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The Big Rock Candy Mountain

In Building the Getty, Meier recalls his initial dismay at being told he would have to meet at intervals with a Getty design advisory committee. “I slowly realized this was the way the Getty Trust liked to work. While it may have suggested a certain lack of confidence, one of its primary effects was to forestall criticism by outside specialists.”

With checks and balances in place to allow ample second-guessing about what Meier might do, Getty officials no doubt felt confident about the ultimate outcome. The architect, however, now seems plagued by second thoughts, which give his largely self-serving history of the project an unexpected poignance. “Looking back,” he writes, “I have to ask myself whether the Getty selection committee was under some misapprehension that I would perhaps be the most malleable of the finalists.”


Apart from its architecture, the new building offers the first opportunity to assess the full extent and quality of the museum’s holdings. For during the same period in which the Center was designed and erected, the museum pursued one of the most ambitious art-buying programs in recent memory. Although important works were put on view in the old building soon after they were acquired, the opening of the new galleries provides the first occasion to consider how well the Getty’s many highly publicized purchases—including three of the ten most expensive pictures sold at auction during the boom of the 1980s—coalesce into a collection.

The first goal set forth by John Walsh and his curators in a 1984 report to the Getty Trust was to

Get the greatest and rarest objects. If nothing is more important to a museum than its collection, nothing is more important to its collection than the great object that gives measure to the rest. There are not many such works left, but it should be our top priority to secure them.

Despite the Getty’s vast resources, that aspiration apparently was not so easy to fulfill. In their somewhat apologetic introduction to the chapter on paintings in The J. Paul Getty Museum and its Collections, Walsh and Gribbon list the problems that even huge amounts of money seemed unable to resolve.

…Not only have the finest works been rare and expensive, but they have often been subject to the export controls of European countries. This effectively means no exports at all from Italy and Spain; great difficulty in France, Germany, and the Netherlands; and increasing trouble in Britain….

…The Italian Renaissance…is practically a mined-out vein….

It has been even more difficult to find paintings by the Netherlandish and German painters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries….

We had imagined it would be possible to buy major pictures by the greatest artists of eighteenth century France—Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Greuze, Chardin—but to our surprise, very few of these have been available.

Now that the Getty collection has at last been assembled with all its much-heralded highlights in place, one can say that despite several big exceptions among the Old Masters—including a powerful gold-ground Daddi triptych, Pontormo’s noble Halberdier, and Rembrandt’s meditative St. Bartholomew—the museum is strongest in nineteenth-century paintings, with three pictures by David that form one of the finest such ensembles outside France; a powerful Goya bullfight scene; a monumental Cézanne still life; and one of the landmarks of nineteenth-century art, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 by Ensor. Furthermore, the Getty’s extensive photography holdings are of very high quality, especially the collection assembled by the pioneering tastemaker Sam Wagstaff.

The Getty certainly matches the excellence of many other American museums, and it marks a tremendous advance for Los Angeles, if for no other reason than it gives the region an internationally important art collection open to the public. Less ambitious in scope, less abundantly endowed, and less imposingly housed than the Getty, the Norton Simon Museum (the old Pasadena Art Museum, which Simon rescued financially and renamed for himself in 1974, the year the Getty Museum in Malibu opened) nonetheless has a number of much-admired Old Master pictures in its collection. On occasion the Simon and the Getty have jointly bought important works—including Poussin’s celebrated Holy Family at Rest on the Flight from Egypt from the Duke of Devonshire’s collection—and the museums exhibit them on a rotating basis.

The Simon’s president, Jennifer Jones Simon (the former movie actress and widow of the museum’s namesake), was a member of the Getty board of directors from 1984 to 1991. Harold Williams, the Getty Trust’s president and CEO since 1981, was the longtime head of Hunt Foods, the basis of Norton Simon’s fortune. He also served on the Simon Museum board from 1979 to 1991. Exploratory talks held several years ago discussed the possibility of the Getty’s absorbing the Simon in its entirety, but nothing came of those discussions.

It says a great deal about the state of civic benefaction in late-twentieth-century America that communities as rich and populous as Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth have had to depend on heavily endowed private foundations to provide their citizens with worthy collections covering the history of art. The Getty (unlike the Kimbell, which has somehow managed to keep its finances out of the headlines) can be quite touchy about how much it pays for things, and its spokesmen have tried to dispel the notion that the Getty’s financial power has adversely affected the art market. Why, then, has the museum been drawn, mothlike, to works that concentrate attention on how much they cost?

