The unanticipated terms of J. Paul Getty’s will, which left nothing to his family and everything to his museum, set in motion a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid. Although his sons were beneficiaries of a $1.3 billion trust set up by their Getty grandmother, they sued to gain control of the museum’s assets from the board of trustees. By the time the dispute was finally settled, in 1982, the Getty Oil stock that passed to the Getty Trust’s endowment was worth $1.2 billion. The following year, Texaco acquired Getty Oil and the endowment’s value ballooned to $1.7 billion, making the Getty the world’s richest art institution, which it remains today with assets of some $9 billion. Getty’s bequest transformed the nature of the institution he founded beyond any conceivable expectations.
Required by law to spend 4.25 percent of the trust’s annual income on art purchases or programs, the Getty Museum quickly became the dominant player in the international art market. It established new record prices and pretty much had its pick of anything it wanted (even though acquisitions were sometimes thwarted by preemption laws in Britain and France, which blocked the export of several major of works declared national treasures).
The Getty’s petro-jackpot inspired its board of trustees in 1981 to appoint a new president and CEO, Harold Williams, an attorney and a former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to whom it gave the mandate to expand the institution’s activities beyond the founder’s original directive to collect and display art. Williams’s grandiose vision of the Getty as cultural colossus included the creation of six new departments, dedicated to art conservation, education, information, museum management, philanthropy, and research and publications. Williams’s corporate management style was equally expansionist, and he comported himself like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company rather than the head of an educational institution, behavior his successor, Barry Munitz, a former Berkeley literature professor and later chancellor of the California state university system, has been accused of taking to even greater extremes.
Although the Getty’s Malibu property comprised sixty-four acres, much of the sloping canyon site could not accommodate buildings, and the museum itself was deemed unexpandable. Thus began the project widely considered among architects as “the commission of the century.” In 1984, after a lengthy selection process, Richard Meier was chosen to plan the new Getty Center for a 110-acre hilltop site in Brentwood. The chilly, neo-Corbusian style pursued by Meier signified a major departure from J. Paul Getty’s design philosophy. As the benefactor said in justifying his controversial decision to replicate an ancient building, “I refuse to pay for one of those concrete-bunker type structures that are the fad among museum architects—nor for some tinted-glass and stainless-steel monstrosity.”6 Although Meier’s Getty Center is clad in enough travertine to erect a brand-new Forum Romanorum, it is likely that Getty himself would have seen the fortress-like complex in Brentwood as the very thing he did not want.
The land for the new Getty Center cost $25 million ($8 million more than it took to build the Malibu villa), but even that seems a pittance compared to the project’s ultimate cost of $1 billion. Getty never would have sanctioned such disproportionate spending on architecture, of any style, instead of art. The record $135 million that Ronald S. Lauder reportedly paid earlier this year to acquire Gustav Klimt’s portrait Adele Bloch Bauer I for the Neue Galerie in New York occasioned this pertinent comparison by The New York Times‘s chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman:
When the Metropolitan spent $5.5 million on Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja in 1970, it was a scandal; now it seems cheap for one of the great paintings in the country. The sums that places like the Museum of Modern Art squander on mediocre buildings, which become obsolete the moment they open, are scandalous.7
The same could be said for Meier’s Getty Center, which took thirteen years to complete and became obsolete long before it opened.8 The Getty Trust faced unexpectedly strong legal opposition from neighboring property owners, who demanded that the municipality limit the project’s size, height, and the amount of land it could occupy. In order to win zoning approval, the Getty was forced to agree never to expand on the new site. Suddenly, the exhibition space allotted for the rapidly growing collection seemed inadequate. That looming crisis prompted acceptance of the idea to keep the Getty’s Greek and Roman objects in the more “sympathetic” surroundings of the Malibu villa, thereby gaining gallery space in Brentwood for paintings and decorative arts, arguably more popular attractions.
In 1993, the Getty announced its second architecture competition in a decade. The commission to remodel the Malibu villa was less coveted than the first, not only because of the smaller scale and more restrictive set of givens, but because by then the problems Meier was struggling with in his dream job were common knowledge within the profession. (He shared his discontents more publicly in his score-settling 1997 memoir, Building the Getty, a classic in the literature of sore winners, and in Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center, a 1998 documentary commissioned from Maysles Films by the Getty Trust and widely interpreted as its rebuttal to the architect.) Perhaps having learned their lesson after dealing with a star designer, the Getty this time invited a group of younger, more tractable practitioners to submit proposals.
