The loudest and most persistent critics of the J. Paul Getty Museum have always been the British. Since 1982, when the Getty Trust received its fortune--now worth about $4.1 billion--and the museum began to upgrade its art collection, the British press has taken the Getty to task for robbing Britain of its artistic treasures, reported on campaigns to prevent the museum from exporting artworks and questioned the authenticity of various items in its collection. The Getty in 1994 lost a protracted battle for "Three Graces," a $12-million marble trio of life-size figures by Antonio Canova, and the museum is currently trying to win an export license for a $22-million Italian Renaissance painting, Fra Bartolommeo's "Holy Family."
But wonders never cease in the art world, which has its share of strange bedfellows. The latest example is a marriage--or at least a whirlwind affair--between the upstart museum in Malibu and London's 244-year-old British Museum, an encyclopedic repository of art and artifacts, probably best known for the "Elgin Marbles," a group of sculptural panels removed from the Parthenon in Athens and transported to London between 1801 and 1811 by Lord Elgin.
In a gesture of collegial hospitality above the fray of the marketplace, the Getty Museum last Thursday night hosted a reception for Princess Margaret and a contingent of British Museum officials and supporters. They were in Los Angeles "to raise awareness of the [British] Museum's international role as a center for the display and study of world cultures, and as a global education resource," as a press release put it. Translation: The group was on a fund-raising mission.
Last week's Getty affair was a highlight of the British Museum's first official foray into Los Angeles to promote a $165-million development program that was launched in November 1994. A $9.2-million gift from publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, announced on March 1, kicked off the West Coast venture. Leonore Annenberg, honorary president of the American Friends of the British Museum, hosted a dinner last Wednesday for Princess Margaret at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
In an economic climate that has forced most American museums--except the Getty--to scramble for funds, the British would appear to have a tough selling job on this side of the Atlantic. But Robert Anderson, British Museum director, says the institution's collections have always been international, and they function as an international resource through an active program of worldwide loans. What's more, he says, more than half the museum's visitors come from North America.
"It matters not a bit" that museums all around the world are raising funds, Anderson says. Indeed, he contends that simultaneous capital campaigns may raise awareness of the need for support and produce benefits for all of them.
In the case of the British Museum, funds will implement an ambitious restoration and expansion plan. Occupying a 13.5-acre site in Bloomsbury, the six-level building was designed to accommodate fewer than half a million visitors annually, but it has become Britain's best attended museum, attracting 6 million people a year, Anderson says.
Serving the public in an inadequate building has become quite a challenge. "Our development scheme tackles that problem, expanding the facility by 40%," he says.
Much of the additional space will come from a central section occupied by the British Library, which in 1997 will move to a new building at St. Pancras, about a mile north of the museum. Under a plan designed by the London architectural firm of Sir Norman Foster and Partners, the library's distinctive round reading room will be retained, but a museum information center--funded by the Annenberg donation--will be installed there. The reading room will be the centerpiece of the museum's Great Court project, which will create a two-acre, glass-roofed public square with orientation facilities, two restaurants, several cafes and an extensive bookshop. Museum spaces used for public facilities will be converted to temporary exhibition galleries.
The plan also calls for a new lower level that will contain an education center and African galleries, three new mezzanine floors on the northern exterior of the round reading room, demolition of a 120-year-old extension to the museum's front hall and reconstruction of a portico.
The museum gets about two-thirds of its annual operating budget from the British government, and British sources are expected to provide the bulk of money in the current fund drive. About $78 million has been raised in the campaign, which is expected to wind up in March 1998.
ART ONLINE: The Detroit Institute of Arts is the latest museum to strike a licensing and distribution deal with Corbis Corp., a privately held company founded in 1989 by Microsoft chief Bill Gates to create new uses and markets for digital content. The nonexclusive agreement will add images of works in the museum's art collection to Corbis' constantly growing archive, which includes the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., the Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth, the National Gallery in London and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Commercial licensing agreements have been controversial in museum circles because of fears about quality control and concern that computer access to art will reduce visits to museums, but more and more institutions are jumping on the cyberspace bandwagon.
SCHEYER IN KOREA: The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has often been criticized for what amounted to a virtual no-loan policy, but that has been relaxed in the last couple of years. Still, a current loan is something of a breakthrough.
About 220 works from the museum's critically acclaimed exhibition, "The Spirit of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in the New World," are on view through April 28 at the Ho-Am Art Museum in Seoul, Korea's oldest and largest private museum, which sponsored the Korean Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Retitled "The Painters of the Bauhaus: The Spirit of Modernism," the show focuses on works by Blue Four artists Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Alexei Jawlensky, collected by a German emigre who settled in Los Angeles in 1928 and represented the artists until her death in 1945. This is the first display of the Scheyer collection outside the United States.