Most notorious is the Getty’s Irises by Van Gogh. At the time the picture was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 1987—to Alan Bond, an Australian wheeler-dealer who was unable to complete the purchase—it fetched $53.9 million, then an all-time auction record for a work of art. The Getty bought the painting in 1990 through private negotiations for an undisclosed amount generally believed to be less than the price Bond had bid. Even if we assume that the price was considerably lower than the one Bond paid, the cost was still very high. The purchase suggests a departure from the more demanding kinds of works that the Getty has hitherto favored. In addition to its art-historical merits, Irises is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, and it seems likely to have been chosen for that very reason at a time when the Getty’s anxieties about its popular appeal began to mount.


Concerns that all the money in the world still could not insure all would go well with the new Getty were apparent in an astonishingly candid interview recently given by Barry Munitz, chancellor of the California State University system and, before that, an executive in a Houston holding company specializing in mergers and acquisitions. In July he was chosen as the new president and CEO of the Getty Trust, to succeed Harold Williams, who retires in January.

According to Munitz,

There’s a void out there in arts and humanities education in a society that’s just so increasingly technical and decentralized and dehumanized. There’s a void that I’m convinced the Getty should try to fill…. The Getty by its strengths and its financial resources should be one player in healing this wound…, a large public institution whose mission is socio-economic mobility, urban outreach, global transformation.2

To underscore the fact that this dramatically reconceived and more socially active role for the Getty is not only his but is shared by his board of trustees, Munitz added,

Most people assume that [the Getty] doesn’t want that role. I do, and the board has said to me, “Come in and help us do this.”

A different allocation of assets is also on Munitz’s mind.

Many people in the art world have said that in the last fifteen years the Getty has become a very good museum, but because of the money spent on the new building, funds were consumed that could have been used to make it a great museum.

Now that the Getty’s architectural adventure is over, however, he foresees a different approach to spending.

Clearly we will continue a commitment to acquisition. In some ways it will even strengthen, but it may be in strategies not just for acquisition, but for contributions, for complex lending, for partnering with other major organizations. I don’t know if we have been, but in the future we will not just be out there tossing money around for the sake of building the collection.

It is unclear whether he would include in that latter category the Getty’s latest major purchase, made earlier this year just before his appointment, of a typically cool and cerebral Poussin landscape for $25.6 million when the Getty already had another very fine picture by this artist.

One familiar aftermath of museum-building projects is for an institution to complain, soon after completion, that its new facilities are still not large enough for its needs. The Getty is not immune to this reaction. According to Munitz,

Even with all the expansion, there really isn’t room for the large temporary exhibitions that people in Los Angeles aren’t getting anyplace else. And there clearly isn’t a lot of room to expand….

It clearly cannot be outside of our mission and it clearly cannot all be met on our site. Therefore we have to partner up with other exhibition spaces around the world, but particularly in Los Angeles—Exposition Park, for example. That museum complex, other exhibition spaces and public spaces around the city will have to be engaged and interacting with the Getty. And the technology, the out-reach, the digitalization, the school visits, the visits to schools, the websites, the videos, the CD-ROMs.

That final litany is already part of many other American museums’ efforts to expand their audience and income in response to devastating cuts in government and corporate funding for the arts. More surprising is the idea that the Getty feels it must take on the added role of Kunsthalle. In fact, although the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a negligible permanent collection of paintings, it has originated a number of commendable exhibitions and maintains a very good record of bringing important traveling shows to the city. Its spacious changing exhibition galleries function quite well enough on those occasions. It could be that Munitz and his board fear that after one visit to their mountaintop, the average visitor will not be inclined to return without the incentive that a blockbuster special event supplies.

The Getty’s painstakingly considered, meticulously overseen, and exactingly executed new premises were planned with everything in mind, it seems, except growth and change. Locked into its physical and institutional eminence, the Getty now feels it must reassure the public that it is not as remote as it seems and will even, now and again, descend to the lowlands, the better to connect its activities with the life of the community.

No assessment of the Getty, regardless how brief, is complete without a reference to the project’s cost of $1 billion. In a country that proposes to spend $2 billion on a single B-2 bomber, the Getty Center seems cheap at half the price. The other figure of note, of course, is the thirteen years it took to build the Center. Architecture traditionally has been the slowest of art forms. It was not unusual for great cathedrals to take centuries to complete, with stylistic changes from Romanesque to Gothic or Renaissance to Baroque as common as the addition of chapels or spires. But because the function remained the same, the form could be flexible and its growth organic.

Thirteen years, then, is an instant in architectural time. And yet the Getty Center, even as it opens, already seems dated. Conceived amid the certitudes of 1980s prosperity and conspicuous consumption, which it echoes in its extravagant architecture, the Getty arrives on the world cultural stage with more than a touch of the relic about it; yet it lacks the intimations of immortality its sponsors so clearly intended.


L.A. Art February 19, 1998

  1. 2

    David D’Arcy, “Major changes ahead for $2 billion endowment,” The Art Newspaper, September 1997, p. 8.

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