Harold M. Williams has been President and Chief Executive Officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust since 1981. A graduate of Harvard University Law School, he was Chairman of the Board of Norton Simon Incorporated, before becoming Dean and Professor of Management at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management of the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1977 President Carter named him Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a post he held for four years. Since his arrival at the Getty Trust, he has guided its metamorphosis from being primarily a museum to an organization of international stature with seven different programs, including the Getty Conservation Institute. By 1997 all of the Getty programs will be located at the new Getty Center, now being constructed in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles.
This spring, Mr. Williams spoke with Janet Bridgland, who first came to work for the Getty Trust in 1983 and served as the GCI's Documentation Program Director during the latter half of the 1980s.
Janet Bridgland: When you became President of the Getty Trust, it was a very different organization. At the time, the Getty Museum was the only program that existed. Did you have any idea that you'd ultimately preside over such an all-encompassing arts institution?
Harold Williams: Not really. The only things I knew when I became President were that the Trustees agreed that the Getty should be more than a museum—and they seemed to be quite open as to what it ought to become—and that Mr. Getty's estate, which was due to close at some indefinite time in the future, would give us an endowment of just over a billion dollars.
I started off by telling the Trustees that I would take a year before I would come back to them with a plan. I then hired Lani Duke and Nancy Englander and said to them, "Look, I don't care what you think the Getty ought to become any more than I care what I think it ought to become. It's our responsibility to go out in the field and see what's missing. This is a unique institution, with a unique opportunity and responsibility."
We spent the year traveling the Western world, looking at the needs in the field—and it was clear that in the area of conservation there was much that needed to be done.
Were there any surprises in what you found?
One of my hypotheses was that we needed to get more people into conservation. But when we got out there we found that we needed to increase the demand for conservation before increasing the supply, and so what seemed to be more compelling was an appreciation of the need for conservation and opportunities for conservators to advance their skills.
We also looked at Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, which was struggling at the time. It was obvious that most conservation professionals had no way of either sharing their experiences with others or accessing what others had done. Traditional conservators are basically bench people. They like to do rather than write about or communicate what they've done. That seemed to be an area where there was a genuine need. It was also clear that there was inadequate work being done in the application of science to conservation in an environment in which the object and its context were central.
Once you'd completed your assessment, where did you go from there?
Well, I came to the Trustees in May 1982 with a plan that included a conservation institute with the four elements still very much there—scientific research applied to conservation; information resources, or what we now call documentation; training for conservation professionals; and special field projects that brought together each of these elements.
One of the questions we had for ourselves was, "What kind of leadership do we want for the Conservation Institute?" When we began searching for a director, we found polarization within the field between, say, hands-on conservators and people dedicated to the scientific side, as well as differences between the kind of apprenticeship training that occurs in Europe and the more formal training generally found in this country. Conservation was not a field that had a cohesiveness to it, and we were concerned about that. We wanted the Institute to be a coalescing force, to help define the field rather than become identified with any faction.
We concluded that we needed leadership that would have an appreciation for the objects and the various activities that make up conservation--from scholarship and science to the actual conservation treatment. We had difficulty finding someone who we felt could lead the institution and not be identified with any of the factions. We finally settled on Luis Monreal.
As I recall, Luis had a much broader vision for the Institute than the Trust did originally. Did that pose any difficulty with the Trustees, or were they readily convinced of the importance of a broader mandate?
They took it very much in stride. I had to work it through with Luis myself to understand what and why, but I became very enthusiastic about the idea of going beyond what one might call museum art into cultural heritage more broadly. It made a lot of sense—and that was a transforming moment for the Institute.
What role did you see for the Institute as distinct from other conservation organizations that existed at the time?
The reason we identified conservation as an area for the Getty to address was because there were so few organizations and resources dedicated to conservation. What I had said to the Trustees in 1982 was that even if we spent all of our resources on conservation, we would still not make a large dent in the problem because the needs were so enormous. So in my mind there was absolutely no competition between ourselves and other conservation organizations. Indeed, it seemed to me that the needs in the field were so great that our role was to complement what they were doing and collaborate with them.
I think it's important that we collaborate and cooperate with international organizations because there is so much that needs to be done with so few resources. At the same time, we should not only be influenced by their sense of what the priorities ought to be but also have some impact on them.
How do you see the Institute fitting in with the other Trust entities?
