The New Sun Newspaper

The Getty Center

Last December the city of Los Angeles was finally delivered its long awaited Getty Center, after an extraordinary gestational period of 14 years, one billion dollars and relentless media coverage. The Getty Center had been in the news for over ten years, and by the time architect Richard Meier's opus was unveiled to the public, the hype had reached a frenzied peak. More than 700 journalists descended on the 110-acre plot overlooking the Pacific, high above the San Diego freeway. Monster traffic jams ensued on the nearby streets of Bel Air and Brentwood, and area residents complained they couldn't find room to put their garbage bins out on the street.

Twenty four years ago a comparable situation occurred, when the original Getty Museum opened in Malibu to tremendous public interest (and derision on the part of critics), creating major traffic congestion and parking problems, leading neighborhood residents to sue.

Both the museum in Malibu and the Getty Center in Brentwood were created with money from oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. But the Malibu museum, although Getty never visited it, was somehow symbolic of the notoriously close-fisted tycoon. He invested $18 million in the recreation of an ancient villa from Herculaneum, Italy -- stating at the time that what he did not want was a Modernist building -- but was unwilling to spend the money acquiring important works of art, resulting in an uneven collection.

The new Getty Center, while a direct result of the $700 million J. Paul Getty left to his museum after his death in 1976, has become a tremendous enterprise (a museum, five institutes and a grant program) with an identity that is hard to define. The greatest irony lies, perhaps, in the fact that the endowment left by a man with a mediocre art collection, partly because of his unwillingness to spend money, ended up in the hands of a group of individuals determined to establish a new cultural mecca.

The museum trustees were left with a formidable amount of money: Once the estate was settled six years later, the J. Paul Getty Trust inherited $1.2 billion. The endowment now stands at $4.5 billion.

The inception of an arts microcosm began in 1981 with Harold Williams, a former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who became the first president and CEO of the Trust. Six entities were created: the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Education Institute for the Arts, the Getty Information Institute and the Getty Grant Program. For one of the largest arts-related commissions of the century, the Trust chose New York architect Richard Meier.

Meiers's off-white, Modernist complex, which the Trust describes as a campus, is built, in large part, of Italian travertine, aluminum paneling and glass.

The sheer scale of the place is dizzying; the setting breath-taking, with the Pacific crashing down below. Because of the spectacular setting, it is difficult not to be impressed by Meier's work, but a closer look reveals many of the inconsistencies Meier wrote about himself in his recent book Building the Getty.

Meier had to operate in close collaboration with the Getty design advisory committee, and was obliged to integrate the work of several designers he did not feel comfortable working with. When Meier refused to do the museum galleries as "period rooms" the Trust brought in decorator Thierry Despont to design the decorative arts galleries. Despont put in paneling, fabric on the walls and used colors that might have worked in a French chateau, but simply is the antithesis to Meier's style.

Robert Irwin, a California artist, was commissioned to create a central garden. Irwin and Meier's clashes have been well documented and while Irwin's garden has the potential for being fantastical, it is too early to tell (not all the plants and flowers have grown in) to tell whether it will eventually work, stylistically, with Meier's pristine, sleek buildings.

The museum, which set about to amass a solid collection in record time, was given $1.5 billion to shop around with. Elbowing its way into the international arts community, the deep-pocketed Getty museum was often been regarded as a threat to other institutions wishing to acquire works of art. On the other hand, the entities that the public don't get to visit, such as the Conservation Institute, are already hugely influential around the world in an entirely different way, funding projects to help preserve and repair works of art, from a cathedral facade in Prague, to Egypt's valley of the Queens.

Ultimately, the Getty Center is a cultural mammoth with an ambitious agenda. Its most immediate problem is dealing with the severe lack of parking spaces. If anything, the Getty has made Angelenos walk.

by Olivia Snaije

Juggling Man, 1610 - 1615, by Adriaen de Vries. The bronze depicts a nude male figure in the act of juggling what appears to be two plates, as he steps with his right foot upon a bellows and glances downward.
The Getty Center, The Museum's entrance facade, seen from the tram arrival plaza at the Getty Center.
Il Prospetto del Castel' St. Angiolo con lo Sparo della Girandola, 1780 - 85, by Francesco Panini. Hand-colored (watercolor and gouache) etching depicting a firework display exploding over the Castel Saint'Angelo. Part of the Getty Research Institute exhibition: Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe.