[snip]

His critics say he has filled the Getty's top ranks with loyalists, transforming the trust into a bitter, divided place that has hemorrhaged talent.

"Barry and his key staff members not only lack the expertise, but have little regard -- and actually seem to have contempt -- for those who do have it," said Barbara Whitney, who resigned in 2004 as the museum's associate director for administration and public affairs.

"The people who dreamed the Getty Center, designed it, worked together, built it, and then opened it to the public with such acclaim and success -- within a few years of the opening, those same people were being treated like idiots by a handful of bureaucrats that Munitz brought in," she said.

This time it appears that the flap won't blow over anytime soon. As this L.A. Times article reports, Mr. Munitz is now coming under severe criticism from prominent political figures:

Amid national attention to excesses at nonprofits, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has rebuked the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust, saying it has failed to curb Chief Executive Barry Munitz's lavish pay, perks and travel.

"Charities shouldn't be funding their executives' gold-plated lifestyles," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said this week in a statement to The Times. His committee is considering the first major overhaul of laws governing nonprofit organizations in 30 years.

"I'm concerned that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' than doing its job of protecting Getty's assets for charitable purposes," he said.

Grassley's comments came in response to a June 10 Times story that related how Munitz, who makes more than $1.2 million and is among the nation's highest-paid leaders of nonprofits, had traveled the world first class at Getty expense, often with his wife. Records showed that even when the trust was cutting staff, Munitz used Getty resources on pet projects and favors for friends.

"The board's failure is especially troubling, because the Getty is a private foundation that doesn't rely on outside donations and therefore doesn't need to be responsive to potential donors," Grassley said.

Which prompted the following observation from L.A. Times columnist, Steve Lopez:

Tuscan villas, $1,000-a-night hotel rooms, yachting on the Dalmatian coast. You throw a party, and this guy's there, all smiles and company credit cards. When they gave Munitz the job in 1998, he apparently assumed he was supposed to actually live like a Getty.

Even as the Getty was handing pink slips to sobbing security guards in 2003 and taking other cruel whacks at the budget, Munitz pulled up to work in a gleaming, brand new $72,000 Porsche Cayenne SUV. He had told an aide he wanted the "best possible sound system" and "biggest possible sunroof," all of it on the Getty dime.

Then, while other employees were told that no amount of prayer or groveling would win them a raise, the high-rolling Munitz lobbied for an annual bump from $1 million to $1.2 million.

You can criticize his chutzpah if you like. Me? I want him as my agent.

Agent? That may just be the next career soon for the talented Mr. Munitz.

Posted by Tom at July 4, 2005 11:19 AM |

Comments

Awesome post.
And on a holiday, no less.

Posted by: Banjo Jones at July 4, 2005 5:38 PM

Great recounting of Munitz's past. With the story continuing to unfold in Los Angeles, you should do some more research into his past.

I have been writing about him for well over a year - even before the current scandals of the week, but I knew little of his past.

And I hope you made it through the storm OK. My Houston/Galveston friends are now scattered all over the state trying to get back home.

Brady Westwater
www.lacowboy.blogspot.com

Posted by: Brady Westwater at September 25, 2005 11:33 AM

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