In the early stages, I felt it important that the programs have the opportunity to take their own direction within the context of the agreed-upon vision, recognizing that as they developed their own directions and points of view, they would move in directions that were not necessarily fully consistent with the directions in which other programs were moving.
That, to me, has become a source of great strength. I didn't want to see the Getty as a homogenized or monolithic totality. It's the only place in the world that brings all these perspectives together under one umbrella. Certainly one reason for wanting to have them all ultimately at one site was so that the different perspectives could interact with one another, and we could realize the richness that would result from the interaction of the varied perspectives and points of view. Out of that, new perspectives, new knowledge, and different ways of defining the issues would emerge. But it would take time for each of these programs to develop their own identity and sense of purpose so that when they came together they didn't homogenize. They could collaborate and work together, with each bringing its own point of view to the issue at hand. In many respects that's exactly what's happening.
The work of the GCI has underscored for all of us the importance of cultural heritage conservation. Also, the Institute has taken the initiative in working on collaborative projects with other programs and has shown the way in terms of the kinds of collaboration that I would like to see develop.
So in many respects, it's not a bad thing that the programs have had several years to mature independently before coming together in the new Getty Center.
I think it's critical. Otherwise they wouldn't have their own personalities to bring to the common mix. You know, you talk about maturity, but I like to think of the GCI and the other programs as still adolescent. In a way, I hope they remain adolescent. Maturation has some virtues, but I think the essence of the Getty has to be a continuing process of self-questioning, self-doubt, and self-challenge. Are we doing what we ought to be doing? Are we justified in continuing to do what we're doing? Where are the fields going? This is an institution like no other, and it's too easy for us to believe our publicity and become self-congratulatory and then lose our edge. We have to continue to challenge ourselves. We are an institution unique in the world, and that carries with it an enormous responsibility.
The conservation field itself has changed dramatically in the last five to ten years.
And the GCI has, too, in several important respects. It has developed internally so that the various programs within the Institute are much more team-focused than they were. That, I think, reflects a difference in Miguel Angel Corzo's leadership and the stage of development of the Institute as well.
What I also find at the GCI—and it's true with a number of the programs in the Trust—is that we have evolved into a position of leadership which begins now to move us much more into the position of addressing public policy. That's happening more than I anticipated, and it enhances the responsibility of the GCI. It provides an unusual opportunity for the Institute to try to coalesce the field around issues of public policy.
Do you see this whole area of public policy and public awareness as being increasingly important for the Institute?
I think so. I don't know who else will provide it for the field. I think it will be an increasing role—guided, of course, by the fact that as a private operating foundation we cannot lobby.
In reaching the public, there's a model in the success of the environmental movement, one that we can look to and build on. The analogy to environmental preservation is appropriate, in part to remind us that conservation needs to be broader than conservation of the environment only. The environment is, of course, critically important, touching on the physical concerns of human beings, without which nothing else matters. But concern for the physical condition of humanity alone doesn't make for humanity. It's important to recognize that in a time when we're concerned about the physical condition of human beings and concerned about science and technology, it's the arts and the humanities that determine what kind of a society this will be. The preservation of the cultural heritage is our continuity with culture, with what it means to be alive.
Have your years at the Trust altered your view of the arts and their role in the life of the nation?
They haven't altered my personal view. They have underscored for me the importance of our responsibility. We have a position where we can provide a degree of leadership in defining the issues and shaping policy. At the same time, the needs are even greater than anticipated as our society seems, in some respects, to be going in the wrong direction.
What would you like your own legacy at the Getty Trust to be?
I've had a number of careers, and the reason I took on the challenge in each case was because I had a sense of what the mission of those institutions ought to be and of some things I wanted to accomplish. In each case it was a matter of organization, reorganization, and setting a direction. The Getty is the first time—the only time—that I've been involved in creating something from scratch. It's been much more challenging and much more rewarding.
I hope that the legacy is one of an institution that is and remains committed to making a significant difference to the field, an institution that is vital, that is continually reinventing itself. John Gardner uses an expression that I have appreciated and used many times, and that's the concept of a "loving critic." In some fashion that's what we need to be of ourselves. That's what our Board should be, that's what our Visiting Committees should be. We need to have institutionalized mechanisms for continually questioning whether we're doing what we ought to be doing and are doing it in the best waybecause there literally is no other place in the world like the Getty.
Well, I think you have much to be proud of.
Yes. But you can't rest on being proud.