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Opening up to a slice of America

Times Staff Writer

“IT was the last available expansion space for collection display,” says Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. He’s talking about prime real estate at the Getty Center, and it’s no accident that photography got it.

The 7,000-square-foot gallery complex in the museum’s West Pavilion -- on the terrace level, below the old photography galleries -- was filled with Greek and Roman antiquities during the Getty Villa’s renovation. Now it has been spiffed up and reconfigured to accommodate the museum’s fastest-growing collection, a cache of 100,000 photographs including more than 30,000 exhibit-worthy prints and tens of thousands of rare images in albums and books.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 11, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty Museum: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about expanded exhibition space for photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum said that works in the inaugural show were acquired as gifts and purchases from Los Angeles collectors Bruce and Nancy Berman. The Bermans gave or loaned all the photographs to the museum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty Museum: An article in the Oct. 8 Calendar section about expanded exhibition space for photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum said that works in the inaugural show were acquired as gifts and purchases from Los Angeles collectors Bruce and Nancy Berman. The Bermans gave or lent all the photographs to the museum.

Set to open Oct. 24 with gleaming wood floors and walls painted “bunny gray,” “silver spring” and “cooking apple green,” the elegantly refurbished quarters will nearly quadruple the 1,800-square-foot space formerly devoted to photography. With a redesigned entrance, a yet-to-be-finished shop and galleries suitable for large exhibitions, smaller side-by-side shows and video viewing, the new complex adds up to a dynamic new center for photography, Brand says.

“The main idea is recognition of the great quality and importance of our photographs collection,” he says. “When my predecessors and I considered how to use the area, I became convinced that it was our photographs that most needed additional display space. Our photographs collection is also our 20th-century collection and, mainly, our contemporary collection. All the more reason to have enough space to address, through photographs, some of the big ideas and issues of art and politics of the time.”

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Among photographers who welcome the change, Jo Ann Callis, who teaches at CalArts, sees the expansion as “a great opportunity to show more work and larger contemporary work and to have more than one show at a time.”

The inaugural exhibition, “Where We Live: Photographs of America From the Berman Collection,” which continues through Feb. 25, will be a splashy affair. Organized by Judith Keller, associate curator of photographs, and Anne Lacoste, assistant curator, it features about 170 works acquired as purchases and gifts from Los Angeles collectors Bruce and Nancy Berman. Big, colorful and searingly direct, the images by 24 artists depict out-of-control backyards, beat-up cars, unlovely churches, lonely barns, gas stations, desert hideaways, neon signs, billboards and other messy evidence of human activity.

“Most of these places are not suburbs, quite; not cities, quite,” says Weston Naef, the Getty’s curator of photographs, who has headed the department since its inception. “They are places we occupy, landscapes and built environments outside big cities.” Versatile as the artists may be, in this show they “walk in the footsteps of Walker Evans,” he says, referring to the American photographer known for documenting vernacular architecture and using his camera to express plain truth.

Opening new photography galleries may be just one more notable event in the life of a museum that has been in the news since 1982, when it received a $1.2-billion bequest from its founder. As the trust governing the museum established additional programs and built the Getty Center to house them, the museum’s curators went shopping. They transformed the collection by expanding holdings of European paintings and sculpture, French decorative arts and antiquities and launching collections of drawings and illuminated manuscripts.

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But no acquisition was more astonishing than the 1984 purchase of 18,000 photographs, encompassing nine major private collections and large groups of work from other sources. In a single stroke, the Getty burst into the field of photography with a larger collection than the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York and hired Naef, the Met’s curator of photographs, to oversee it. At the same time, the Getty propelled its art collection into the 20th century, if only in photography.

From the very beginning, the collection of photographs boasted the nation’s most extensive holdings of works by 19th-century masters such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Gustave Le Gray, William Henry Fox Talbot and Carleton Watkins. Over the next decade the museum developed a strategy of collecting selected artists’ work in depth, including 20th-century artists Eugene Atget, Gertrude Kasebier, Frederick Sommer, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. In recent years many works by contemporary photographers, such as John Divola, William Eggleston and David Hockney, have joined them.

Significant gaps remain, including works by Asian and Latin American photographers, and Naef hopes to fill them. But the first priority is quality, he says. In most cases, if an artist is to be added to the collection, a substantial body of work must be available and it must relate to the Getty’s art holdings. Now that the market has exploded, some photographs cost as much or more than Old Master paintings -- $2.9 million for an Edward Steichen, $1.5 million for a Stieglitz, $1.2 million for a Richard Prince. But the Getty has generous donors, including the Bermans. Bruce Berman, chairman of Village Roadshow Pictures, is a founding member of the museum’s Photographs Council, a private support group.

Since its founding 22 years ago, the department of photographs has presented 80 exhibitions, including a large survey in 2004. But only a small fraction of the collection has been in the public eye, on gallery walls or in a study room accessible by appointment. The bulk of the black-and-white works are stored in boxes on shelves; color works are kept in cold storage. Plans call for a larger cold storage area to house the growing collection of contemporary color photographs.

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The new galleries will bring much more of the collection to light and provide a venue for traveling exhibitions. Next up in the new space, from March 27 to July 8, will be “The Old Order and the New: P.H. Emerson and Photography,” organized by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England. The show of 150 works by the 19th-century English photographer who focused on traditions that survived the Industrial Revolution will be augmented by books in the Getty’s collection.

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Perpetually in the public eye

ONE goal of the expansion is to have photographs on view all the time, Brand says. When the main galleries are dark, a separate space designed to display a rotation of thematic, chronological slices of the permanent collection will remain open. That gallery is still under construction, and it will take about a year to complete the transition of photography exhibition spaces.

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At the moment, there are lots of moving pieces, and the staff is scurrying to cope with the changes. No staff has been added to the department of photographs, but Brand says he is monitoring the situation.

The permanent-collection gallery will open in March, but not with photography. For the first six months, the space will hold new works by contemporary artist Tim Hawkinson, in conjunction with a lobby installation of his “Uberorgan,” a whimsical, walk-in contraption of balloons and horns.

The former photography galleries, upstairs, will be converted to display space for the museum’s drawings collection. But through April 29 part of that area will be occupied by a temporary exhibition, “From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter: German Paintings from Dresden.” Starting Tuesday and continuing through Feb. 4, the remaining upstairs gallery will offer “Public Faces / Private Spaces: Recent Acquisitions,” featuring photographs by Donald Blumberg, Anthony Hernandez, Mary Ellen Mark and Bill Owens.

“I think it’s quite a good thing that this is a work in progress,” Brand says. “This is a great creative opportunity to look at the collection with different possibilities in mind. For example, if we are showing video, that might suggest related exhibitions in the rest of the gallery. We will still do fantastically refined monographic shows of important photographers, some well known, some lesser known. But once we see the potential, all sorts of ideas will crop up. It really is a sort of watch-this-space situation.”

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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‘Where We Live’

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Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays

Dates: Oct. 24 through Feb. 25

Price: Free

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Contact: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu


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