Built to last in the land of facades Getty Center represents stability

December 16, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- Starting today, this most volatile of U.S. cities gains a powerful new symbol of permanence.

After 13 years of design and construction, the $1 billion Getty Center will open to the public, representing one of the largest investments ever made in the arts and humanities in North America.

Set high on a hill overlooking the San Diego Freeway, the 110-acre campus features panoramic views of the city. The center brings to one location all the work of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which consists of separate institutes for activities such as research, art conservation, education and museum management as well as a public museum.

The institutes had been scattered around the Los Angeles area. The first Getty museum was established in the 1950s in a now-closed Malibu estate that is being converted to a center for comparative archaeology and culture. In the 1980s, trustees decided that consolidation would strengthen each department by providing ways for employees from different disciplines to interact and collaborate.

Its supporters predict the new museum and cultural center will help change the perception of Los Angeles as the land of passing fancies, a mecca for all things transitory.

"The world thinks of Los Angeles as a city of movie sets, simulations, facades with nothing behind them, people who are always on the move to someplace else," said the center's architect, Richard Meier.

"The Getty Center stands for something different," he said. "The Getty Center represents stability, continuity -- a long, slow evolution of intellectual and material culture. The Getty Center is built to last."

Created by oilman J. Paul Getty, the museum may be young, but it isn't run by "out-of-control Southern California hedonists," said director John Walsh.

In planning its new home, "we wanted to embody the best qualities of successful art museums of the past," Walsh said. "We wanted to make a place that would endure."

The Getty Center "is a treasure that must be shared with the world and, indeed, it will be," California Gov. Pete Wilson said at a ribbon-cutting event on Saturday. "There is no way we can estimate the value of this gift to Los Angeles."

As designed by Richard Meier & Partners of New York, the center is a series of off-white buildings faced with stone and metal and constructed on a plateau like a college or corporate campus -- a modern-day Acropolis for the arts.

J. Paul Getty, known for many years as "the richest man in the world," died in self-imposed tax exile in 1976. After changing his will 21 times, he left the bulk of his personal estate, mostly Getty Oil Co. stock valued at about $700 million, to the J. Paul Getty Museum and a trust established in his name. The value of his bequest has since grown to about $4.3 billion.

The Getty Center's mission is "to advance the understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the world's cultural heritage." Most of the estimated 1.3 million annual visitors will spend their time in the museum's galleries and other public spaces. Staffers and scholars will use the Getty's research facility, conservation institute and arts education and grant program divisions.

The Getty collection is best known for its pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts. Highlights of the paintings collection include masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Goya, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne.

To get to the museum, visitors must ride a Disneyesque tram from the bottom of the hill to a plaza on the top. Admission to the museum is free, but parking is limited. Visitors planning to arrive by car must have reservations, and parking space is booked until March for certain high-demand periods, such as weekends. The average visit is expected to last four hours.

Employees say the new setting is a wonderful work environment; some pause daily to watch the sunset from one of the many terraces or balconies.

"When you walk on the plaza, you get a sense of being amidst Greek ruins or the pyramids of Egypt, maybe because of the travertine" stone, said Naree Wongse-Sanit, a program associate with the Getty's Education Institute.

"It's timeless in a way that so much of L.A. isn't, a way that goes beyond American boundaries."

Museum directors say their goal was simple: to create galleries that make works of art look wonderful, then mix in plazas, gardens and other outdoor spaces that people enjoy, and give them a chance to move between the two.

"We're not trying to reinvent the museum," said Deborah Gribbon, associate director and chief curator. "We're trying to perfect it."

Many Getty Center employees say working there is the opportunity of a lifetime, because of the resources available and the new, high-profile setting.

"I love it," said Wongse-Sanit. "I love being able to devote myself to a project without worrying about the bottom line."

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