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The Getty Center—Celebrity of L.A. Art

By Julie Snyder
The Getty Center—a luminous, modern architectural marvel—crowns a lush ridge top in affluent Brentwood on west side of Los Angeles. Long on our “next-time-we’re-in-L.A.” list, we finally made the Getty the centerpiece of a recent road trip to Southern California and were rewarded with a cultural infusion boasting more star power than the Hollywood Hills.
Home to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute and Getty Foundation, the Getty Center is named, of course, for its exceedingly generous benefactor. Oil baron J. Paul Getty began cultivating his art collection in the 1930s, and in 1954, he opened a ranch house on his Malibu Canyon acreage as a museum. Some 20 years later, a Roman-style edifice was constructed on the site to house his expanding trove of art. Today the Getty Villa, as it’s known, is a popular museum and education center dedicated to arts and cultures of antiquity.

The enigmatic Getty, who died in 1976, publicly stated that little of his fortune would be endowed to his museum. Yet in fact he bequeathed to it the bulk of his estate—four million shares of Getty Oil stock, then worth seven hundred million dollars—with a simple directive that the J. Paul Getty Trust be devoted to “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.”

Since the Getty Villa site didn’t allow for the desired expansion, in 1983 the Trust acquired 742 acres in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, just west of the San Diego Freeway (or “the 405” in LA lingo). Richard Meier & Partners was challenged with transforming 24 completely undeveloped acres into a marriage of architecture and open space that not only complemented the natural topography but captured the cultural curiosity of Los Angelenos and global visitors as well.

Construction took 10 years and cost some $1.3 billion. The gleaming geometric structures of Meier’s classic modernist design feature façades of travertine, with nearly 16 tons of the stone transported by barge from Italy. Stretching around the upper stories, porcelain-enameled metal panels and glass curtain walls create a fluid sculptural effect. The Getty Center includes nine buildings in all, with more than half the space constructed underground.

Landscaping for the 110 acres that cradle the campus (the rest of the acreage has been left in its natural state) takes inspiration from Southern California and ancient Mediterranean gardens. Many of the large trees growing on the building site were boxed and replanted. In all, 3,000 native oaks, 100 large Italian stone pines and nearly 2,000 other saplings were planted, along with an army of shrubs and flowers. In the Central Garden, designed by artist Robert Irwin, a magical azalea maze floats in a recirculating stream-fed pool encircled by gardens.

On the day of our visit, we were among the first to park in the 1,200-car underground parking structure (museum admission is free but there is a $15 fee for parking) and ride the tram—which glides up a ¾-mile-long track on a cushion of air generated by electric blowers—to the main campus. We later discovered that we could have actually walked up the winding, wooded route on a service road.
With 30 minutes to wander the grounds before the museum actually opened, we took in stunning vistas of the Los Angeles Basin and the Pacific Ocean before crowds and smog marred the panorama. The intriguing geometry of the exterior architecture and its creative coupling with nature made us wonder how the treasures within the Getty would compare to the exquisite exterior.

We quickly discovered that the art collection more than holds its own. Walking through the dramatic entrance rotunda into an expansive courtyard with a sparkling linear fountain, we found ourselves surrounded by five pavilions that house the permanent art collection and temporary exhibitions. The collection, which aims at depth rather than breadth, concentrates on European drawings, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Paintings are showcased on the top floor of each pavilion to take advantage of the natural light afforded by abundant skylights. Computer-controlled louvers adjust the to the sun’s position for optimal natural illumination while special filters protect the artwork from damage. Objets d’art on display on other floors receive comparable care including a once-a-week dusting.
The West Pavilion is home to the museum’s Department of Photographs, a spectacular collection dating from the beginnings of photography to the present. It was here that we discovered the Cuban-born American photographer Abelardo Morrell, who speaks to the book lover’s soul with haunting images of volumes from every angle. His bound collection of these intriguing works, “A Book of Books,” is at the top of my birthday gift wish list.

In the end, we spent equally as much time taking in the art collection as we did meandering along the walkways and garden paths, a tribute to art, architecture and green thumbs.

Once art and nature had fed our souls, we were ready for lunch. The Getty has no shortage of dining options including a full-service restaurant, several casual cafes with indoor and outdoor seating, and well-placed coffee carts with nearby tables, all with pleasing views. Visitors can also bring their own picnic or even order a gourmet boxed lunch in advance.

Other Getty special features include a drop-in Sketching Gallery, where visitors can draw art from the museum’s collection; and the GettyGuide Room with computer terminals for investigating individual artists and the collection overall. A full schedule of public programs—courses and demonstrations, lectures and conversations, performances and films, talks and tours—have built a strong local following.

Beyond the museum, the Getty Research Institute includes one of the largest art libraries in the world. Exhibitions in the distinctive circular structure draw on the Institute’s vast collection of rare books, prints, photographs and ephemera. The Getty Conservation Institute, which advances conservation practice in the visual arts globally, and the Getty Foundation also have homes in the commanding hilltop complex

Committed to providing environmental leadership in the cultural community, the Getty Center received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in 2005. Energy consumption has been reduced by 10 percent since 2001 through a host of initiatives. I’m not sure what category of environmentally sound practices this falls under, but a herd of goats is hired every spring to assist in brush clearing to reduce fire danger.

The Getty Center surely has captured public interest, welcoming over 19 million visitors since it opened in December 1997, half of them from the greater Los Angeles area. Were J. Paul Getty still alive, he would undoubtedly marvel at the masterpiece sustained by his wealth. Who needs a celebrity homes bus tour of Hollywood when this cultural star shines so brightly in Brentwood?


Visit The Getty Center

Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.
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