James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Delivers AGSM Commencement Address

by University Communications,

Willamette University, Atkinson School of Management
Commencement Address, May 11, 2014
James Cuno

Good morning and congratulations on your extraordinary accomplishment. With the help of your families, friends, classmates, and teachers, you have completed the requirements for a variety of Master’s Degrees in Business, Management, and Leadership.

We applaud you. You have worked hard and have sacrificed a lot. And now you are prepared to take the next step in your personal and professional lives.

I trust that will be a big step, one that will improve the lives and livelihoods of you and your loved ones, and those of your current and future co-workers, employees, and communities. After all, I assume that’s why you dedicated these past months and years to advanced study. You want to take on new, different, and greater challenges. And you want those challenges to pay off, to make your lives and the lives of all you touch better and more rewarding.

The question is, of course, what is the better life? That question has been asked for millennia, by people everywhere and of every social and professional standing. And the answers have been many and they have been contradictory.

I know that that question has driven my life choices. I came to Willamette forty-five years ago. I had been living in England with my parents. My father was a US Air Force officer stationed there, and I was floating around trying to figure what I might do with my life after high school, hitchhiking, meeting new people, seeing new places, dreaming about the better life -- if only on the scale of more access to rock and roll music and bell bottom trousers.

Then someone from my California high school said he was applying to Willamette and that I should too. I had never heard of Willamette. And I don’t recall knowing much about it before I applied. But when I was accepted, I packed my bags and flew to Salem. It was the first time I laid eyes on the college from which I would graduate four years later.

My course through Willamette was not direct. I quit after my first year and re-joined my parents, this time in Germany. I was unsettled and searching, but never anxious. Through some family friend I learned of the Miami University of Ohio’s European Study Center in Luxembourg and I applied, was accepted, and went; again sight unseen (I had never even heard of Miami of Ohio).

But Luxembourg was perfectly located for a restless kid. It had good rail connections throughout Europe (and remember, in those days Europe was Western Europe). I could get to Paris in a few hours and to Munich in only a few more. And the students were hard working and good fun…and foreign, they were from Ohio.

I eventually returned to Willamette and graduated on time.

Willamette was a big part of my intellectual formation. Every morning of my first year, at 8 AM, in the basement of Gatke Hall, I took a Philosophy of Politics course from Ed Stillings. We read Plato’s Republic for an entire semester and we debated what it was that comprised “the good life.” From what I can now recall, we settled on this: the good life is the examined life, a life committed to sorting out the true from the false, the good from the bad, and what strengthens the community from what weakens it. And we did this in the midst of the Vietnam War and our youthful and wholly sincere efforts to condemn it and bring it to an end.

Remember, we were young. But we were fearless. We gathered on campus and read the names of the U.S. dead in a sober and respectful ceremony. We marched down State Street. We met with Governor McCall in his office. We wrote letters to Mark Hatfield. We even called Senator Wayne Morse in his office late one night. And to my memory, he answered the phone himself.

The point is, we took on challenges in pursuit of the good life and nothing seemed impossible to us.


My college experience at Willamette mirrors what an organization sociologist at Hamilton College recently wrote, when describing “a positive college experience,” something that I think also applies to a positive graduate school experience.

What’s the most important element in shaping the college experience, he was asked. “Who meets whom, and when,” he responded. “It’s the people not the programs.” What should students do to get more out of college? “In classes, pick the teacher over the topic…We found that it only takes two or three close friends and one or two great professors to have a fulfilling college experience.”

I had that experience here. Not just with Ed Stillings, but also with George McCowen and Bill Duvall in History, Ken Nolley and Bill Braden in English, Tom Brezynski in Russian, and Roger Hull in Art History. And of course my Freshman roommate, Tom Reuter. These people fed my ambitions and challenged my flat-footed thoughts. And they pushed me hard and they cared about my progress. And they did so outside the classroom, in their homes and offices, too. Even after I spent two years in San Francisco working as a warehouse stock boy and returned to Willamette as a janitor with the freedom to explore my interest in theater, they engaged me. And even after my janitorial career came to a sudden end, when the University figured out that I was sweeping halls and cleaning toilets only half-time while playing at theater the other half and getting paid full-time, I was gently “let go” in a “downsizing” move .

I still had ambition and no anxiety about the future. And so I thought about what next to do. And I concluded, as all of you did, “graduate school.” I was late in applying but somehow got into the University of Oregon’s MA program in art history. And as soon as I went and began to study modern art with Sherwin Simmons, I knew that’s what I wanted to do: get my PhD and become a teacher/scholar. Over the next two years, I took classes, wrote a thesis, got married to Sarah, also a Willamette graduate, worked in a restaurant, and applied to PhD programs, all the famous ones I could get addresses for. Somehow, I got into Harvard, and so my wife and I packed up, sold our cars, and moved east.

