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COVER STORY

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

Indeed, Getty was so penurious that the staff feared he actually would visit the museum as it neared completion. "It was a huge relief that he didn't come," Wilson said, imagining changes Getty might have ordered.

The museum opened in January 1974. It was a hugely popular success, causing traffic jams that temporarily forced the museum's closure on weekends and resulted in a reservations system. But the building was a critical disaster. Some critics said the building was such a strong architectural statement that it overshadowed the collections; others charged that it wasn't an accurate reproduction.

Getty's curators had been allowed to go on a buying spree before the museum opened, to assure that the galleries wouldn't be empty, but a penny-pinching tradition continued.

In 1983, when Barbara Whitney, the museum's associate director of administration, arrived, she found Getty's miserly legacy still operating. "People were completely unused to spending money," she said. "They groveled for supplies and sent three-page memos to justify expenditures of $2,000. I thought, 'This is great. I get to be generous.' "

But change was already in the wind. Getty had never told his staff that he would leave his fortune to the museum; indeed, he had indicated just the opposite. After his death in 1976 they were stunned to hear that he had left $700 million in oil stocks to the museum.

In 1982, when the J. Paul Getty Trust received proceeds of the estate, the gift had already appreciated to $1.3 billion and that was just the beginning. The museum has gone on to distinguish itself by upgrading and expanding its collection and organizing critically acclaimed exhibitions--and it is only one of the trust's programs.

John Walsh, a highly respected curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, became director of the Getty Museum in 1983, bringing an imprimatur of East Coast prestige to the renegade institution.

Seeing a rare chance to build a collection, Deborah Gribbon left the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to become the Getty's associate director and chief curator. And indeed the collection has been transformed. "Of the paintings installed at the new museum, all but a handful have been acquired in the last 14 years," Gribbon said.

Walsh, too, is looking ahead to the new museum. "Although this museum is built on the villa experience, the villa was far from perfect for paintings," he said. "It had charm and serendipity, but the new museum has what it lacked: elbow room, light, air, space."

No institution in the world has undergone such a radical change in such a short time as the Getty, Fredericksen said. "Many people regret leaving Malibu. That's a setting you can't duplicate. But the old days were not that great. Now we have a collection worth coming a long distance to see. We have a library that is one of the best in the country. All the things Los Angeles and the museum lacked, we now have."

As to what Getty might think of the new museum, no one on staff will hazard a guess. But Garrett recalls that when Getty was choosing a style of architecture for the villa, the one thing he did not want was a modern building.

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* Parking reservations at the museum are completely booked for today, but visitors dropped off by car, bus or taxi will be admitted.

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