The shortlist of competitors for the Getty Villa job now seems remarkably prescient in identifying some of the best small architectural firms of recent decades, especially those of the Portuguese Pritzker Prize winner Álvaro Siza, the Los Angeles offices of the late Franklin D. Israel, and the husband-and-wife team of Craig Hodgetts and Hsin-Ming Fung. The Getty chose the equally distinguished Boston partnership of the Argentine-born Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, who, like the aforementioned contestants, are as esteemed within the profession as they are little known outside it.
A few months before Meier’s Getty Center acropolis opened in 1997, the Malibu building was shut down, and its contents went into storage at the Brentwood complex, save for token pieces shown in a temporary gallery on the new museum’s lower level. It took another nine years before the renovated, remodeled, expanded, and renamed Getty Villa would be completed. Four years alone had been lost to legal challenges from local residents, who, like their counterparts in Brentwood, feared the impact of increased traffic and other environmental depredations on their quiet community.
When the Malibu project finally opened this January, the timing seemed a cruel accident of fate. It drew added attention to the mounting crises that had brought low the once-envied Getty with charges of collusion in art theft, mismanagement of funds, and a betrayal of the ethical standards expected of a cultural trust.
The controversy that greeted the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 1974 opening now seems somewhat ridiculous, in view of the increasing acceptance that classical revival architecture has enjoyed during the intervening decades. J. Paul Getty was merely ahead of his time in being behind the times. Today, several neotraditional American architecture schools—especially at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Miami in Florida—teach the classical orders with Beaux-Arts fastidiousness, and their graduates are turning out designs not appreciably different from that of the first Getty. But if the Getty’s 1993 architectural search committee had picked a revivalist architect, the character of the villa would have been undermined, rather than enhanced as it is by the strong but respectful contemporary solution devised by Jorge Silvetti.
Machado and Silvetti customarily work in close collaboration on their designs, but because the Getty job was the largest their small office had ever handled, they decided that Silvetti would concentrate on it while Machado attended to the firm’s other, smaller projects and acted as a critic of this one. Machado and Silvetti’s nondoctrinaire Modernist work adheres to no set stylistic formula, although several of their schemes have employed masonry that evokes classical proportions and motifs in such an abstract manner that the designs never seem overtly historical. Above all, Machado and Silvetti shun any sense of irony in their work. This was the real secret to the surprising success of an assignment that many of their co-professionals predicted would be hopelessly difficult because of the immovable and supposedly improvable Getty Villa itself.
As Silvetti explained his strategy to me, “We put the building in quotation marks.” That is to say, rather than commenting on the oddity of the villa, either through his interventions to the building or the freestanding additions he deployed around it, he took the centerpiece at face value. Silvetti was not concerned to leave his imprint on it, as most of his high-style colleagues would have done. That is not to say he did not alter the nature of the place significantly. The ground floor (arranged around a central atrium replete with splashing fountain) remains much as it originally was. Its sculpture galleries are still inlaid with varicolored marble in intricate, vivid patterns taken from classical antiquity. Several rooms on the entry level have been turned into orientation spaces, with the computer gimmickry that no museum today seems able to resist.
Silvetti’s most important task was to transform the villa’s upper story, which had previously housed the Getty’s painting and furniture collections, into galleries that would show off antiquities to better advantage than the former Duveenesque interiors, which undermined the credibility of the classical conceit. Turning over the entire building to Greek and Roman art confers gravitas lacking in the structure’s first version, but with no apparent loss of popular appeal, a considerable achievement for works believed too arcane for mass consumption by many other museums.
In order to maximize wall space and minimize light levels for the display and protection of pictures in the original scheme, what appeared to be windows on the second story were in some instances blind panels. Silvetti opened several of those decoratives rectangles to create real windows, giving the reconfigured galleries a welcome visual connection to other portions of the villa and its fastidiously tended gardens, the work of the landscape architect Denis Kurutz, who died three years before the renovation was finished.
