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Spending a fortune. The Getty art museum has spent 10 years trying to figure out what to do with all its inherited oil money. Some people don't like the way it spreads the wealth; others say it does a remarkable job at spending a required $140 million a year

THE J. Paul Getty Museum has had a big - and growing - problem ever since its beginning a decade ago: How do you spend many times more money every year than even the richest other museums can afford? The answer: very, very carefully.

The Getty endowment of $3.1 billion now generates about $140 million a year. And under the terms of the Getty Trust, the museum must spend it. One way to do that is to refrain from simply buying up as many expensive works as the Getty can afford, and instead buying ones to serve well-defined artistic and historic purposes.

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Another way is to launch ground-breaking programs in art-related fields such as education.

Not unexpectedly in a world of art and critics, not everyone agrees on how well the Getty is meeting its responsibility.

``Initially there was a certain amount of hysteria,'' said museum director John Walsh an in interview, ``because it was assumed that all that money was going to be dumped in the art market, and we were just going to become the great pirates of the art world, sailing around and blowing everyone else out of the water.

Mr. Walsh adds, ``The paradox now is, they're saying we're too timid, and if we continue to be well behaved, we won't make it.'' He cites the museum's reluctance to bid for the well-publicized ``Sunflowers'' painting by Van Gogh, which sold a few months ago for $39.9 million to a Japanese corporation.

``We can buy five more important things than that, frankly,'' he says, ``and we're in the process of doing it now.''

Walsh was talking in his art-adorned office in the museum, a re-created ancient Roman villa that houses a collection noted for decorative arts (especially French furniture) and Greek and Roman statues. His comments came in response to charges made by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Getty's collection is ``faulty,'' Mr. Hoving asserted in an interview after the recent publication of articles in The Times (London) and Connoisseur magazine criticizing the museum's buying practices. The co-authors of the articles were Hoving, who is now editor of Connoisseur, and Geraldine Norman.

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``In the last 10 years probably 100 to 120 of the finest possible works of art have come on the market, and they've [the Getty curators] failed to buy some of them,'' Hoving says. ``I know from my buying activities that the more [artwork] you get [that is] great, the more comes to you, and the powerful who have great art collections tend to want to be with the best.''

Such controversies over spending have been around nearly as long as the Getty itself.

It was 1953 when the man Forbes magazine once called the world's wealthiest started his small museum here in Malibu, partly for tax purposes. J.Paul Getty's small collection was open only two afternoons a week and was displayed in his house. It was another 20 years before the collection was moved to its present home.

``What Getty had in mind is pretty mysterious,'' Walsh says. ``I don't think anybody knows for sure. We know he collected in a few areas only - antiquities, French furniture, decorative arts, paintings. It was very narrow.''

For the first two decades, the museum was considered lightweight - ``an oddball collection,'' says Perry Rathbone, former director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

After Getty died in 1976, his bequest was made known shortly thereafter, and disbursements began in 1982. From just a handful of employees, the museum and its parent trust have since grown to nearly 600 employees. ``An embarrassment of riches,'' one headline proclaimed upon the announcement in 1978 that the bulk of oil baron Getty's fortune, an endowment of $1.2 billion then, would generate buying power 20 to 30 times as great as the country's richest museums.

``How do you spend $42 million a year?'' asked another headline at the time, when even that figure caused concern that the Getty fortunes would turn the art world upside down by inflating art market prices to levels only the Getty could afford.

HAVE those fears turned out to be well founded? Art experts contacted for comment characterized the Getty as ``prudent,'' ``cautious,'' and ``careful.'' ``They've been very responsible and astute in not attending auctions, or in dropping out, when their very presence might have inflated bids out of proportion,'' says Judson Emerick, chairman of the art department at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif.

``It's been their way of helping to keep prices at a sane level,'' he notes. ``From the beginning the press has exaggerated everything to do with the Getty - the threat of its money, the smell of scandal,'' says Stephan Garrett, director of the Long Beach Museum and former director of the Getty. ``You can't be rich and powerful without tending to attract adverse opinion.''

