Getty Museum

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GETTY MUSEUM. In 1954, Jean Paul Getty (1892–1976) opened a small museum in the living room and galleries of his weekend residence in Malibu, California. Writing from Kuwait, the oil magnate said that he hoped his "modest and unpretentious" museum would provide pleasure to the people from the Los Angeles region who were interested in his small, idiosyncratic collection. In 1997, the Getty Center opened its doors to what would quickly grow to be more than a million visitors a year. Designed by the international architecture star Richard Meier and constructed over thirteen years in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, the Getty immediately assumed the status of a cultural destination for visitors from around the world.

In its earliest incarnation, the museum—open several days a week—attracted barely a thousand visitors a year. Getty was interested in antiquities, paintings, and French furniture, and he collected according to his tastes. By the late 1960s, it became clear that the collection needed larger quarters and that it could attract more visitors. The oilman had an allergy to modern architecture, but it was unclear what kind of historical building he wanted to imitate. He settled on the Villa dei Papiri, a part of the Herculaneum that had been buried since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a. d. 79. The resulting museum was a Roman villa in Malibu, housing a small collection with great view of the ocean. Critics saw the building as a pretentious fake, but the ever-growing number of visitors seemed to love the combination of a small museum housed in a luxurious domestic space in an extraordinary natural setting.

Getty never saw the museum, nursing an intense fear of flying as he grew older. He had left America for Europe in 1951, spending much of his time in Paris and London. He had already developed strong interests in furniture and antiquities, and with his enormous financial resources was able to acquire collections with a few star pieces. The enlarged museum in Malibu, which he planned with the architect and museum director Stephen Garrett, with intensive assistance from the archaeologist Norman Neuerburg, was to be a shiny new Roman villa. Getty spared no expense at re-creating the details of the building but was indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the basic requirements for supporting a public museum. The small staff did everything from curating shows to preparing food, and Getty insisted on personal control over all sorts of minor expenditures. It came as a shock, then, when the museum was left 4 million shares of Getty Oil stock upon the founder's death in 1976. The will was contested, but when the documents were finally authorized the bequest to the museum was valued at $1. 2 billion.

Creating the Center

This was a staggering endowment in 1982, made even more impressive by the fact that almost no restrictions were set for how the money would be used. Getty asked that the funds be dedicated to "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge." After all his micromanagement while alive, this was the only restriction in his bequest. The trustees of the museum were thinking broadly when they approached Harold M. Williams, just stepping down as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to be the director of the Getty Trust. This was an "operating trust," which was required to spend a certain amount of its endowment income on programs it ran. The trustees wanted to be more than a museum, to move from the arts to the "general knowledge" side of the bequest. Williams seized this opportunity to create a new kind of cultural entity: not a university or a museum, but an institution that would make a decisive contribution to research, education, and the arts while also providing its visitors with pleasure and personal enhancement through an exhibition program grounded in a strong permanent collection. In 1982, the trustees approved Williams's proposal to create institutes of art education, conservation, research, and information. Later, the Grant Program and the Leadership Institute were created to round out the programs, and the art education and information programs were consolidated with research and conservation.

Harold Williams and his staff faced stiff challenges in establishing the Getty as a cultural institution of international significance. They had the advantages of money and entrepreneurship, but in the art world they were also faced with the skepticism of older organizations that could not take seriously the idea of an art and research center in southern California (especially one whose centerpiece was a shiny new Roman villa). The different parts of the Getty had offices in Santa Monica and Malibu, with outposts in New England and Europe. Williams planned eventually to integrate the various functions in a cultural center, and he chose a site in the Santa Monica Mountains that provided extraordinary vistas of the shoreline and the city. It also provided new opportunities for criticism of the organization's detachment from the lives of the ordinary Angelenos. Richard Meier and Partners was awarded the commission to build the center in 1984.