The new galleries are superb, and Silvetti’s use of richly colored, elaborately figured terrazzo floors and integrally tinted plaster walls—in unusual but complementary combinations that are varied so that no adjacent rooms look exactly the same—are among the handsomest devised for any museum in years. The surfaces’ warmth and depth of tonality are further enhanced by lighting that calls so little attention to itself that an aura of authenticity permeates the Getty Villa as never before. Typical of Silvetti’s attention to detail is the glass used for the display vitrines, which are so free of reflection that visitors are often startled to realize that there is any glazing at all between them and the objects they reflexively reach out to touch, such as the enticing ancient coins donated by the comedian Lily Tomlin.
Highlights of the collection have been arranged thematically rather than chronologically in galleries devoted to subjects such as “Gods and Goddesses,” “Stories of the Trojan War,” and “Women and Children in Antiquity,” an approach criticized by some scholars but evidently more engaging to a general audience than the conventional march of time. At the center of the “Women and Children” gallery stands an over-lifesize second-century Roman marble statue of the Empress Faustina the Elder, a stiff official image bought by Getty himself and typical of his preference for works that might have pleased turn-of-the-century robber barons. In a nearby case is a fourth-century-BC Greek gold funerary wreath that is among the collection’s disputed holdings. Overall, the Getty Villa itself has been improved about as much as imaginable, and would have been a laudable achievement in itself even were it not for the many complementary additions Silvetti built around it.
The result is one of those architectural ensembles that remains incomprehensible through still photography alone. Silvetti has treated the site in much the same way as a classical Japanese stroll garden of the seventeenth century, such as Katsura in Kyoto, or a picturesque English landscape garden of the eighteenth century, like Stourhead in Wiltshire; the experience of visiting the Getty Villa is similarly episodic, propulsive, full of incident and surprise. Because additional parking was needed to accommodate more visitors than had been able to visit the old museum, a new multilevel garage was built into a hillside northwest of the gallery building. This eliminated the most disconcerting aspect of the original arrival sequence, in which visitors would park their cars in the garage under the museum and take an elevator up to the Roman replica.
Now, however, visitors leave their cars a good distance from the museum and proceed toward it by foot along an ingeniously choreographed series of pathways, ramps, and steps, bringing to mind the old Olympic Airways slogan “Half the fun is getting there.” The formal beginning of the route is marked by the monumental concrete-and-onyx portal of the Entry Pavilion, just beyond which all the usual museum reception services are grouped. The pavilion is faced in warm brown concrete paneling and matching travertine, the principal materials used to clad most of the new aboveground construction. The thirty-foot-high portal—marked by an angled wall to the left and a simple post-and-lintel rectangle to the right—projects an aura of classical nobility purely through scale and proportion, making the composition unquestionably modern in spirit as well.
From there, visitors ascend to a higher level, either by elevator or an outdoor stairway, to a multiangled walkway that keeps the villa always to the right of the viewer, just as a Japanese stroll garden always positions its principal vista in that direction. Similarly Japanese is the way in which one’s view is strategically diverted to heighten visual drama, prolong anticipation of arrival, and increase perception of space. Silvetti achieves these effects in various ways—with changes in ground level or paving texture that momentarily divert one’s attention downward, or with screen walls with intermittent cutouts, alternately hiding and exposing carefully framed segments of the villa, which is not revealed as a whole until one is close upon it. The site planning is a masterpiece in itself.
Among the amenities Silvetti was asked to provide was a new indoor café with a large outdoor dining terrace, atop an expanded bookstore and gift shop, all of which he skillfully inserted into a hillside northeast of the villa. The architect found it dauntingly difficult to find a proper site for the Greek-style amphitheater the Getty wanted. He considered placing the semicircular arena up near the crest of the hill rising behind the villa to the east, but the logistics of getting audiences safely up and down from that height were insurmountable, as were objections from neighbors wary of noise and light from nighttime performances. After rejecting several alternative locations, Silvetti took the bold step of placing the amphitheater directly adjacent to the villa’s north elevation, the side through which the public enters the museum. He was aware that the close juxtaposition of a public auditorium and a private house was unthinkable in classical antiquity, but the arrangement here makes so much sense spatially and functionally that he put aside any qualms about the composition’s historical correctness. (The theater was inaugurated in September with a production of Euripides’ Hippolytos, in Anne Carson’s English translation.)
