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L.A. Acropolis

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J. Paul Getty Trust

Which Way to the Van Gogh?: For a 'remote castle of privilege,' Los Angeles' Getty Museum complex is proving to be surprisingly popular with locals and tourists alike.

L.A.'s megabudget Getty Museum combines high-art aspirations with populist trappings

By Zack Stentz

SOMETHING STRANGE is going on in Brentwood that for once has nothing to do with the antics of the neighborhood's rich and famous residents. No, it's a sight far rarer and more bizarre in contemporary L.A.

Southland residents en masse are parking their cars and walking, actually walking, up a winding mile-long hill. The object of their pilgrimage is the tram that takes them to the Getty Center, the billion-dollar art museum and research center that's quickly turned into an improbably popular destination in a city where high culture more often comes from watching Leonardo DiCaprio sketch a naked Kate Winslet in Titanic.

The massive numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, taxicab drop-offs and even city bus riders spring from the Getty administrators' decision to limit the number of onsite parking spaces to 2,000. The $5 reservations required for the spots (admission to the museum itself is free--thank oil tycoon J. Paul Getty's multibillion-dollar endowment for that) are booked for months in advance.

Not that Michael Eisner or Tom Cruise have to wait--in true L.A. fashion, the rich and famous all got to see the Getty before its official unveiling, on a private tour or at one of the numerous gala opening receptions.

The parking limit was intended to encourage local museum-goers to use alternative forms of transportation (no limits were set on walk-ins) and to avoid the kind of crowd pileups in front of the major attractions that plague so many European museums, where one must elbow through a rugby scrum of tour groups to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa behind bazooka-proof glass.

But the Getty planners weren't prepared for how many supposedly car-loving Angelenos actually took them up on the offer. "We anticipated that about 20 percent of our visitors would arrive without reservations," says visitor-services manager Andrea Leonard. "As it turned out, that number has been more like 40 percent."

The Getty has also proven to be a big draw for tourists visiting the Southland. Bay Area and Silicon Valley residents form a large chunk of these visitors, and the Getty seems to have become a favored place for dropping off house guests. "Let's be honest," Leonard says. "Because there are so many things to do, the Getty is a great place to take the relatives and leave them for a day."

But this extra 20 percent of unreserved museum-goers out of a total of more than 350,000 visitors in the Getty's first two months has translated into a whole lot of parkers and pedestrians swarming the residential side streets of Brentwood and Bel Air that abut the Getty.

And when rich people get inconvenienced, watch out. Some neighbors have complained ("Our maids and gardeners can't find parking spaces!" shrieked one to the L.A. Times), while others have taken the opportunity to profit from the crowds.

One Bel Air moppet and her father set up a booth along the sidewalk downhill from the museum entrance and sold "museum cookies and lemonade" to passersby for $2 dollars a pop. ("How do you think they got rich in the first place?" my mother would ask.)

ANGRY HEIRESSES and price-gouging tykes aside, the crowds ascending the hill to visit this late-20th-century cultural Acropolis seem happy, even festive. Moods aren't even dampened by the two- to four-hour wait for the electric tram that lifts visitors to the Getty proper.

"If you can wait two hours to ride Jurassic Park at Universal Studios, you can sure wait to see Van Gogh," one mother hissed to her squirming preteen children the day I ventured to the art-world's most famous redoubt.

And she was right. Many L.A. cultural critics, including the estimable Mike Davis (City of Quartz), complained during the museum's construction that its location in the Santa Monica mountains on L.A.'s largely white, rich west side would alienate ethnic minorities and the poor.

"The Getty is this wonderful pinnacle of the Los Angeles experience," says San Francisco Chronicle art critic and ARTNews writer Kenneth Baker, "but it is a remote castle of privilege where the public may feel not welcomed. No museum in San Francisco possesses this kind of pernicious detachment from the landscape."

Critics also faulted the museum for not being placed downtown or closer to major public transportation lines, as if any location in decentralized L.A. would be convenient to a majority of the area's residents.

But Davis and his ilk underestimated the lengths to which museum patrons, rich and poor alike, were willing to go to see the Getty. Museum officials are still compiling demographic data on their visitors, but during both of my visits, the patrons were surprisingly diverse in ethnicity and age, and the subterranean parking lot's berths were filled with battered Celicas and Ford trucks, as well as with Range Rovers and Mercedes.

"That's been my impression, too," says Getty public-affairs worker Jean Lin. "We've had people of all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life coming in from all over the city."

Could it be that the critics, with their assumption that only affluent white people are willing to work for their art, were the elitist ones? Maybe those banners hanging from half the lampposts in greater L.A., with their beaming multicultural faces above the logo "It's Your Getty," were taken to heart after all.

