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A Getty Chronicle: The Malibu Years

A look at the evolution of the J. Paul Getty Museum as the villa closes for a four-year renovation and cedes the spotlight to the rising Getty Center.

July 06, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"There were 24 spaces for cars," he said. "The museum was open two days a week between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. Later it was opened one additional day a week for one group per day. Attendance on a good week was 150 people, but it was often half that."

When visitors appeared, always by reservation, a gardener would check their names off a list. Essentially an unoccupied home with a wing for art, the fledgling museum was surrounded by wooded terrain containing Getty's version of a zoo, home to a few bears, buffalo, mountain goats and other animals--all of which attracted flies.

"There was a real menagerie for a while," Fredericksen said, "and it was not easy to keep people away from it." One man who wandered off to the bear pits tried to share his cup of yogurt and nearly lost his hand.

At the museum, all the guards were UCLA graduate students. The annual budget was $25,000, including salaries. Getty, who was living in Sutton Place, a 16th century manor house 25 miles southwest of London, made acquisitions from additional funds. Although he never visited the ranch house museum--or the villa--the staff always labored under the delusion that his arrival was imminent. The furniture was dusted, the windows were washed and the closets were stocked with linens so the living quarters would be in perfect order when he came to Malibu.

In 1968, Getty decided to expand the 14-year-old museum he had never seen. He considered several alternatives: a Spanish Colonial building to complement the ranch house and a Neoclassical structure that would suit the antiquities. Then--apparently out of the blue, at a dinner party at Sutton Place--he told a group of friends he wanted to re-create the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, which had been buried along with Pompeii when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

Ground was broken in December 1970, and construction began in mid-1971. Norman Neuerburg, a scholar of ancient Roman architecture, served as a consultant. By the time the villa opened in 1974 Getty had invested $18 million in the building and provided a $40-million endowment for operating expenses.

Meanwhile, Fredericksen became curator of paintings in 1971 and hired Wilson, a British-born curator of decorative arts, who was trained at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and had won a fellowship to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The following year, Jiri Frel joined the staff as curator of antiquities, finally giving the museum a specialist for each of its major collections.

The seemingly bizarre construction project was the source of art world gossip, but the ranch house museum continued to operate in relative obscurity. "Some days nobody came at all," Wilson said. "We used to sit on the lawn and wait for the avocados to fall."

Occasional lectures attracted scholars to the museum and created a flurry of excitement, but there was little money for essentials--let alone entertaining.

"Things ran on a shoestring. We were even discouraged from using air mail," Fredericksen recalled.

"To make a long-distance telephone call, you had to get approval from the board of trustees, and they only met once a year," Wilson said.

However, the curators managed to travel in search of acquisitions, and to Sutton Place to try to win Getty's approval for their selections. But even after he had agreed to buy a piece, there were harrowing waits to see if he would initial invoices for payment.

"He signed them 'OKJPG,' but he wouldn't do it in front of you," Wilson said. Not only was he reluctant to part with his money, in his later years he needed an aide to guide his shaky hand and probably didn't want anyone else to witness his disability, she said.

Eager to finish the new museum, but finding it difficult to keep tabs on it from a distance, Getty hired British architect Stephen Garrett in 1973 to oversee the project. Calling himself "a messenger boy, a kind of papal legate working between Getty--the pope at Sutton Place--and the worker priests out here," Garrett had made 18 round trips across the Atlantic by the time the museum opened, carrying everything from marble samples to films of construction workers pouring concrete.

A bon vivant who spearheaded the zany staff talent shows, Garrett turned out to be the right man for the job, partly because he had a gift for persuading Getty to equip the museum with public amenities. When Getty thought a few vending machines in the basement were preferable to a cafe, Garrett made sure space was not available in the basement and put the cafe--later dubbed Spa Getty--in an accessible location. When Getty refused to provide refreshments for guests at the museum's opening, Garrett's wife, Jean, and several museum volunteers did the cooking--as they did a year later for the venerable Assn. of Art Museum Directors' meeting at the museum.

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