Coming and going

Times Staff Writer

2006 was a big year for the arts in greater Los Angeles.

The roster of new and redesigned "cultural palaces" grew -- the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Malibu's Getty Villa, the Griffith Observatory.

The tussle over rightful ownership of art intensified: Five Gustav Klimt paintings looted by the Nazis were returned to descendants of their owner. And at the Getty, there were continuing charges that looted treasures were part of its collection of antiquities.

Murals appeared and disappeared, and so did heads of top arts institutions.

As the year draws to a close, some of these sagas are far from over. Here are updates and recaps of some of the big stories.

The Klimts

After an eight-year campaign, the five Klimt paintings, valued at $300 million, were returned by the Austrian government to 90-year-old Maria Altmann of Cheviot Hills and the other heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was thought to represent the most valuable Nazi-looted art restitution in history, and once it was completed, it seemed that everyone wanted the paintings. Austria negotiated to buy them back, but the price was too high. LACMA also made a failed bid, reportedly $150 million, to keep the paintings, which it exhibited in a glowing show from April 4 to June 30.

Cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder bought the most valuable work, the "gold" portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," on behalf of the New York museum he founded, the Neue Galerie, for a whopping $135 million. And in November, the remaining four paintings were sold at Christie's auction house to unnamed buyers for a combined $192.5 million, bringing the total tally to $327.5 million.

Altmann said she has no regrets that the paintings did not return to Austria and adds that on a visit to Vienna with her family, "somebody told me that when the news came over the radio in a coffeehouse, people started to applaud. So apparently they have a sense of justice, which makes me happy. I was afraid they would say: 'That old bitch!' "

The Getty

As the year began, the museum world was abuzz over allegations by Italy and Greece that major American museums were holding looted treasures and the Getty Museum's former antiquities curator, Marion True, was on trial in Rome, accused of knowingly buying looted artifacts. The trial continues to inch along, but everything else has been moving much faster.

The Getty returned four items to Greece and revised its acquisition policies but couldn't put together a compromise with Italian leaders seeking more than 40 items from the Getty collection. Finally, in November the Getty announced unilaterally that it would return 26 items -- and that it wasn't giving up about 20 others, including a 2,500-year-old "statue of a victorious youth" that Italy has ardently sought. This angered the Italians. Back in Greece, a prosecution source said True could be tried on looting-related charges in that country too.

Meanwhile, personnel changes roiled. In January, trustee Barbara Fleischman resigned amid controversy over antiquities she and her husband donated and sold to the museum in the 1990s. In February, Barry Munitz, president and chief of the umbrella Getty Trust, resigned amid an investigation of the trust's finances. Departures over the months since then include Getty board members Steven B. Sample, Ron Burkle and Lloyd Cotsen; board Chairman John Biggs; Getty Trust Vice President Bradley Wells; and Getty Research Institute Director Thomas Crow.

But the Getty Villa reopened after a $275-million redesign. And there were two high-profile arrivals: Michael Brand came aboard as director of the Getty Museum in January, replacing Deborah Gribbon. James N. Wood, a 65-year-old art historian and former president of the Art Institute of Chicago, arrived in November as president of the Getty Trust, replacing Deborah Marrow, who has returned to her prior position running the grant program.

A Getty factoid: Since its opening Jan. 28, the Getty Villa has had 274,282 visitors, as of Dec. 4.

Griffith Observatory

As of Dec. 15, 170,000 reservations had been made to visit the redesigned observatory, which reopened Nov. 3 after a $93-million makeover that had kept it dark for nearly five years. The breakdown: about 70% adults, 16% children under 12 and the rest seniors. But here's a tip for 2007 from Vicki Israel, superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks for the Griffith area: Make a reservation for a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. On those days, "attendance has been much lower than anticipated and it's easier to see the planetarium show and appreciate the exhibition," she says.

The murals

Kent Twitchell's "Ed Ruscha Monument," a six-story portrait of artist Ruscha completed over the course of nine years, disappeared from the side of a Job Corps training center in downtown Los Angeles in June, sparking public outrage and a legal battle between building owners, contractors and the artist. In August, Twitchell, filed suit against several "nongovernmental entities" that "willfully and intentionally desecrated, distorted, mutilated and otherwise modified" the work by painting over it.

The defendants have agreed to hire a consultant to determine whether the paint can be removed without damaging the mural.

Another endangered mural got a long-awaited reprieve: Plans to conserve David Alfaro Siqueiros' 1932 "America Tropical" mural on Olvera Street, whose Getty-funded restoration has been mired in civic bureaucracy for decades, will finally move forward after the city and the J. Paul Getty Trust agreed to split the $7.8-million cost of readying the mural for public viewing.