The core of the Getty Trust's activities has been the museum, and from 1983 until 2000 John Walsh was its director. Walsh concentrated on filling out the spotty collections in antiquities and furniture, and he had enormous work to do in bringing the painting collection to an acceptable level. There has been a great deal of controversy over how the institution augmented its holdings in ancient art. As feelings of cultural patrimony have grown more intense in the Mediterranean world and elsewhere, the provenance of antiquities has come under greater scrutiny. Only after having acquired a world-class collection in this area did the Getty place a moratorium on acquiring works whose provenance was not published and clear. However, the museum has returned certain works whose histories were tainted, and has campaigned actively on behalf of cultural preservation and the rights of patrimony.

In other areas there were complaints that the large sums spent by the young California institution were distorting the art market. With astonishing rapidity, the Getty acquired paintings by Paul Cézanne, James Sydney Ensor, Fra Bartolommeo, Nicolas Poussin, Rembrandt, Joseph Turner, Vincent Van Gogh, and superb drawings by Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer, and others. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars during the 1980s and 1990s, the museum has developed world-class collections in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century decorative arts, a manuscript collection that rivals the best in the United States for the medieval and Renaissance periods, and a photography collection that is arguably the finest in the world. In the last two areas, the museum acquired collections from other collectors, jump-starting their own efforts by successfully building on the work of earlier connoisseurs and scholars. Aside from photography, the Getty does not collect twentieth-century art.

Harold Williams stepped down as president of the trust shortly after the institution moved into the Meier's classically modernist campus in the fall of 1998. Barry Munitz, formerly the chancellor of the enormous California State University System, assumed the reins of an organization that he described as being in its adolescence. Munitz has been integrating the work of the various Getty programs and is overseeing the completion of the remodeling of the original museum in Malibu. Upon completion, the Getty Villa will house the collections and research on ancient art and artifacts.

Other Functions of the Trust

Although the museum is the part of the Getty that has received the most attention (and spent the most money), the other parts of the trust have carved out important roles in the international art world. The Conservation Institute has supported projects around the world that aim to preserve cultural heritage for future generations. Conservation scientists hired in Los Angeles have fanned out across the globe to work on projects to preserve objects, from sculptures in China to architecture in Africa. The Getty Education Institute aimed to introduce a specific art curriculum into schools across America. Although arts education remains a weak part of public education in the United States, researchers with Getty support have done much to show how an education in the arts can have important effects on many dimensions of a young person's experience. The Grant Program of the Getty has tried to complement the work of the other parts of the institution by awarding grants to organizations and individuals to enhance the study and appreciation of art in a variety of contexts.

In addition to the Grant Program's support of individual scholars and their publications, the trust has made a significant investment in developing knowledge about the visual arts through the Getty Research Institute (GRI). The GRI is the home to one of the finest art libraries in the world, containing more than 800,000 volumes, more than 2 million study photographs, and world-class archives. It also sponsors exhibitions and lectures and maintains a residency program for scholars at various stages of their careers. Getty Scholars spend anywhere from a few months to two years studying some dimension of the arts in relation to their contexts in the full range of humanities disciplines.

The Getty Center has a distinct profile among American cultural organizations. Not only does its endowment—which at the beginning of the twenty-first century stood somewhere above $4 billion—give it enormous clout anywhere it chooses to exert its influence, but the combination of an original museum in an extraordinary natural setting with collections that have gotten stronger and more interesting over time ensures that it will remain popular with the tourists who flock to southern California throughout the year. The stimulation that high-level researchers in conservation and art history provide is less easily quantified, but they deepen the programming of the institution even as they benefit from its populist agenda. Having established itself as a cultural force to be reckoned with on any number of levels, the institution can now develop partnerships (both nationally and internationally) that will allow it to pursue its mission more vigorously. The upstart from California can continue to provide pleasure to its audiences from around the world, even as it strives to be a leader in the scholarly domains related to the visual arts and their history.


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Michael S.Roth

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