Art Rooms With a View
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JEFFREY KAYE: L.A. drivers see it first from their cars, a cluster of white stone buildings crowning the steep hill overlooking the San Diego Freeway. To visit, they’ll climb the mountain in a five-minute tram ride from the parking garage. The buildings loom up through the windows as the city drops away. The train pulls into a central plaza, a majestic marble expanse surrounded by six buildings.
The Getty Center is without parallel in American cultural live–a billion dollar art establishment built without a dime of public money. The center is more than an art museum. The museum is just the most visible part of it. The new complex consolidates the museum, a grants program, and five existing Getty institutes. Among other things, there’s research library, shaped like a doughnut, housing three-quarters of a million volumes. There’s a laboratory doing pioneering work on art conservation, and an institute aimed at reforming art education in America. Much of this was shaped by Getty President Harold Williams, who didn’t want to build just a bigger art museum.
HAROLD WILLIAMS, President, Getty Trust: The basic premise is what can the Getty–given the uniqueness of the institution at that time, which was money in a sense in the small museum–what could we become that would make a contribution unique in the world?
JEFFREY KAYE: Fifteen years ago the Getty was a small museum in a Roman-style villa in Malibu, housing the collections of J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire. When Getty died in 1976, he left the museum stock, three-quarters of a billion dollars worth. Over time it grew to a value of $4.4 billion. During the years of planning and building the budget for the hilltop campus grew from about $100 million to approximately $1 billion as the institutions defined their roles. The result is a collection of sleek modern buildings of different shapes and sizes but finished in similar shades of off-white.
RICHARD MEIER, Architect: You should have seen the sun setting–hat glow of light–this place was pink.
JEFFREY KAYE: The architect was Richard Meier, who designed museums in Atlanta, Barcelona, and Frankfurt. Meier used just two exterior surface materials–enameled metal and rough-cut travertine marble designed to catch the light in the fossils and pock marks. Details like edges, windows, railings, landscapes, and terraces have a sculptured starkness. Work spaces take advantage of the spectacular views of Los Angeles.
RICHARD MEIER: Basically, there are six institutions here. It’s like a small college campus. They’re interrelated and, in fact, half of the project is underground. Half of the building is under where we’re standing. What we see is really just a half of the size of the Getty Center, and we wanted to have this human quality, this human scale, the feeling of intimacy.
JEFFREY KAYE: The buildings, themselves, have received mixed reviews. One architecture critic, Leon Whiteson, calls the Getty Center a “fascinating failure.”
LEON WHITESON, Architecture Critic: There’s a tremendous blandness about it. It looks like a corporate institution, the effect, especially if you see it from the freeway, the San Diego Freeway, where most Angelinos will view it, it looks like a fortress containing some kind of corporate institution or a medical research institution probably for brain transplants or something sinister. So I don’t think the scale is intimate or human in any way.
JEFFREY KAYE: The buildings are connected by passageways and courtyards that look out over the Santa Monica Mountains.
RICHARD MEIER: When you’re up here, you have views of the city unlike any from any public space I have ever been to here in Los Angeles. You can see the ocean, you can see to the mountains, to the desert, San Diego on a clear day. But you also see the texture of the city, the grit of the city, the ups and downs of the city, the hills and valleys of the city, and you understand Los Angeles from being here in a way that is unlike any other place that I’ve seen.
JEFFREY KAYE: Yet, the Getty’s mountaintop perch is also the source of its greatest controversy. The vision of a gleaming white acropolis high on a hill bothers some people, including Christopher Knight, an art critic with the Los Angeles Times. He thinks the lofty location sends the wrong message.
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT, Los Angeles Times: On the one hand, it is a spectacular sight. On the other hand, by separating itself out from the fabric of the city and putting itself up on the hill I think the Getty Center becomes a symbol which says that culture is something that you visit, rather than something that you live.
JEFFREY KAYE: By citing this center and the museum on top of the hill, aren’t you getting across a message that art is really separate from people’s lives?
HAROLD WILLIAMS: If you were to define elitism and say, is there something special about art, yes, there is, maybe that is elitist. If you think of elite–but is elitism exclusionary? No, it’s not. And our task is to make that bridge. And I believe that we’ve equipped ourselves in a sense with the facilities and the collection and all and the attitude, more importantly, that will enable us to do that.
JEFFREY KAYE: That belief has taken the Getty far beyond the museum and below the hill to, for example, Boyle Heights, a low-income neighborhood just east of downtown made up mostly of Mexican-Americans. Within living memory this neighborhood was home to Japanese and Jewish communities. There’s still a boarded-up synagogue on Breed Street. Most passers-by don’t give it a second glance. But these students from nearby Roosevelt High School researched their own neighborhood and landmarks as part of a project sponsored by the Getty Research Institute.
They used the Internet to publish their work, which includes a local map, a landmark guide, and a blending of local history with artwork about that history. Some of what look like lines turn out to be a kind of visual poetry about Boyle Heights. The students also put together a mural about the neighborhood available on the Internet. This project is just one way the Getty Institutes are trying to involve people with art.
TEACHER: What is this line–thick–and it’s also what?
JEFFREY KAYE: A few neighborhoods to the West of Boyle Heights a first grade class in a public elementary school tried out a new way of using art in the classroom.
