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J. Paul Getty Trust GC on the Art of In-House Law
The J. Paul Getty Trust is the world's richest art institution with an estimated endowment of $5.5 billion. It operates the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute, all based in Los Angeles. Its properties include the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, which opened in 1997 and the Getty Villa in Malibu on the renovated site of the original J. Paul Getty Museum. The original museum was founded by the oil baron J. Paul Getty in 1954 and its collection included Greek and Roman antiquities, 18th-century French furniture and European paintings.
THE QUICK BIO
Stephen Clark, 53, joined the Getty Trust in 2008 as vice president and general counsel after 14 years in the law department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where he became deputy GC in 2002. Clark started working at MoMA in an entry-level position after graduating from Hamilton College with an English degree in 1981. "I worked every kind of low-paid job at the start, including the information desk and the operations department," he said. He eventually crossed the street to become assistant director of the American Craft Museum from 1986 to 1987 but was already thinking about the next phase of his career. "Law school was always something in the back of my mind even though I really liked working at the museum," said Clark. "My father was a lawyer and the idea of being a lawyer always appealed to me." He decided to enroll at Fordham University School of Law in 1987, graduating in 1990. He had a clerkship lined up with New York U.S. District Judge Inzer Wyatt after graduation, but when Wyatt died during Clark's final year of law school, Clark joined the New York office of the firm then known as Brown & Wood instead. "I worked with a great trial lawyer, Russel H. "Cap" Beatie, who gave me the chance to work on a broad range of issues, including product liability, securities and land use. It was an interesting variety, which continued when I left Brown & Wood to continue working with Cap at a small firm called Beatie, King & Abate."
In 1993, Clark got married his wife had children from a previous marriage and decided it was time for more work-life balance. He turned back to MoMA, whose general counsel, Beverly Wolff, was looking to bring an attorney into the department. "Even though I liked what I was doing at the firm, I wanted to be able to spend time with the children." He started work in 1994 as a legal generalist at MoMA, eventually building experience in governance, contract, labor and employment issues as well as art-specific matters including provenance, title and copyright issues. Before leaving MoMA for the Getty, Clark served as president of the Museum Association of New York, participated on several New York Bar Association committees and began writing and speaking on issues connected to the museum world, particularly WWII-era art provenance. He's also developed expertise on the surprising variety of legal issues tied to the contemporary art world alone. For example, conceptual works require their own certifications of ownership and creative rights and artwork featuring nudity or other controversial physical or message elements always almost require legal review. The mere scale of an exhibit can also require legal involvement with regard to structural, zoning, transportation and related issues, Clark says, noting last year's installation of Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass, an installation involving a 360-ton boulder at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In-house attorneys at museums are a relatively small club because only the largest tend to have their own law departments. "We are all on a first-name basis," he said, and in New York, most would get together for brown bag lunches on a regular basis.
About the only job that could have drawn Clark away from MoMA was the Getty, he said. "There's so much variety here; I have the opportunity to do something different every day." His experience at MoMA fit the immediate needs of the Getty. Clark was recruited by James Wood, the former Art Institute of Chicago chief brought in after provenance and governance controversies led to the resignation of former Getty president and CEO Barry Munitz in 2006. Munitz had come under fire related to provenance issues in the Getty's museum collections and expense and severance controversies that led to an investigation by the California attorney general's office. Later that year, the AG concluded that Munitz "violated his legal duty" when he used Getty Trust employees to "run his personal errands" and concluded that Getty trustees had improperly used charitable funds to pay travel expenses for Munitz's wife and buy gifts of artwork for retiring board members. Wood died suddenly in June 2010, and Clark now reports to his successor, James Cuno, who like Wood joined the Getty from the Art Institute.
INSIDE AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
The Getty has two other attorneys working on staff Maureen Whalen, a former Disney intellectual property attorney, handles IP issues at the Getty Trust as assistant general counsel. "We do a lot of publishing books, online materials, images and scholarly material and Maureen's a leading authority on metadata (data that describes other data)." Assistant general counsel Kimberly Wong, former senior vice president and GC of American Golf Corp., handles employment issues, reviews contracts and works with Getty's facilities and security departments. "One thing I really value is problem-solving ability," Clark said.
The Getty's accelerating emphasis on the digital humanities, Clark says, is one major initiative his department is working on, and for the first time, the trust is starting to raise outside funds. "We are fortunate to have substantial assets, but we also have big ambitions and it's essential for people to support our programs locally, nationally and internationally, in order to sustain the level of excellence the Getty has achieved in conservation, education, research, exhibitions and publications," he said.
The Getty Trust's primary outside counsel is Munger, Tolles & Olson. "They've done great work in the past to help us sort out various governance matters and have also helped to resolve issues about the provenance of certain antiquities. The MTO lawyers, particularly Ronald Olson and Luis Li, understand the Getty's institutional needs.
"Art institutions are a little quirky. When we talk to Luis about a problem, our first focus is on the right thing to do. We exist for the benefit of the public, so it's important to think that through and not simply focus on narrow legal issues."
Clark says he's cut the Getty's legal budget "a lot" since he arrived, in part because the legal issues linked to Getty's past troubles with governance and provenance have been resolved. "Every dollar we spend on outside counsel is a dollar we can't spend on acquisitions, education or public programs," he said. "I'm perfectly willing to pay the going rate for high-quality work, but our outside counsel understand that their bills must be reasonable and appropriate." As for his role and the role of museum counsel going forward, "Legal issues were peripheral for a long time in museums, but now they're central," said Clark, referring to the range of governance, provenance and intellectual property matters that now face institutions like the Getty Trust.
"Lawyers need to be involved in the decision making and operation of these institutions." He doesn't discount the creature comforts either. "It's wonderful to be able to work with smart, interesting people at MoMA and the Getty, and a joy to be at the Getty Center, which is such a beautiful place. I see the gardens, smell the jasmine in the air and watch the sun setting over the Pacific in the evening," he added. "And I can walk the galleries after they're closed."
An avid cyclist, Clark sometimes rides with Cuno on weekends and sometimes rides to and from work. His wife, Karen, owned an antique gallery in New York before moving to Los Angeles, and their children are also involved in the arts daughter Zaza, 28, is a painter; son Wiley, 24, manages a decorative art dealers' co-op in Manhattan. Son John, 16, a high school student, is a foil fencer and fly fisherman in his spare time. Most recent movies were Lincoln and Django, Unchained, and Clark adds that he's been reading P.G. Wodehouse lately with John and has recently finished Robert Caro's most recent volume on Lyndon Johnson, as well as Bernard Bailyn's The Barbarous Years. Clark enjoys skiing and hiking in the mountains of California, and works with the Getty's volunteer team on trail restoration in local state parks.
This article originally appeared in The Recorder.