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Edifice Complex

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Castle of Privilege: The Getty Center may seem like a cultural Disneyland to San Franciscans, but to Angelenos it's the pinnacle of the LA experience.



The opening of the Getty Center in lowbrow LA makes SF jealous--again

By Zack Stentz

The Getty Center looks down upon the Southland masses from its hilltop Brentwood redoubt. A Disney-funded concert hall to end all concert halls is nearly fully funded and set to open in 2001. And a spectacular new home for the nation's most populous Catholic archdiocese is in the works and promises to bring cathedral architecture into the next millennium. These are heady times for the architecture and art scene in Los Angeles, a metropolis better known for giving the world the mini-mall and the Bruce Willis film than for its bastions of high culture.

But for many San Francisco art watchers, the global attention focused on the billion-dollar Getty complex's December opening (not to mention the impending arrival of the two others) has induced a severe Edifice Complex, even in a city as famously self-satisfied as ours. "I'm perfectly happy if they're envious in San Francisco," says Suzanne Muchnic, art critic for the Los Angeles Times. "It means that they're paying attention.

"When I first started writing about 20 years ago," she continues, "you saw this competitiveness much more, particularly in regard to the big traveling shows. The constant refrain was that we'd lose out to San Francisco. And while San Francisco still gets some shows that we don't, the reverse is true as well."

Indeed, shortly after speaking those words, Muchnic broke the news that another Los Angeles art institution, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will in 1999 host a blockbuster exhibit of 70 Vincent Van Gogh paintings. The paintings, which will be on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam during its closure for renovation, will stop in only two American locations: Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Sorry, San Francisco.

Muchnic, though, doesn't necessarily see Los Angeles' gain as our loss. "The truly big shows always draw Angelenos up to the Bay Area, or San Franciscans down here," she says.

Big shows aside, the Getty itself also promises to be a big draw for Bay Area residents and others visiting the Southland. With parking for the restricted-entry museum booked through July, ingenious out-of-towners are showing up at the Getty's doorstep in taxicabs, on foot, and even--gasp!--using public transportation. "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."

A tourist in San Francisco trying to find the Palace of the Legion of Honor might disagree with Baker's last statement, but no matter. All this effort to wait in a line for up to four hours before ascending the hillside in a high-tech electric tram, then being deposited in the recently planted gardens to gawk at the austere Richard Meier-designed complex. "It's a cultural Disneyland," Baker says, "and people are going because we all want to see what a billion dollars looks like. It's more of a tourist phenomenon than anything, and I predict that for the first five years the visitor numbers will reflect this. But after that, who knows what kind of institution this will become?

"The Getty is still defining itself," he continues. "It is not the Metropolitan in New York or the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. The Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco has different ambitions than the Getty's. 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. It's possible that the Getty will only receive first-time visitors, because their collection is so limited."

Strangely enough, Muchnic agrees that the Getty has been oversold, though for different reasons. "Right now, all attention is on the Getty," she says, "but I hope that as the novelty dissipates, this may focus attenion 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 Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It's currently undergoing a major renovation by Frank Ghery. And the MoCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] is wonderful as well."

Muchnic's wish appears to be coming true, though perhaps through a different mechanism than the one she anticipated. During the aforementioned four-hour wait to get into the Getty, numerous frustrated art lovers were seen giving up and deciding to spend their day elsewhere. "Where do you want to go instead?" asked one middle-aged woman of her companions as they all stood baking in the Southern California sun.

Horrible stereotyper that I am, I expected them to suggest the Beverly Center or Universal City Walk. But, no. The gaggle of would-be Getty patrons headed back to the minivan to head for the MoCA, then to a photography exhibit in Japantown. Chalk up a victory for Los Angeles high culture, all thanks to Getty overcrowding.

And in a larger sense, the alleged San Francisco/Los Angeles competition has always been a curious one, because not many Angelenos are even aware the rivalry exists. "We in Los Angeles spend more time comparing ourselves to New York," remarked one Getty Center administrator, who asked not to be identified. "We mostly think of San Francisco as a nice place to spend the weekend."

"I think that San Franciscans perceive the competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles because they've already lost," adds Baker. "The numbers, money and audience have always resided in Los Angeles. The Getty possesses public prominence and prestige because of the enormous amount of publicity it gets."

Muchnic, though, downplays the rivalry in favor of reveling in a West Coast that can accommodate a Los Angeles and a San Francisco. "I don't find the sort of competition that takes place between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or between Los Angeles and New York, to be particularly productive. I love San Francisco--it's a jewel in its own right. All of these cities are unique, and as each urban area becomes increasingly commercially homogenized, with Starbucks and Planet Hollywood and the like, our last great hope for diversity may be in our different cultural institutions."

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From the February 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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