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Five Years of the Getty | Isolated? Elitist? L.A. makes
the Getty its own in surprising ways.

Seven million visits later ...

Five years in, the Getty Center is clearly a popular destination. Is it the art or the view? Both. A look at the mark its billion-dollar footprint has left on Los Angeles and the broader world of art.

December 15, 2002|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"I want to be a queen," one little girl informs her mother.

It's all a bit much for some visitors.

"Another friggin' line? I don't think so," grumbles a man who has already waited to ride the tram and buy lunch, as he spots a queue for an orientation film. But instead of going home to watch TV, he lopes off to the galleries.

Others find refuge at the Getty Research Institute, which stages small shows from its vast collections in a circular building just west of the museum. "Oh thank God, a nice empty place," says a woman, peering into darkened galleries where a mere dozen people are looking at "Landscapes of Myth" and its images of Greece. "It's a mob scene out there," she whispers to the guard.

Even so, attendance at the Getty Center dropped from 1.7 million in 1997, the opening year, to 1.5 million in 1998, then to 1.3 million, where it seems to be holding fairly steady. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art packed in 1.3 million people in 1998-99, when it hosted a Van Gogh blockbuster, double its average annual attendance.

"Before we opened, we anticipated that our maximum crowd would be 1.4 million," says Deborah Gribbon, director of the Getty Museum. "We are operating very close to what we thought would be our capacity."

More than 7 million people, including about 250,000 students on school tours, have visited the Getty Center in the past five years. Meanwhile, the median age of visitors has dropped from 50 to 45 and the number of repeat visitors has risen from 24% to 34%, the Getty has found in periodic surveys. Early on, about half the visitors came from outside Los Angeles. That number has dropped to about 40%, perhaps because travel has declined since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Still, on any given day, first-timers can be seen poring over maps of the site and gathering for docent tours.

'Disneyland of the mind'

Beyond the spectacle of holiday weekends, the Getty Center attracts scholars, students, curators, artists and other arts professionals to exhibitions, lectures, symposia, discussions, concerts and meetings.

"It's a Disneyland of the mind," says Robbert Flick, a prominent photographer who teaches at the University of Southern California. The first thing he noticed, as a longtime observer of the city through the lens of his camera, was that the Getty Center "provided a view of Los Angeles that hadn't been there before. All of a sudden Los Angeles could be contained as you scanned from Mt. Baldy to San Nicholas Island."

What keeps him coming back, with his wife, artist Susan Rankaitis, are photography and drawing exhibitions at the museum and a range of programs presented by the Getty Research Institute.

For Rankaitis, participating in the museum's Point-of-View series of gallery talks by artists was "one of the most professionally rewarding things I have done," she says. Her subject: French photographer Gustave le Gray. "I love his work and the depth of the Getty's collection is unbelievable. I went to the show nine or 10 times before I gave my talks. The whole thing made me feel so connected to the museum."

Making connections with everyone from individual artists and scholars to families and school groups is a major goal for the Getty. While some observers praise the hilltop complex as a monument to high culture in a city that desperately needs one, others condemn it as physically and psychologically removed from the city.

"A lot of people would have loved to see the Getty Center in another place," says philanthropist Eli Broad. "But overall, the Getty is a great asset. It has helped us with cultural tourism and it has made the city more of an international cultural center."

"The Getty has been perceived as isolated," Gribbon says, "and we have taken very deliberate steps to go out into the community and bring people here. Not just visitors, but people who feel they have a stake in the Getty one way or another. We like to be a gathering place, but I don't think we had anticipated the degree to which this has happened."

The special exhibition program, for example, has come as something of a surprise to the art community, partly because the original Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades didn't have space for temporary shows. The Getty Center shows feature esoteric topics and relatively obscure artists, but they have proven popular with critics and the public alike. The top draws so far, each attracting more than 165,000, are "Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Durer and Holbein" and "Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen."

Opening receptions for the exhibitions draw hundreds of people, some of whom seem to be as interested in each other as the art on display. That doesn't bother Gribbon, who likes the idea that the Getty is a magnet for those with different agendas. Los Angeles can foster isolation, she says, so "some people come here for the kinds of things other cities offer more naturally -- to sit down and meet a friend or read a book."

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