RICHARD MEIER'S GETTY CENTRE IN LOS ANGELES (1999): Architecture, art and anger

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RICHARD MEIER'S GETTY CENTRE IN LOS ANGELES (1999): Architecture, art and anger

High in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, The Getty Centre offers a commanding view.

“Yeah, on a clear day you can see smog forever,” says a droll Angelino as he stares into the blue-grey gauze which lies lightly over his city on this typically perfect, dry day.

That said the Getty, as it is commonly known and which opened 18 months ago, is beautifully appointed on a 46ha site above the San Diego Freeway in Brentwood. It looks from the Pacific Ocean and across the greater Los Angeles area in one direction, and to the Santa Monica Mountains in another.

Little wonder Angelinos sometimes come here to simply wander through the gardens -- designed by Robert Irwin -- and have lunch in the sun with the busy world far beneath their sight-lines. Up here it’s sky above and world below -- and art all around.

Built for about $NZ1.75 billion, the Getty art museum has seen more that two million visitors since its opening in December 1997. And oddly in this city of the automobile, the carpark allows for only 700 vehicles so it pays to book ahead. The many visitors who arrive by bus or taxi -- or on skateboards or in-line skates, because this is Los Angeles after all -- don’t need reservations.

The Getty certainly rewards any effort made to get to it.

Designed by Richard Meier, the centre effects the marriage of handsome design and functionalism. Meier’s vision and the Southern Californian climate has allowed for that rarity in art museums, an effortless union of interior and exterior space.

Paintings on the top floors are exhibited under natural light.

The Getty is considered one of the great museums and locations -- but Meier’s bull-headed vision to realise his dream, and the museum’s future direction, have been the stuff of protracted controversy.getty3

Of current concern is the Getty’s acquisitions policy most recently under fire from Los Angeles Times’ art critic Christopher Knight, who berated the museum for letting Georges Seurat’s 1884 Landscape, Island of Grande Jatte slip through its fingers.

Knight rightly noted that Seurat is internationally regarded as one of the finest by the French pointillist Impressionist. This painting was the perfect and necessary counterpoint to the Getty’s Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor, a powerful Expressionist work the museum snapped up a little over l0 years ago.

The Seurat, however, is now in Steve Wynn’s collection in his Las Vegas casino, Bellagio. He picked it up for a tidy $NZ70 million.

The Getty says it considered bidding for it, but determined it wasn’t a good enough example of the artist’s work -- a breathtaking assertion. Knight suggests the museum’s running costs (“a voracious money pit") meant it simply didn’t have the readies for such a major purchase.

In a front-page Times article Knight noted that while the museum was bolstered by a trust with an annual endowment of $NZ10 billion, there were enormous outgoings.

The Getty has six principal buildings which collectively house the J. Paul Getty Museum, offices, an auditorium, conservation institute, the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, an education institute for the arts, the Getty Information Institute, the Getty Grant Programme, and a restaurant and cafe.

lt is impressively large, as befits what has been described as the most expensive and extravagant museum in the United States.

With facades of rough travertine stone chosen to evoke traditionalism and endurance (though a substitute for the architect's original concept of white enameled aluminium after complaints from the neighbours), the place has a cool, assured ambience and sits comfortably within the topography of the sometimes arid Californian hills.

The Getty is expansive enough to accommodate large exhibitions.getty2

Running at present are extensive exhibitions by the photographer Brassai, the intelligent and informative pairing of the Italian renaissance painters Ercole de Roberti and Dosso Dossi (complete with x-ray analysis of one of Dossi’s larger works), an impressive display of medieval illustrated manuscripts with educative displays on book illustration and construction, sculpture exhibits, and more. Already this year there have been acclaimed exhibitions of Dance and Photography, the seldom seen photography of Edgar Degas, some small Van Goghs, and changing displays from the museum's extensive archives and collections. And most of these exhibits come with explanatory notes and tie-in education programmes.

But the Getty did not arrive at this point without its shortcomings or critics.

Meier, a visionary Modernist architect, drove his particular vision of the museum for 14 years and clashed repeatedly with almost everyone eise involved, notably Irwin and museum director John Walsh.

A behind-the-scenes documentary about this titanic struggle of ideas, ideologies and egos, Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Centre, captures the drama.

But despite Meier’s genius being largely realised -- and the finished complex greeted with critical and public acclaim -- attention has turned to what is in the galleries. And, as Knight pointed out, what is not.getty1

Some say the feast of art can quickly turn into a smorgasbord, and the slightly chaotic permanent exhibition largely reflects the idiosyncratic taste of its benefactor, the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.

The gardens -- a source of a lengthy dispute between Meier and Irwin -- may be impressive in Los Angeles, a city not known for its proud domestic gardens, but to outsiders it can look little more than a well-designed, constrained collection. Plants which line the zig-zag path that crosses over a trickling stream and leads to a concentric display are regularly changed. But when lined up against the great museum gardens of the world, it can look meagre.

And despite its size, the Getty is already cramped and the trust has had to lease additional, expensive space in nearby Santa Monica. It is also having to look at adding more parking spaces, there are continuing renovations to Getty’s original villa in Malibu which is scheduled to open in 2001, the numerous research and conservation programmes are draining money and it demands a large staff.

The year before the Getty Centre opened the museum’s acquisitions budget was slashed from $NZ92 million to $NZ50 million and the figure is even lower today.

As a result, since its opening the museum's acquisitions have been unimpressive. Knight listed only two major paintings, four sculptures, three plaques, a Byzantine manuscript, 123 photographs and other smaller works.getty4

Certainly there have been generous gifts and endowments, but the Getty itself appears to letting acquisition opportunities go by while it struggles with its day-to-day running costs and problems.

So impressive though the Getty Centre may be -- and it is certainly that -- there is also disquiet as to its future direction. Whether what's inside continues to match its impressive exterior is the question.

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