Getty Center Dedicated as Gift to City


The stewards of the billion-dollar palace built from the fortune of oil baron J. Paul Getty dedicated its riches Saturday to the service of art around the world and for all time, but, above all, as a gift to the people of Los Angeles.

In an opening ceremony as reserved as the off-white metal and tan marble walls encircling them, leaders of the new Getty Center repeatedly declared their connection to the city that stretched out in a vista below. The center opens to the public Tuesday.

Appearing to fight back tears on a brilliantly sunny day culminating the 13-year construction of the arts citadel atop a Brentwood mountain, Getty President and Chief Executive Harold M. Williams looked to his roots as “just another guy from East L.A.” to set the tone.


And while ticking off the Getty’s ambitious reach across the globe and through history, several speakers took pains to describe the Getty opening as a defining moment for Los Angeles.

Addressing Angelenos explicitly, New York architect Richard Meier said he meant in his design to lay to rest the image of their city as a “place that used to exemplify the transitory.”

His hope, Meier said, is for the Getty to represent “permanence,” “rootedness” and “accessibility.”

In a stirring moment, John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, called the opening a priceless opportunity.

“May this place give joy to you and your children and all the generations to come,” Walsh said.

A select group of more than 700 foreign dignitaries, state and local officials and Los Angeles arts and social service figures attended the two-hour ceremonial opening Saturday morning.

They were treated to an eclectic home-grown show that included a talk by actor Denzel Washington, a rendition of “America the Beautiful” by the Crenshaw High School Elite Choir, mariachi songs by Los Lobos and performances by the Young Musicians Foundation Youth Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Gov. Pete Wilson also spoke, and in a pointedly symbolic moment, Mayor Richard Riordan accepted the gift of the Getty from Williams with a hug.

As a counterpoint to the focus on Los Angeles, the program dramatized the Getty’s work around the world in fast-paced videos that moved from China’s wind-swept Gobi Desert, where Getty staffers are helping to preserve 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha, to the jungles of Central America, where a Getty-funded project is digitizing ancient Aztec murals for computer viewing.

Later, as the music of ethnic dance troupes and musicians rang out through the courtyards, 1,700 invited guests ascended the hill for museum tours in a nearly flawless run-up for Tuesday’s public opening.

The only hitch was a failure of one of two electric trams that run from the underground parking structure near the San Diego Freeway to the hilltop complex. Buses shuttled some of the visitors instead.

The official opening capped a two-week round of previews and celebrations staged for art world and local dignitaries, neighbors of the complex, media, construction workers and staff.

The object of all this attention is a six-building complex to house the $4.5-billion J. Paul Getty Trust, the nation’s wealthiest foundation devoted to the arts and humanities.

Often called the architectural commission of the decade--if not the century--the Getty Center is the costliest art institution ever built in America.

It brings together on a 110-acre site the trust’s administrative offices, the museum, a grant program and specialized institutes for art education, conservation, research and technological information. The complex also has a three-story cafeteria and restaurant, a 450-seat auditorium and a garden designed by artist Robert Irwin.

As its completion neared, the Getty Center has attracted a degree of national and international attention unknown to any other Los Angeles cultural institution.

Critics have generally praised Meier’s muted Modernist design, which blends undulating glass and porcelain-coated steel with rough-cut fossilized Italian marble.

Some, however, focusing on the Getty’s relationship to sprawling and culturally diverse Los Angeles, have faulted its remote location above wealthy Brentwood and Bel-Air as the mark of cultural elitism.

A few of the guests Saturday said they felt the same way.

“I think it’s kind of preposterous, with all the human need in the world, to spend this kind of money on an institution like this,” said Jim Hubbard, director of Shooting Back, a social agency that works with disabled and homeless children.

Responding to such complaints in his ceremonial address, Meier said he sees his achievement at the Getty as being social in character, “not a monastic retreat, not a place where one asks, ‘Who am I?’ ” but “a place where one asks, “Who are we?’ ”

In his invocation, Rabbi Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center, characterized the complex as a unifying symbol, “a high place where we can truly see our City of Angels . . . in all its cultural variety.”

That message resonated with Mario Becerra, an 18-year-old student at East Los Angeles College, who was relaxing on a bench in Irwin’s Central Garden.

“I’ve never seen a painting by Da Vinci or Van Gogh or people like that,” said Becerra, who lives in Boyle Heights. “That was really exciting to me. You hear about those guys, and you feel you have to go all the way to Paris to see things like that.”

Though equally impressed, Charlie Park, a 21-year-old Torrance resident who is getting his teaching credentials at Pepperdine University, said he doubted that the Getty would appeal to most college students.

“It’s much easier to go to a movie than come up here for something like this,” Park said. “I would think students would come here if they were dragged by their art professors. There are only so many students that would want to come here on their own.”

But three members of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, all USC students, said they could see the Getty attracting students looking for a place to study.

“It makes me want to organize some friends to come up here; all this stuff is so exciting,” said violist Dan Johnson, 18. “It’s one of the cheapest places to come in Los Angeles, and one of the most beautiful.”

It was by design that even younger students were plentiful on this day. About 200 children from Culver City’s Stoner Avenue Elementary School, adopted four years ago by the Getty, wore colorful Getty sweatshirts, baggy jeans and sneakers as they carried the shining gold and purple ribbon down the long staircase to the stage for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Others came in groups throughout the day, including the Lincoln chapter of the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club, obviously well-prepped for the wonders that awaited them.

Club member Sarah Tooke, 11, was eager to see the marble sculpture “Three Goddesses,” the figures of Venus, Juno and Minerva carved by sculptor Joseph Nollekens in the mid-1770s. One of her teachers took a photo of Sarah and two of her friends as the lovely goddesses.

“We posed like them!” Sarah said, striking something resembling the cross-legged pose of Venus.


Times staff writer Doug Smith also contributed to this story.


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