``I've never known them to operate with anything but dignity, professionalism, and integrity,'' says Julia Turrell, art director of the Des Moines Art Center.

Events seem to bear out those assessments. Now, nearly 10 years down the road, the art world is still right side up. And there's even some praise from critics, for example, over the museum's recent acquisition of a $20 million photography collection. On another front plans were unveiled in May for a 12-building, $100 million fine-arts center on a 740-acre site overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Los Angeles Basin. Construction is to begin in 1989, and the center is to open in 1993.

In an interview, Harold Williams, president of the Getty Trust, described the management of such a huge endowment (roughly three-quarters as much as Harvard's) as having special responsibilities and opportunities: ``We can take some risks, and we can make some long-term commitments, and we can look for those places where the field needs help - where it wouldn't get that help but for an institution like the Getty.

``One thing that makes the Getty unusual,'' Mr. Williams continues, ``is that we were left an enormous amount of money with no strings, no instructions from Getty as to what we would collect and not collect ... and with a broad mandate to do some things that are related to what museums do, but are much broader in the way they affect the public.''

JULIA TURRELL, who was senior curator for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art for nearly six years before going to the Des Moines Art Museum, had an opportunity to observe the Getty closely. She characterizes the people there as ``a group of consummate professionals, dedicated to the museum world as a whole, not just [the museum's] own selfish ends.'' She says she saw the Getty give grants to many local arts organizations, participate in symposiums, and offer professional support and backing to numerous arts-related activities.

One of those activities, trustees decided after year-long inquiries into a number of arts-related fields, was arts education. ``We read the literature, talked to teachers, administrators, and scholars,'' says Leilani Duke, director of the Getty Center for Arts Education. ``We kept hearing that arts education in this country is considered an ornament, a frill, a recreation, a therapy. `It's nice if you can afford it,' people said....

The Getty Center for Arts Education was established to challenge the public perception that art education was nice if you could afford it, but essentially a frill. A ``theoretical'' projects branch commissioned papers and symposiums. An ``advocacy arm'' aimed findings at teachers, parents, superintendents, school boards, and arts administrators. There have been such projects as TV programming for children and a model curriculum tried out in 21 Los Angeles area school districts.

The arts education program is one of seven programs, in addition to the museum, that use Getty funding. Others include a museum management institute, an institute that addresses problems of conserving art, a program for art and film, and an art history information program that is trying to computerize in depth the Western world's knowledge of art and architecture.

Referring broadly to such activities, director Walsh says, ``It's a narrow mandate, in that it is so far confined to visual arts, but within that, it's extremely adventurous.''

BESIDES working out ways of spending its money wisely, the Getty has had to face allegations that it has bought fakes, including a Greek statue known as the Getty Kouros and a Renaissance painting attributed to Flemish master Dieric Bouts, each purchased for about $7 million. The Getty continues to assert the authenticity of the statue and painting.

``There is room for great diversity of opinion about the authenticity of these works,'' says Pomona College's Judson Emerick.

``But the Getty has acted responsibly in the wake of those allegations,'' he adds, ``by being frank with the public as to uncertainties.''

Adding fuel to the fire of criticism, a former curator of antiquities was alleged to have involved the museum in questionable acquisition and tax practices, including inflating art appraisals for tax write-offs. He was said to have gone on sabbatical in 1984, but more recently the Getty has said he was removed for ``serious violations of the museum's policies regarding donations.''

In a large footnote to how to spend all that money, there is the question of how to keep from losing it. In 1983 the Getty agreed to sell its own stake in Getty Oil to Pennzoil. But then management changed its mind and transferred the stock to Texaco at a higher price, nearly doubling the trust's enormous endowment. Texaco has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and could look at the money it owes the museum's endowment as a way to meet its debts.

The Getty Trust has initiated a suit against Texaco, alleging that the company has reneged on its promise to indemnify the trust against lawsuits arising from the Getty Oil sale. Some experts believe Texaco's Chapter 11 filing may free the company from that indemnification, but Williams, the trust president, says, ``We expect that [indemnity] to hold.''

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