Getty Center Is More Than Sum of Its Parts


There has never been anything quite like the Getty Center. Scheduled to throw open its doors to the masses Dec. 16--after a series of hot-ticket invitational celebrations and an international media blitz--the $1-billion, 110-acre arts complex in Brentwood conforms to no known model.

Yes, it has a much talked about new museum. But the Getty Center isn’t the Met. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with an encyclopedic art collection far more extensive than the Getty’s, may be America’s answer to the Louvre--but it’s still only a museum.

Neither is the Getty Center a university. It has specialized institutes devoted to art conservation, education, research and technological information, but they don’t offer classes or give degrees.


And no, the center isn’t the home of an ordinary multibillion-dollar foundation either. The Getty’s grant program gives away about $7 million a year, but that’s a small part of the entire enterprise run by the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Unlike foundations created to give away money--including Ford, Rockefeller and Annenberg--the Getty organization, whose endowment stands at $4.5 billion, is an operating trust, charged with the responsibility of creating and operating its own programs, ranging from building a world-class art collection to training elementary school teachers and restoring cultural monuments in Egypt, Africa and China.

The Getty Center is so difficult to describe that in anticipation of its opening, the trust hired a communications specialist to rename its various entities to create a concise way of characterizing the center: “A museum, five institutes and a grant program.”

But the new complex is even more than that: It is a unique package of art, architecture, real estate and scholarly enterprise--housed in the costliest art institution ever built on American soil and fired by the desire to make the world a better place for art.

The Getty Center is also seen as a symbol of the city’s cultural coming of age.

“Thirty years ago, Los Angeles was not an art center at all,” said Sara Campbell, director of art at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. “Now with the addition of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the growth of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the vision of J. Paul Getty and Norton Simon, Los Angeles is one of the great museum cities of the world. The Getty Center is good for all of us. If it helps focus attention on the arts and encourages people to go to museums, that’s marvelous.”

Among those celebrating the moment is Mayor Richard J. Riordan, who forecasts a variety of benefits for Los Angeles.

“The new Getty Center captures the spirit of our city’s renaissance,” he said. “The new Getty Center will boost tourism, spur job creation, and add to Los Angeles’ rebounding economic base. The Getty Center will also make a tremendous difference in our cultural landscape by giving young Angelenos access to educational resources and sparking their artistic interest and imagination.”

The ultimate impact of the Getty Center remains to be seen, but as its inauguration approaches, cultural leaders are issuing praise and looking forward to the next step.

“I think it’s a terrific achievement,” said Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery in Washington. “What the future holds for them and the programs they operate is enormously provocative.”

The Getty already has improved the status of art education and cultural history, said Robert A. Skotheim, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. “At a time when art was going out of the schools, I can’t think of another organization that would have had a fighting chance of achieving that.” With the opening of the new facility, the Getty is gaining a physical manifestation of its aspirations, he said.

Amid the hoopla of its long-awaited opening, the Getty Center and its lofty aspirations have taken on an air of inevitability--something that had to happen, given the Getty fortune. But the evolution of the trust’s mission and the creation of its multifaceted program were almost as unpredictable as the story of its benefactor’s transformation from Scrooge to Santa Claus.

From Not-So-Humble Beginnings

Jean Paul Getty was a penny-pinching oil baron who conducted his out-of-town business from thrift-level hotel rooms and who carried his papers in a shabby briefcase tied together with string. He spent his final years in the splendor of an English mansion, but required his guests to make their telephone calls on a pay phone.

As an art collector, Getty was equally conflicted. He established the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1953, and a year later opened his first museum in a wing added to his ranch house in Malibu. He later poured $18 million into building the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, in a Roman-style villa that opened in 1974, and provided it with a $40-million endowment. But he refused to spend sums he easily could have afforded to amass a world-class art collection.

At his death in 1976, no one knew where his fortunes would go, and Getty shocked nearly everyone by leaving the bulk of his entire estate, $700 million in oil stocks, to the museum. In an equally uncharacteristic stroke of magnanimity, he let the museum trustees decide what to do with the gift. All he required was that the money be spent “for the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.”

If Getty had a specific idea about what might result, he probably focused on his eccentric museum in Malibu. Lodged in a re-creation of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum--a site buried along with Pompeii when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79--the museum owned an eclectic collection of French decorative arts, classical antiquities and European paintings. Neither the building nor the art was widely respected by scholars and art critics, but the public loved the museum, and Getty clearly conceived it as his artistic legacy. He even specified that he should be buried on the grounds.

Money to Spend

It took six years and $26.4 million in legal fees to settle Getty’s estate, but when the J. Paul Getty Trust finally got its money in 1982, the value of the bequest had escalated to a whopping $1.2 billion, an amount that with wise direction and investment would continue to grow. And as an operating trust, it is required by U.S. tax code to spend 4 1/4% of the average market value of its endowment on its programs in three out of every four years. With so much money and the necessity to spend, the trustees decided to do something more ambitious than simply upgrade and expand the Malibu museum’s art collections and library.

