By Rona Sebastian
For those of us who are old-timers at the Getty Trust (and by that I mean anyone who, like myself, has been a part of this organization for more than 10 years), it is extremely difficult to imagine this place without Harold M. Williams at the helm. Essentially, Harold Williams is the Getty—the family of institutes and programs sitting on this hilltop was created, developed, and nurtured over time as the result of Harold's vision. Given that reality, it is easy to understand how life at the Getty will seem more than a little strange without him.
From the very beginning of his tenure as president, Harold made conservation a priority for the developing Getty Trust, and for that, the world at large should be very grateful. He acknowledged the value of taking care of our cultural heritage and the dearth of means to do so, and he launched the GCI with a clear and strong vision from which to develop our programs. That clarity was essential for us. It gave us our sea legs and served us well.
In time, when the Institute he initially defined began to identify greater possibilities for itself on the horizon—ways that we believed we could make a greater contribution to conserving the world's cultural heritage—he listened with care and concern. He encouraged us to change our boundaries and remove the limitations that our evolving profile necessitated. Like a loving parent, he recognized and supported the array of new capacities his "child" was discovering, and he encouraged us to take risks.
Harold has used the term "loving critic" many times, and indeed, he has always managed to challenge our thinking and has forced us to test our assumptions. In other words, Harold has always been tough. Although I do believe that this has been very strengthening for the GCI, and certainly for the Getty as a whole, I must admit that there were times I wished he would maybe not notice the one oddity that his keen eyes and quick intellect always caught, or that he would just say yes to our argument without requiring the extensive explanations and rationale he invariably asked for. But in his thorough ways and tough questions, he established and maintained a standard of excellence from which we have all benefited. We have learned how to meet extraordinarily high expectations, and we have grown from the challenges he has continually placed before us.
My life at the Getty began in 1985, and from the start, Harold Williams was for me the symbol of this organization's intensity, power, and intrigue. I have worked with Harold in various situations throughout these past 12 years—most often from afar but sometimes from very close. Having played roles under six different Getty directors over time and having served in a leadership role between GCI directors, I have had a varied experience of his leadership. From time to time, I have had the gratifying experience of receiving Harold's kind words of praise, but I have also had the difficult experience of receiving his criticisms—which, in the end, goes to show that he has been for me a very human leader with whom I have had a rich array of experiences to grow from.
People say that change is good, and intellectually we all accept that it appears to be the right time for Harold to leave the Getty and pursue other passions in his life. We all know that Barry Munitz will soon bring new leadership and possibly quite different challenges to the organization, and we welcome his tenure. Nonetheless, we wish we could keep Harold Williams here with us for just a little longer.
Rona Sebastian is associate director for administration at the Getty Conservation Institute.