LOS ANGELES Michael Brand left behind the worries of how to raise money for museum exhibits and expansion when he left the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
At the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, his worries are more about finding the best way to spend.
"I think this is pretty much of a dream job," he said when we caught up with him at his office overlooking the expansive Getty Center, a year and a half into his new position. "It's an extraordinary institution in a great city with two beautiful campuses. It's a well-resourced international organization with a terrific staff and a great collection. The potential to do creative things here is remarkable in many ways."
The modern Getty Center, which opened in 1997, overlooks Los Angeles in the suburb of Brentwood. The classical Getty Villa, which reopened in 2006, overlooks the ocean at Malibu. The two campuses are a little more than 10 miles apart.
Brand was executive director of the Virginia Museum for five years, presiding over the capital campaign that led to the current building project. He was recruited by the Getty in 2005 at a time when conflicts over lavish spending and Italian demands for the return of art made the job a hot potato. He was used to challenges of a different sort.
"During my five years [at the Virginia Museum]," he said in a voice that still hints of his original home in Australia, "we had 9/11; we had the sniper; we had the worst economic crisis since the Depression; we had four rounds of budget cuts; we had two hurricane direct hits; we had a drought. So there was no shortage of challenges."
Primarily, though, the challenge was to find resources - and to convince Richmonders that they really did have a significant institution.
"When you look at it, the collection is actually more cosmopolitan than our collection here. Ours is basically Western art, European, Greek, Roman, except when you get to photographs. That was one of my challenges at the VMFA, getting people to recognize that you are very international and cosmopolitan."
At the Getty, he said, "it's more of an intellectual challenge than fundraising. The big challenge is the antiquities situation."
That "situation" involves the collection of ancient Greek and Roman art amassed for the Getty Villa under former antiquities curator Marion True. She's now a defendant in Italian courts, charged with receiving stolen goods. Italy and Greece have asked for the return of objects. Italy recently threatened to halt all collaboration with the Getty on other projects if an agreement isn't reached by the end of the month.
"The most important thing, you have to acknowledge that some things in your collection might have to go," Brand said. "As more information comes out, you need to do what's honest and fair, and make an appropriate decision."
That has already happened with four works returned to Greece. Italy has claims on 52 objects, one of them an object already returned to Greece.
"Italy is a much more complicated situation," he said.
One of the biggest objects of contention is a larger-than-life statue of Aphrodite, which Italy contends was pirated from an archaeological site in Sicily. The statue is one of the museum's signature pieces.
"There are issues with the provenance," Brand said. "We don't entirely accept the Italian story, where it comes from a specific site in Sicily. . . . We can't see why they're so certain about it."
In May, a Getty scientific workshop on the statue analyzed limestone, pollen and dirt traces in the object to see if there were clues to its origin.
"We're looking for totally open, scientific ways to reach a solution," he said.
During his tenure at the Virginia Museum, a somewhat similar situation ended with the return of two paintings that were determined to have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Brand has gotten good marks from Californians for his initial handling of the antiquities issue. Unlike the previous director, he flew to Italy to negotiate.
Once that issue is settled, Brand can more fully appreciate the dreamy parts of the job.
"I'm the first director to have both buildings open," he said. "I have this amazing opportunity and challenge to make the most of it, which is very interesting."
Admission to both museums and to special exhibitions is free, which means that blockbusters can take a different approach. Without the pressure to sell tickets to pay for them, topics can be more focused.
"We can do really interesting shows that people might not buy a ticket to see it, but once they're here and they see it, they enjoy it," he said.
"Our greatest challenge is to use that ability to do things differently, to be highly creative and do things no one else can do."