RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: The Getty Center is rising in Los Angeles. In this most American of cities famous for restless movent, the Getty is rising in limestone, permanent, wonderfully incongruous when seen against the ranch-style houses on the hillside beneath.
John Paul Getty made his fortune from oil. It's appropriate that his largess would be spent on a metropolis sustained by automobiles. In the 1950's, Mr. Getty established a small museum of antiquities and French furniture at his home in Malibu. That collection grew and grew until it required its own museum, a sort of Hollywood movie set for Helen of Troy. After John Paul Getty's death, the endowment of the Getty Museum grew to such spectacular size that it was able to buy whatever work of art it wanted that was for sale in the world.
The directors of the Getty were forced by good fortune to re-think the meaning of a museum. What exactly does a museum do? Here is their answer--an $800 million center for the arts and the humanities designed by the architect Richard Meier. Here is the new Getty Museum but the Getty Center will be much more than a museum, a buildings with paintings and sculpture. Over there is the Research Institute for the History of Art & the Humanities, facilities for scholars from all over the world. There, the Conservation Institute whose mission will be the protection of the world's cultural heritage, a royal tomb in Egypt, mosaics in a Roman church, art works under threat from the polluting effects of time and modernization.
There, the Getty Education Institute devoted to improving the way the arts are taught in American school. And there the Information Institute that will make information about the arts available through digital technologies. The most revolutionary aspect of the Getty, it seems to me, is its conservative impulse. I look at this place and I think of the monasteries that protected manuscripts during the Middle Ages, or the great medieval universities of Europe--Salamanca, Paris, Oxford, guardians of memory. Because they direct our attention on the past, there is something profoundly irrelevant about the arts and the humanities in America.
We Americans are people of the future. We look ahead. We build museums, of course. We think they are self-improving in some Benjamin Franklin sort of way. But the truth is, in our real lives, a city like Los Angeles is cruelly unsentimental. Seen from the freeway, the city is always only in flux. A few years ago, the Getty invited a group of children to photograph what they imagined as the landmarks of Los Angeles. After these photos were taken, one of the children photographers remarked, "Now I really care about things that may not be here two years from now."
About two years after this photograph was taken, N.S. Bailey, the teenage photographer, was killed in a drive-by shooting. In its own brochures, the Getty refers to this place as a campus, but the American University, certainly the post war university, is preoccupied by the future, with being an agent for change. The ambition works well enough in the sciences. The arts and the humanities have a harder time of it. They have been characterized by a faddishness and a frantic quest to seem relevant, that horrible word from the 60's.
The Getty is constructed toward the past. Here it sits on a hill overlooking Brentwood, famous lately as the home of O.J. Simpson and Nichole Brown. The directors of the Getty would flinch to hear it described as a fortress. In their brochures, they use tinny words like "outreach" and "multiculturalism." But in the city, in a country with so little sense of the past, the Getty seems already an ancient place--one full year before it will open its doors.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.