And once up the whirring electric trams and in the sprawling center itself, patrons aren't disappointed. The travertine-sided Richard Meier-designed buildings of the complex are as impressive up close as they appear looking up from the 405 freeway.

Even more spectacular are the views afforded from the Getty's many vista points, from Santa Monica all the way to Hollywood and the San Gabriel mountains. On both days I came, El Niño storms had just washed away the smog and scrubbed the basin clean, giving one a clear view past downtown and all the way to the snow-capped San Bernardino range, 100 miles to the east.

"One thing that we're finding is that the observation points really fill up around sunset," Leonard says.

Also inviting lingering stays are the lush, undulating gardens (designed by artist Robert Irwin and vehemently opposed by Meier as a desecration of his austere, high-modernist vision), numerous gift shops, activity rooms and espresso stands. "On the average, people are staying about four hours, which is extraordinary for an art museum," Leonard tells me. "They're really coming here and making a day of it, which surprised us a little."

It shouldn't have. Despite architect Meier and garden designer Irwin's high-culture aspirations, the finished Getty complex has more than a little in common with crowd-pleasing L.A. attractions like the Universal CityWalk and the Santa Monica Promenade, with their abundance of sights and activities for easily distracted patrons.

Getty Museum
J. Paul Getty Trust

With a View to a Basin: The vistas are as big a part of the Getty's appeal as its art collection.

WITHOUT EVEN realizing it, the designers and administrators of this citadel of the fine arts and highest ideals of Western Civilization have absorbed the consumerist, mass-entertainment ethos of the surrounding city.

This urge to give the people what they want is on display in everything from the slick multimedia displays and general adulation of high tech (our cantilevered windows are computer-controlled to track the sun as it moves across the sky!) to the fountains, food courts, numerous shopping opportunities and mall-like corridors.

The strategy has worked brilliantly, as evidenced by the crowds and their enthusiasm, but this alliance between art and commerce isn't entirely harmonious. Like a megabudget Hollywood blockbuster whose superior production values and killer special effects don't entirely mask a weak story, the Getty's flawless surface tends to oversell the art inside.

Once in the Getty's buildings themselves, it's easy to feel a bit underwhelmed, especially if one has seen the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid or the other great galleries of Europe. Van Gogh's Irises is a showstopper all right, but it and the other 19th-century Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces barely fill a medium-sized room.

Over in the temporary-exhibits gallery, which houses the Getty's classical antiquities (they'll go back to the Getty's other museum, the Malibu Roman villa, in 2001), the kids "ooh" and "aah" over a virtual-reality tour of imperial Rome's Forum of Trajan, which reconstructs how the titanic complex appeared in 200 A.D. But aside from one magnificent bronze sculpture from ancient Greece (even the Vatican has only one Hellenic bronze figure), the collection of urns, shields and stelae isn't any more impressive than one would find in any third-rate European town that was ever occupied by a Roman legion.

"It is not the Metropolitan in New York or the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco," grumps art critic Baker. "The Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco has different ambitions than the Getty. Their collecting aims are different. The Getty is patchy and shifts focus. It has a very esoteric interest and excludes a lot. Their collection is high-caliber, but is not as broad as the Fine Arts Museum. The Getty has a lot of photography and can offer Renaissance bronzes, but it can't offer an overview of Western sculpture."

But the Getty's admirers insist that the depth and breadth of the museum's collection is beside the point, and the visitors on hand seemed to agree. They were happy just to be there, and if a positive experience at the Getty left them feeling warm and fuzzy about art and culture in general, who can complain?

"Right now, all attention is on the Getty," says L.A. Times art critic Suzanne Muchnic, "but I hope that as the novelty dissipates, this may focus attention on the entire cultural landscape, and broaden people's understanding that there are a number of worthy institutions in and around Los Angeles. People who enjoy the Getty's European art collection would love the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena."

PUT TOGETHER, these and other museums constitute a formidable cultural heritage. But, like L.A. itself, the various institutions are spread so thin geographically that their impact tends to be diffused. Still, Muchnic's hope that the Getty will spark a wider interest in high culture among Angelenos seems to be coming to pass, though perhaps not in the way she foresaw.

Down at the bottom of the tram ride to the Getty one sunny weekday morning, some would-be art watchers were daunted by the size of the line snaking back from the entrance.

"Four hours?" asked one woman incredulously, upon hearing how long she'd have to wait for a tram ride to the Getty's front steps.

"I know," her companion replied. "Why don't we go down to the County Museum instead? We can hit the photography exhibit at Japantown afterward."

The entire group found this to be an excellent idea, and off they went, saving their Getty trip for another day and proving what the owners of multiplex theaters have known for years: that customers who can't get in to the main attraction will often opt for a second or third choice instead.

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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