Since the villa’s reopening in January—the same month that Michael Brand, former director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, became the new head of the J. Paul Getty Museum—the trust’s officials have attempted to reverse the non-stop tide of bad publicity that has engulfed the institution. But this was not the first time the Getty’s dealings have caused controversy, even scandal. The museum’s first antiquities curator, Jirì Frel, was forced to resign and was fined for endorsing inflated tax appraisals of objects donated to the collection. In 1985, the Getty paid $7 million for what is now known as the Getty kouros, a supposedly ancient marble statue of murky provenance, depicting a young man. Subsequently judged a fake by many experts, it is still on view at the villa, with a label acknowledging its contested status: “Greek, 530 BC, or modern forgery.”
To foster a new atmosphere of transparency, and no doubt to anticipate the findings of the California attorney general’s investigation, the Getty Trust has lately instituted reforms that include the board of trustees’ approval of all purchases of property and the posting of its financial information on the Getty Web site. The Getty has agreed to cede two ancient Greek objects—a stone grave stele and a small marble relief—to Greece, which is pressing for the repatriation of two more items—the aforementioned funerary wreath and a marble kore statue, which have been on view in the villa’s reinstallation. And the trust has also been negotiating with the Italian government, which wants fifty-two objects repatriated.
However, neither the sum of those gestures—which some observers see as too little, too late to discourage those countries from continuing their prosecutions—nor the enthusiastic reception of Silvetti’s work in Malibu has done anything to diminish the continuing public relations debacle and personal tragedy of the Marion True trial, which has been dragging on in a series of hearings held months apart.
True was asked to resign from her Getty post not for any presumption of guilt in the Italian action but because she accepted a personal loan the trust considered an ethical conflict. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling in museum circles that a woman esteemed among her peers has been made a scapegoat for the questionable practices of the Getty Trust in making acquisitions to rapidly increase its ancient holdings in quality and quantity as the Getty Villa’s reopening approached. Many believe, moreover, that True is being singled out unfairly by the Italian government, which has exacerbated the problem of illicit excavations and clandestine sales through its system by which the state claims absolute ownership of all newly discovered antiquities and denies any compensation to finders.
Perhaps the most telling difficulty is that the Getty’s severely compromised ethics have prevented it from protecting True, or even itself, with the moral authority that other cultural officials, including Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have commanded in defending their institutions from opportunistic foreign campaigns to reclaim antiquities. But de Montebello is a skilled diplomat, unlike the foolhardy Getty officials whose outright refusal to return any works to Italian authorities in 2002 was regarded as an insult and spurred the Italians’ decision to go after True.9 In the irony of ironies, True, who had quietly negotiated the return of other disputed objects in the past, was not among the Getty officials at the fateful meeting that the affronted Italians deemed a casus belli.
The world in general, but America in particular, relishes cautionary tales of great wealth causing great woe. Yet there can be little doubt that the house that Getty built has brought its own plague of miseries on itself, which can be comprehended without recourse to myths of supernatural interference the ancients needed to make sense of such otherwise inexplicable human folly.
—October 19, 2006
Cristin, Guidebook, p. 18.↩
Michael Kimmelman, "New Klimt in Town: The Face That Set the Market Buzzing," The New York Times, July 14, 2006.↩
See Randy Kennedy and Hugh Eakin, "The Met, Ending 30-Year Stance, Is Set to Yield Prized Vase to Italy," The New York Times, February 3, 2006; and Hugh Eakin, "Italy Offers Met a Deal on Disputed Art," The New York Times, January 13, 2006.↩
Half the Fun April 12, 2007
Cristin, Guidebook, p. 18.↩
Michael Kimmelman, “New Klimt in Town: The Face That Set the Market Buzzing,” The New York Times, July 14, 2006.↩
See Randy Kennedy and Hugh Eakin, “The Met, Ending 30-Year Stance, Is Set to Yield Prized Vase to Italy,” The New York Times, February 3, 2006; and Hugh Eakin, “Italy Offers Met a Deal on Disputed Art,” The New York Times, January 13, 2006.↩