Over the next five years, there would again be important teacher/mentors in my life--leading art historians, towering scholars of Byzantine, High Renaissance, Golden Age Dutch, Romantic, and Modern art—and lasting friends. And the next two years, Sarah, our two babies, and I lived impoverished Vassar College junior faculty lives in Poughkeepsie, New York; still more mentors and friends.

We stayed at Vassar for three years and then moved on to UCLA for three more, Dartmouth for two, and then back to Harvard for twelve. All of these moves were undertaken in pursuit of new challenges and better opportunities for our family.

I quickly learned that I wouldn’t be happy being a professor, only. I needed to combine the solitary scholarly work with working with others on museum projects, as a team. While a PhD student, I had been introduced to art museum work (Harvard’s PhD program held its classes in the Fogg Art Museum). I worked as a “fetcher” fetching old master drawings for other students and scholars. I interned in the Director’s office and the Print Department. I got a job as a part-time Assistant Curator in the Print Department and then when the Curator, one of my PhD advisors, went on sabbatical, I took over as print curator and was responsible for organizing exhibitions. I liked working with people on collaborative projects. And so when at Vassar I had a chance to move to UCLA and take on the directorship of a print, drawings, and photography study center while teaching in the art history department—and improve our family’s lives into the bargain--we jumped at the chance.

That study center had a staff of four people but we did a lot – exhibitions, publications, worked with donors and supporters; and it was fun. But LA got complicated. We wanted to buy a house and it was expensive. Our older daughter was in the massive LA Unified School District, which went on strike. And so when the opportunity came up to move to Dartmouth and direct its Hood Art Museum and move our children to a small Vermont town across the river with a good school, we moved back to the northeast.

But soon, the opportunity came to move back to Harvard and direct the Fogg Museum in which I had worked as a graduate student.

It was a difficult decision; not professionally, the Fogg was a much bigger and better art museum, the best teaching and university-based museum there is—but personally. The family was happy in Vermont and we had only been living there a short while. But with a supportive, risk-taking wife, we decided to move and we settled in outside Cambridge, in Lexington, Mass, with its excellent public school system.

We stayed there until the children finished high school and then got a chance to move to London and lead a distinguished newly independent college specializing in the study of art history and conservation. My wife and I happily went and then, unexpectedly, a year later I was offered the directorship of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of our nation’s largest and greatest art museums. That was a difficult decision, but the museum was in the early days of a capital campaign to renovate its galleries and build a large, new gallery addition with the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano with whom I had worked at Harvard on a failed project. The new challenges were large and exciting and so my wife and I moved to Chicago.

We met those challenges and then got the chance to move to Los Angeles and take on the presidency of the J. Paul Getty Trust came up and, while we loved Chicago, the opportunity was too good to ignore. It combined everything I had been working for—art historical research, conservation practice and science, philanthropy, and art museums. And so once again, we moved.

In case you’re not counting, that’s seven jobs in twenty-eight years, on two coasts and two continents, working up from a local research center with four employees to a global institution with 1300 employers and an annual budget of some $280M.

It’s also a lot of hard work and good luck, and the support of family and friends. No one ever does anything alone in life. There are always people along the way who inspire and help you: teachers, role models, friends, and above all family. “It’s the people, not the programs, that make a difference,” as that organizational sociologist said.

Every day I draw on what I’ve learned from the people in my life, those whom I’ve mentioned, and another, my high school football coach, Ed Serpas. He taught me the value of hard work and fair play, discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork. He told me that hard work prepares you to recognize good luck when it comes; and that there’s a difference between being hurt and injured. And he taught me the principles of leadership. And I think of him all of the time.

I never went to business school or took classes in management. I’m sure I would have benefited from them had I taken them. But I Iearned from experience. I learned to work hard and take chances, to think of my family and the opportunities those chances might afford them.

A friend of ours, and with my wife one of college football and basketball’s greatest and most fanatical fans, is president of Northwestern University. With a friend, he recently wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on leadership for College presidents and CEOs. They offered straight forward advice that seems right to me on this morning’s occasion.

1. Think first, talk later. Everything you say will be taken literally. Nothing is off the record.

2. Talk less, listen more. This is especially true for a new leader. Don’t offer a vision or a plan before one exists.

3. Show up. Every constituency wants you physically in the room; don’t send a surrogate.

4. Engage veteran employees. Spend time with those who have worked for the place for a long time and are devoted to it.

5. Don’t ignore the staff, the frontline of the institution. Walk around, say hi to them, learn their names.

6. Answer nearly all messages (when possible with handwritten messages).

7. Don’t take things personally. Many bad things will happen and you will be blamed for them personally.

8. Don’t believe the hype. Things aren’t as good as they may seem. Remain humble.

10. And don’t neglect your health. Reserve time to enjoy your life. Some presidents and CEOs wonder how they can find the time to do everything asked of them. Their advice: “Act like a president and take can control of your schedule.”

And my advice, if these things don’t help you? Remember what J. Paul Getty recommended as the secret to success:

Get Up Early
Work Hard
Strike Oil.

Congratulations to all of you. And best wishes for your continued success in work and in life.