Segerstrom Hall

Opening just three years after the much-celebrated Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., Cesar Pelli's wave-form, glassed-in design for the 2,000-seat, $237.5-million Orange County hall was dismissed by some critics as lacking in daring. But there were fairly upbeat reviews for the sound quality that acoustician Russell Johnson achieved with his trademark moving parts, including a canopy over the stage and an array of doors lining the hall that can be left open, shut or ajar.

Then, there's the money: Slow fundraising and rising costs leave the Orange County Performing Arts Center with $75 million still to raise, by the most recent figures -- which fundraising experts say can be a tricky proposition after the fact.

L.A. Opera

Julie Taymor's staging of "Grendel," the story of a man-eating monster, featured an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton rotating wall known as the "ice-earth unit" -- which computer glitches rendered inoperable in the days before the opening. Despite that rocky start and mixed reviews, the opera ended up turning a profit. So much so, in fact, that the company had hoped to bring it back next year. That won't happen, but a spokesman says to expect a return of the monster in a future season.

Also working its way onto the calendar: L.A. Opera's long-awaited first production of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, thanks to a $6-million donation from businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad.

Michael Govan

How's LACMA's new guy doing? Govan, formerly director of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation and a specialist in contemporary art, took charge of LACMA in April and wasted no time. He put his stamp on the museum's expansion plan by moving a store and cafe aside to give art a larger presence in the entry pavilion, grabbed a chance to rescue a historic modernist office designed by architect John Lautner and install it in the Streamline Moderne building known as LACMA West, persuaded high-profile figures to join the museum's board of trustees and helped enlist artist John Baldessari to design the imaginative installation of "Magritte and Contemporary Art."

The Autry

and the Southwest

On June 30, the oldest museum in Los Angeles closed its galleries after years of money troubles. But the 99-year-old Southwest Museum on Mount Washington isn't dead, just in limbo. The Griffith Park-based Autry National Center, which operates the Museum of the American West and took over the Southwest in 2003, has been accused of "cultural piracy" for closing the institution and moving many of its treasures to Griffith Park.

But Autry leaders say they're spending millions to protect collections and make a crumbling building safe. They also say they aim to reopen the Southwest as a multipurpose site with cultural and educational programs along with two galleries of exhibition space. When? Perhaps by 2011.

The Broadway factor

Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, got mixed results in his bid to free the 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre from over-reliance on the uncertain appeal of Broadway roadshows. He'd picked a prize horse in "The Drowsy Chaperone," which opened at the Ahmanson in late 2005, though it didn't become a hot ticket until it reached Broadway. "Curtains," written by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, of "Cabaret" and "Chicago" fame, with book by Rupert Holmes and with David Hyde Pierce in the lead, drew crowds -- and if it opens big on Broadway in March, it will help advance Ritchie's plan to keep uncorking heady stuff bound for New York -- and to bring out big L.A. audiences for the early tastings.

Then there was "The Black Rider," the diabolical folk tale told by the avant-garde team of librettist William S. Burroughs, songwriter Tom Waits and director Robert Wilson. Walkouts were legion, but so were cheers from typically younger theatergoers. In retrospect, Ritchie said, he should have done a better job of helping prep subscribers for the strange encounter. But he added that the show succeeded "extremely well" in bringing a fresh audience to the Ahmanson.

The musical-exclusives strategy for the Ahmanson had to be put on hold at least until next fall. The planned 2007 premiere of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Berry Gordy's walk down Motown's memory lane, was delayed by music rights issues, so L.A.'s consolation prize next summer is "Jersey Boys," the hottest show on Broadway, which beat out "The Drowsy Chaperone" for the best-musical Tony.

Reincarnations

The Evidence Room: Its Beverly Boulevard building, a former bra factory in Echo Park, is still there, but the new tenant is BootLeg Theater, founded by artists formerly associated with the Evidence Room, but sans Bart DeLorenzo, Evidence Room founder and artistic director, who's weighing other options .... John Mauceri conducted his last concert as music director of Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, assuming a position as chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem ....Conductor James Conlon, formerly of the Paris National Opera, took over as music director at Los Angeles Opera this summer, replacing Kent Nagano.... Margie J. Reese exited as general manager of L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department, and at La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff announced he'd be stepping down in spring 2007.... Russell Ferguson moved from the Hammer Museum to helm UCLA's prestigious art department; he retains an adjunct curator title. Relative newcomer Gary Garrels became the museum's chief curator.... American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel abandoned plans to turn Orange County's Ballet Pacifica into a fully professional classical ensemble due to funding shortfalls, but the company later found a leader in former San Francisco Ballet dancer Evelyn Cisneros-Legate.

diane.haithman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mike Boehm, Lynne Heffley, Christopher Knight, Suzanne Muchnic, Chris Pasles, Christopher Reynolds, Lewis Segal and Scott Timberg contributed to this report.

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