TEACHER: Horizontal, wonderful. Erin.
ERIN: Pointed lines.
TEACHER: Pointed lines. Can you find a pointed line for me? Oh, great.
JEFFREY KAYE: At first, the emphasis seemed to be on lines in a Pablo Picasso painting. Then the teacher subtly turned it into a geometry lesson.
TEACHER: What do we call these lines that run together like a railroad track? Who can raise their hand and tell me? Patrick, what are they called? Say it again. You almost got it. Parallel.
JEFFREY KAYE: Within a few minutes the topic switched from lines to colors.
TEACHER: Tell me about the colors you see here. Shawna.
SHAWNA: I see green.
JEFFREY KAYE: It’s a color theory.
STUDENT: Black and brown.
TEACHER: Black and brown. Now, we know that colors are divided into warm colors and cool colors and–
JEFFREY KAYE: The Getty Education Institute helps fund this and similar programs at 36 schools around the country. The goal is to connect art with other fields, such as language, history, and science. The program grew out of concerns that conventional art education was being short-changed in the schools.
But the Getty’s community activities go beyond education. The Getty Conservation Institute is involved in art and cultural preservation worldwide. Officials of the World Bank recently got a glimpse of those projects after signing an agreement to collaborate with the Getty on cultural conservation projects. Among other things, the Getty has provided advice on conserving ancient human footprints in Tanzania, and it has helped preserve cultural monuments in Egypt and China. The work is supported by state of the art facilities. Back at the center paintings are restored in a space with huge windows that evoke the lighting in studios where much of the artwork was created. Besides the restoration, itself, Getty researchers are furthering the science of conservation and developing new technologies to save old art works.
For example, in Los Angeles, the Conservation Institute is using digital technology to restore a mural that was painted by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Squeiros in the 1930′s but was later whitewashed over. Computer-enhanced images revealed details not apparent to the naked eye. Although the Getty’s far-flung activities have a grand scope, the most public part of the Getty, the museum has a more narrow focus. Visitors who know about the Getty’s billions probably expect something huge and comprehensive like the Louvre in Paris or New York’s Metropolitan. But Director John Walsh says it wasn’t that simple.
JOHN WALSH, Director, Getty Museum: You would think that with the Getty’s money we could have anything we wanted. At least, that’s a popular misconception. But the fact is that the amount of money laid out for acquisitions–although it’s a very large amount of money every year–won’t buy more than a handful of very expensive things in the art market.
JEFFREY KAYE: The result is a collection with a deliberate shape. There are certified brand names on the walls–Van Gogh and Monet–but not in the numbers found in established museums that have been collecting for generations. The Getty has focused on specialized collections.
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: I think what the museum decided was fairly wise, and that is to focus on particular areas where they knew they could develop significant holdings. The manuscript, collection, for instance, medieval and renaissance manuscripts, there are only two other institutions in the United States that are better–the Morgan Library in New York, the Walters in Baltimore. And the Walters may not even be better than the Getty anymore. And when you think about it, Walters started his collection in 1898. Morgan began his collection in the 1880′s. The Getty began its collection in 1982. It’s astonishing.
JEFFREY KAYE: The museum also prides itself on its photography collection. Weston Naef, the curator of photography, has amassed 60,000 images in ten years, largely by buying a series of existing private collections. For example, the Getty has 122 images by Julian Margaret Cameron, the Victorian English woman who specialized in portraiture. There are 318 works by Carleton Watkins, whose landscapes helped lead to the creation of the National Parks, and 164 photographs by the Hungarian-born American Andre Kertesz.
WESTON NAEF, Curator of Photographs: I’m particularly fond of his New York photographs I’m showing you here–his arm and ventilator shaft. He went out for a walk one morning and passed a diner, a coffee shop on Bleeker Street, and lo and behold, he was fascinated by a repairman who was caught in the midst of a procedure, trying to repair this thing, and created a work of New York surrealism in the process.
JEFFREY KAYE: That quality of being both ordinary and strange comes through in image after image by Kertesz. It is one reason the Getty decided to collect photography.
WESTON NAEF: I’m one of the few departments where the works in my custody are close enough in time that we can identify those geniuses; we still have the opportunity to acquire more than one at a time because the works have not been so dispersed that it’s impossible or very expensive to do.
JEFFREY KAYE: Architect Meier designed the museum as a series of low galleries connected by glassed-in walkways. Visitors can absorb the art, then receive a visual change of pace by taking in views of the surrounding landscape as they pass from one gallery to another. The galleries, themselves, use computer controlled louvers to flood the paintings with soft, indirect daylight.
The Getty’s design was not without controversy. Some of the galleries were decorated in an 18th century French style over the objections of architect Richard Meier. Meier also agreed to conditions on building height and color demanded by neighboring homeowner’s associations. Yet, Meier says he’s proud of his work, especially at dusk, when the setting sun turns the travertine marble the color of honey, and the lights of the Getty glow against the L.A. sky.
As the Getty opens, the relationship between the place of high art on the hill and the city below remains the subject of much discussion and promise. At nightfall, the Getty appears to have it both ways–an imposing physical presence that blends with the world below the mountain.