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No Major Overhaul for Getty Museum : Art: Although the Malibu villa will be modified to become a center for the antiquities, the building will remain essentially intact.

July 13, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

No bulldozers or wrecking balls are in the current J. Paul Getty Museum's future. The Roman-style villa that has housed the museum in Malibu for the past 20 years will remain essentially intact when it is converted to a museum and study center for Greek and Roman antiquities, according to Harold M. Williams, president of the Getty Trust.

"Even if we wanted to make major changes, we would have to bear in mind that this was all made possible by J. Paul Getty," Williams said of the museum and seven other Getty programs endowed by the late oil magnate. "The building is his creation, and we will honor that."

The Getty Trust last week announced the appointment of the Boston-based firm of Machado and Silvetti Associates Inc. as master planners of the project. The renovation is expected to begin in 1997, after the Getty's other art collections have moved to a new museum at the Getty Center, under construction in Brentwood.

Although the process of planning the villa's conversion is only beginning, changes under discussion include improving visitor circulation and installing skylights in the second-floor galleries to create better viewing conditions for antiquities, Williams said. In addition, the museum's entrance may be reconfigured so that the main peristyle garden is experienced as an intimate interior space--as in a real Roman villa--rather than a point of entry, he said.

Reached by telephone at his office in Boston, architect Jorge Silvetti said the renovation is likely to develop open spaces around the museum and offer more public access to the grounds. As for the building, "through a twist of fate, it will become more relevant by staying the same," he said.

"A Roman villa built in the 1970s in Southern California to house European Renaissance and Baroque art is problematic," Silvetti said. Indeed, "ridiculous" was the cognoscenti's judgment in 1974, when Silvetti and his partner, Rodolfo Machado, were doing graduate work at UC Berkeley and the Getty opened its museum in Malibu.

"But when the villa is turned into a museum of classical antiquities, the first and only one in the country, the building will become much more relevant. The building itself will become an object in the exhibit that must be preserved and even improved in its faithfulness," Silvetti said.

J. Paul Getty's architectural folly has not only survived its baptism by ridicule, it has become a beloved cultural monument, and Silvetti is thrilled with the prospect of working there. "It's such a special commission, such a special institution and such a special city, we are very excited. It's the kind of work we have been dreaming of," he said.

Williams said that activities at the refurbished villa will better reflect the full, multidisciplinary spectrum of the trust's programs. In addition to serving as a public museum, the facility will be a site for antiquities-related projects involving branches of the trust that focus on art history, conservation and education.

Two years of staff discussions to determine the future use of the villa preceded the appointment of master planners, Williams said. Programs are still evolving, but the consensus that emerged is that the museum's collection should not be an end itself but a catalyst for new scholarship, scientific research, public education and exhibitions placing the objects in a broad context and relating them to other cultures.

The Getty Conservation Institute might establish a program for archeological conservation at the villa, Williams said, and its projects might include public programs on the importance and methods of preserving cultural artifacts.

Offering an example of the kind of exhibitions visitors might see at the Getty's planned antiquities museum, he suggested a show that would compare and contrast Greek and Roman civilizations with Central America's Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

No date has been set for the completion of the renovation, Williams said, but in 1997 the villa will be closed for construction.

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