Essential L.A.: Getty Center and Getty Villa

A visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles makes a lovely day trip for Southern Californians. The Getty is quickly becoming the cultural heart of L.A.; for many out-of-town and international visitors, it’s now considered an essential stop, along with Hollywood (and, if they have kids, Disneyland), when they visit the area.

There are actually two Getty museums: the Getty Center, in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the lesser-known Getty Villa overlooking the ocean in Malibu.

J. Paul Getty made his fortune early in the oil business and became one of the richest men in the world. He began collecting classical antiquities in 1930, and this became his lifelong passion. Getty felt it important that they be shared with the public, so a museum exhibiting his collection was developed on the property.

I recently made a back-to-back two-day visit to both Gettys. The original Getty Museum near Getty’s former residence, now known as the Getty Villa, is where you go to see classical pieces. High on a bluff in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Getty Villa is just north of Sunset Boulevard on Pacific Coast Highway. On hand is an amazing collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities housed in the only rebuilt ancient Roman villa in the world.

The original villa that Getty based his villa on, Villa de Papiri in Heculaneum, Italy, was buried under debris caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Getty Villa includes a 450-seat classical outdoor theater and a museum store. The café features a delicious offering of Mediterranean-themed dishes. Unlike the Getty Center, you must go online (getty.edu/visit) to obtain a parking reservation before coming.

One of the more interesting exhibits at the Getty Villa is the bronze statue titled Victorious Athlete. This sculpture of an idealized Olympic champion had been underwater for 2,000 years before being discovered accidentally by fishermen in the Mediterranean Sea near Naples. It had apparently been stolen by the Romans, but their ship sank on the way back from Greece.

The Getty Center in Brentwood is the more well-known museum of the two. It’s a familiar sight to those who commute along the 405 freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Getty Center’s series of structures were designed by Richard Meier and took 13 years to plan, design and construct, finally reaching completion in 1996. When neighbors complained about the museum being constructed out of Meier’s trademark white stone, fearing a resulting afternoon glare, he reluctantly switched gears and imported beige travertine stone from Italy.

Reservations are not required at the Getty Center and the museum is free, although parking is $15. This is a far cry from the early days at the Getty when parking was such an issue that reservations were required months in advance. A tram takes you up to the museum, elevating you above the 405 and providing a spectacular panoramic view of Los Angeles. As you enter the museum, natural light and large glass windows add to the fluid movement between indoor and outdoor spaces. A short introductory film is offered, and then you’re free to explore the artwork.

For those of you who gag at even the thought of a trip to L.A., visiting the Getty is like floating above the megalopolis in a special contained world all its own. The view of the city is a treat in itself. There are a cluster of buildings to explore, and the atmosphere makes you want to stay and linger among the art for several hours. Courtyards, wide open spaces, sycamore groves and a variety of gardens create a pleasant, park-like setting conducive to artistic contemplation.

The main garden at the Getty Center, designed by Robert Irwin, is actually a sculpture in the form of a garden. These spaces and a myriad of cafes encourage breaks to digest and appreciate the pieces viewed.

The collection at the Getty Center includes pieces from throughout Western Civilization in several buildings. I focused on the Impressionists and a new exhibit entitled Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500. I also found the exhibit of photos dating back to 1830 to be quite impressive. Overall, the art collection is one of the most comprehensive and impressive found anywhere. The Getty Trust has grown to a staggering $4.5 billion, which gives it an advantage in purchasing works of art.

The Getty is more visitor-friendly than many other museums, with a variety of tours and educational outreach programs for visitors and school groups. The tours offered at both the Getty Museum and Getty Villa include architecture, garden and collection tours. The collections tour provided an in-depth examination of four of the exhibits. Sufficient time should be left to simply wander amid the exhibits and cultivate one’s personal response to the pieces.

This being L.A., scores of celebrities reside within a few miles of the Getty. A friend of mine involved in security at the Getty told me that many of them are privy to private after-hour tours of the museum’s holdings. Even Queen Elizabeth partook of such a tour when she visited California.

Brief films at both sites introduce the visitor to the breadth of work done by the Getty, including scholarship and preservation. They’re not just museums, but educational centers, research centers and cultural landmarks. A research library containing 900,000 volumes and two million photographs is housed at the Getty.

Curiously, Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty, is featured in the orientation film at the Getty Villa. True was accused by the Italian government of trafficking in stolen antiquities for the Getty and indicted on these charges in 2005. About 40 antiquities that the Italian government claimed were stolen were returned in 2007. The case ended abruptly in October 2010 when the statute of limitations ran out. This was probably the most severe blow to the public image of the Getty.

Some thought-provoking quotes in the orientation films whet the appetite for the feast of art that is to follow. A few of these include “Art does not reproduce what is visible. It make things visible,” by Paul Klee and “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” I love this quote by Henry David Thoreau; it can apply equally to the commute up the 405 through L.A. traffic to visit the Getty and standing in the museum admiring the artwork.

I saw quite a lot during my two-day visit that made an indelible impression on me. I can attest that visiting both Gettys were experiences that will remain with me for a long time.

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