The question was: What?

To find an answer, they decided to hire a leader with a vision.

But then the question was: Who?

The first inspiration came from Franklin D. Murphy, a particularly well-connected Getty trustee who died in 1994. A former chancellor of UCLA and chairman and chief executive officer from 1968-80 of Times Mirror Co., parent company of The Times, he liked nothing better than top-level matchmaking.

In 1981, Murphy presented three candidates to the board: two highly placed academicians and Harold M. Williams, who had distinguished himself in business, government, finance and academia. A UCLA and Harvard Law School-educated tax attorney, Williams had even gained some insight into the art world through his friend and past employer, industrialist and art collector Norton Simon.

Williams worked for Simon from 1955-70, rising to the presidency of Hunt Foods & Industries Inc. and chairing the board of Norton Simon Inc. In search of new challenges, he left Simon to serve as dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Management, then moved to Washington in 1977 to become head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Carter administration.

When the Getty trustees began their search for leadership, in 1981, Ronald Reagan had been elected president, so Williams knew his government days were numbered. After discussing possible career moves with several friends, including Murphy, he had begun negotiating with a New York law firm to open an office in Washington. Then he got a call from Harold Berg, chairman of the Getty’s board. What Berg had in mind sounded more exciting than practicing law, so Williams met with the trustees.

“On my last day at the commission, Friday, Feb. 28, I chaired a conference,” Williams said. “Nothing had come of my talks with the Getty, but when I got home at 11 p.m. Washington time, the phone rang. It was Harold Berg offering me the position.”

Williams--who plans to retire Jan. 5, 1998, his 70th birthday--came aboard as president and chief operating officer in May 1981, and began constructing the trust’s new anatomy, bone by bone. But even before he moved back to Los Angeles, he was on the job.

At his first trustees’ meeting, in April 1981--after a visit with his old friend Norton Simon--Williams suggested that the Getty and the Simon museums jointly purchase “The Holy Family,” a painting by 17th century French classicist Nicolas Poussin, at an upcoming auction in London. The trustees agreed, so the two museums split the $4-million price and began displaying the painting on a rotating basis.

“The Getty hadn’t acquired any art for a long time,” Williams said. “I hoped this would signal two things: that the Getty was back in the market and that we would begin to build something with Simon.”

The Getty was indeed back in the art market--like gangbusters--but Williams’ hope of establishing a partnership with Simon was never realized. Despite an additional Getty/Simon purchase--of a $3.7-million Edgar Degas pastel, “Waiting,” at auction in 1983--and talks that continued until Simon’s death in 1993, Williams and Simon never reached an agreement. The Norton Simon Museum continues to operate independently in Pasadena.

Maximizing the Getty’s Impact

Meanwhile, Williams began a methodical quest. His job was to determine how, exactly, the trust would operate in addition to funding the museum in Malibu.

“It was an opportunity to create something unique,” Williams said. But all he knew for sure was that the focus would be on the arts and humanities.

Williams did some homework by making the rounds of cultural institutions in the East and Midwest. Then he hired two experienced arts administrators: Nancy Englander, former director of New Hampshire’s McDowell Colony for artists, writers and musicians, whom he later married, and Leilani Lattin Duke, former executive director of the California Confederation of the Arts, who became director of the Getty Education Institute.

During a year of research, they traveled widely in the United States and Western Europe, interviewing arts professionals to determine how the Getty money could have the maximum impact. “Disappointingly, there weren’t a lot of dreams out there,” Williams said.

He presented a proposal to the board in May 1982 calling for the creation of institutes for art education, conservation, research and technological information--all of which were formally established in 1983. The grant program and the Leadership Institute for Museum Management were formed later.

From the beginning, the plan was to locate all the programs in one place, so that they could interact. “Our first thought was to put the Getty Center in Malibu, but as we began to look at the topography, we quickly realized that superimposing these other activities on the museum--even though we didn’t visualize them as large as they turned out to be--wouldn’t work,” Williams said. “It would have been overbearing.”

A new site was needed, so Williams had a map drawn up indicating every available parcel of 25 acres or more, from downtown to the ocean. Among the most promising possibilities were the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and Veterans Affairs land in West Los Angeles.

But both sites had drawbacks, Williams said. The hotel property would have been expensive, and the Getty probably would have had to contend with restrictions pertaining to historic buildings. The Reagan administration was considering selling the Veterans Affairs property, but that would have required congressional action.

Then another possibility caught Williams’ interest--a 53-acre parcel on a Brentwood hilltop. It belonged to Tom Jones, chairman and chief executive of Northrop Corp., who planned to develop the land.

