10.19.08

Torrid Affairs at the Getty Museum

In an excerpt from her new book Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, the author explores the seamy underworld of stolen antiquities.

One thing stood out about the Getty Museum, and that was the sex. Numerous current and former Getty employees describe the atmosphere from the 1970s onward as convivial in the most carnal sense of the word.

“It was like Peyton Place,” was how one former employee described it. “Sodom and Gomorrah” was the phrase used by another. Peggy Garrity, a lawyer who sued the Getty over a client’s sexual harassment claim, put it this way: “They were fucking like rabbits behind the paintings.”

To some degree, this was to be expected. The Getty was an elite institution, isolated on a hillside in Malibu, and later on a higher mountain in Brentwood, hosting academic stars and worshipful young researchers. Sex was bound to happen. But something about the Getty seemed to facilitate, if not exactly encourage, illicit sexual behavior.

“There was a hazy smoke of sex in the atmosphere, of staff members sleeping with one another,” recalled a former Getty official. “People at a high level of the museum had a reputation for screwing around, for institutional misbehavior. People didn’t know how to behave.”

The sexual shenanigans were not directly tied to the problems the Getty would later face over stolen antiquities. But they were not insignificant either, creating a backdrop of interpersonal drama and tensions that played out fatally when the museum faced substantive issues over acquisitions, governance, or finances. This had a pronounced impact on the functionality of the institution and its credibility within the museum world.

Such was the case with Harold Williams, the president of the Getty Trust, who left his wife to marry in 1987 the second-in-command at the trust, Nancy Englander, widely reputed to be brilliant at her job. But Englander had to resign from the board as a result, and Williams was subsequently furious because of it. By the mid 1990s, he and the board were barely on speaking terms, according to a well-placed official at the time.

Jiri Frel, meanwhile, was known for his priapic tendencies; he had a three-sided desk useful for cornering research assistants against the window. (The research assistants did not always complain, it should be noted.)

“There was a hazy smoke of sex in the atmosphere, of staff members sleeping with one another,” recalled a former Getty official who arrived in the 1980s and experienced a culture shock when his complaints about unprofessional behavior were rebuffed. “People at a high level of the museum had a reputation for screwing around, for institutional misbehavior. The place was young, boisterous, ambitious. People didn’t know how to behave.”

Another senior official, in the 1990s, was similarly shocked, but was told by members of the board to lay off. “You’re coming off as an incredible prude,” he was told.

An affair between the associate director of the museum, Deborah Gribbon, and George Goldner, the curator of the drawings department, was notable enough to be mentioned in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by another Getty employee; it led to rising tensions between Goldner and museum director John Walsh, who already shared a mutual dislike. (Some said Goldner coveted Walsh’s job, but Goldner denied this, saying instead, “The truth is, we never liked each other from the beginning.”)

Goldner, an ambitious cut-up and skilled mimic, would entertain guests at London dinner parties by mocking Walsh’s slow manner of speaking, lying on the table and mimicking his boss to general amusement. From a museum standpoint, the affair was awkward; Walsh instructed her to end it, and arranged for the Getty to pay Goldner to leave quietly and work as a consultant in New York. Goldner ended up at the Met, where he became chairman of the department of drawings and prints.

Goldner denied that the contract in New York was because of the affair, though he acknowledged that the relationship “annoyed” John Walsh because the director was “very fond” of Gribbon himself. Goldner said the Getty allowed him to move to New York because his girlfriend, later his wife, was living there, and because “I had quite a strong record at the Getty.”

Ultimately, this culture of indiscretion burst into the public eye when a British-born curator, Nicholas Turner, sued the institution for sexual harassment and sexual discrimination in 1997. It was a modern twist on an age-old complaint.

Turner, 50 and married, began a love affair with his assistant, Kathleen Kibler, in 1996, two years after he arrived at the Getty from the British Museum to be curator of the department of drawings. When he tried to end the affair six months later, Kibler wouldn’t let him.

The legal complaint details a lurid series of scenes; she pleaded with him, telling Turner, “Everyone in the Getty has affairs,” citing Gribbon and Goldner, and she allegedly trapped Turner in his office and “got on her knees to embrace him.” When none of that worked, she threatened to destroy him and then, he alleged, falsely complained that he was sexually harassing her. Turner said that he asked Gribbon and personnel director Kris Kelly for help, and that they instead ordered him to give his ex-lover a favorable job review.

The museum settled, but in 2001 Turner filed another lawsuit, this time for fraud, over the Getty having breached a confidentiality settlement and harmed his career. The Getty in turn filed motions to keep Turner from discussing any of this, which the presiding arbitrator rejected.

None of this reflected well on the institution, which had proved itself time and again prepared to shove problems under the carpet rather than examine and deal with them. The museum had to settle yet again, for more money, and the catalogue was published in 2001, with the allegations of the forgeries reduced to footnotes.

Asked about the incident in 2008, the Getty’s spokesman, Ron Hartwig, declined to comment. “That’s water over the dam,” he said.

Excerpted from “ Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World,” by Sharon Waxman. Times Books.

More information: www.lootbook.com.