In a coincidence, the Brentwood property also grabbed the attention of Rocco Siciliano, a Getty trustee and retired chairman of Ticor, then the nation’s largest title insurance firm. He had gone to a Republican Party fund-raiser where President Reagan was scheduled to speak after a dinner on behalf of Pete Wilson’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Reagan spoke before the meal instead, so Siciliano skipped the dinner. While waiting for his driver, he met Jones, who had also left early.

Making conversation, Siciliano asked Jones if he had made any progress on his long-planned development. Jones said he finally had received official approval to build 35 houses on the property, but that he had grown weary of the process.

“You wouldn’t want to sell that land, would you?” Siciliano asked. Jones was startled but interested, so Siciliano called Williams. Within two weeks, the trustees had agreed to purchase the core property of the Getty Center. They quietly acquired adjacent property from UCLA the next year and in late 1983 announced plans to build an arts center on a 162-acre site. A year later, the trust bought an additional 580 acres from two developers as a buffer zone.

“Once we found the Brentwood site, the search was over,” Williams said. “It had so much to offer--great natural beauty, an elevated lookout point offering a unique perspective on the city and proximity to the freeway that allows the center to be an integral part of the fabric of Los Angeles.”

The Getty launched an international search for an architect in 1983, chose seven finalists in February 1984, then narrowed the field to three: Richard Meier, an American based in New York; James Stirling of London; and Fumiko Maki of Tokyo. Meier was selected in October 1984 for what was touted in the press as the architectural commission of the century.

When Meier’s appointment was announced, the estimated date of the project’s completion was 1991, but that turned out to be the year the Getty unveiled Meier’s design for the Getty Center. Complications due to the hillside site, earthquakes, neighborhood concerns and bureaucratic approvals led to one delay after another throughout the entire design and construction process.

Meanwhile in Malibu, the museum’s collection was being expanded and upgraded with spectacular purchases, under the direction of John Walsh. In 1983, Walsh had left his position as curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to join the Getty, bringing new respect to the eccentric museum. The Getty’s buying power was expected to take over the art market, but art prices have escalated to such extremes that even the Getty has been forced to be selective.

At the same time, the institutes were growing up in Westside rental properties. Operating out of an industrial park in Marina del Rey, the conservation institute hired scientists to conduct research and launched field projects around the world.

Lodged in a Santa Monica high-rise, the research institute began building a vast research library and hosting visiting scholars, and the education institute began trying to improve arts education in the elementary and secondary schools through teacher training and national advocacy. The information institute introduced art history to the computer age, while the grant program began to fund outside programs related to the work of the Getty institutes.

A Mixed Reception

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Getty’s unusual nature, combined with its wealth and youth, its Southern California location and its eccentric founder, have subjected it to confusion, distrust and even ridicule. Much of the criticism has dissipated as the museum has improved its collection, the institutes have launched far-reaching programs and the Getty Center has taken shape in Brentwood.

However, a debate continues over the apparent conflict between the symbolism of a castle on a hill--where parking is at such a premium that reservations are required--and the Getty’s desire to serve the public at large--already demonstrated in community outreach, free admission, and efforts to make the new center accessible via public transportation.

Even with opening day fast approaching, the Getty Center’s identity seems a bit hazy.

“The Getty Center is for everyone,” Williams said. “We would like everyone to feel a kind of ownership, to feel that it’s theirs.” And nowhere more so than at home, he said. “It’s a major cultural asset that embodies the Getty’s investment in the future of Los Angeles.”

But as much as Williams wants his creation to be loved and appreciated, he doesn’t mind an element of uncertainty. “I like to think of the Getty as adolescent, and hopefully always adolescent,” he said. “It would really disappoint me if we became clearly understood, because that would mean we had stopped questioning ourselves about what would make the best contribution. I hope there will always be a fuzzy part.”



In anticipation of the Dec. 16 opening of the $1-billion complex for art, conservation and scholarship, The Times offers an in-depth look at its genesis and its facilities.


Monday: Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff evaluates Richard Meier’s multifaceted architecture.

Tuesday: Art critic Christopher Knight reviews the museum as a place to see art.

Next Sunday: A special issue on the Magazine includes an overview of the Getty’s art collection, profiles of its creators and an assessment of its place in the international art world.

Also ahead: Articles on the finances, technology, construction, landscaping and educational resources.


Visiting the New Getty Center

Location: The Getty Center is located at 1200 Getty Center Drive in Brentwood.

Hours: Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.

Cost: Admission to the museum is free; parking is $5.

Transportation: Parking reservations are required and can be made by calling (310) 440-7300 or, for the hearing impaired, (310) 440-7305. Information is in English and Spanish. Visitors without a reservation can come via bus, taxi or bicycle, but parking in nearby neighborhoods is severely restricted. MTA bus No. 561 and the Santa Monica Blue Bus No. 14 stop at the front entrance on Sepulveda Boulevard. Bicycle racks and a taxi stop with direct phone lines to cab companies are located in the parking garage.