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Come to the Villa -- but Not Now

With reservations full through July, Getty officials fear that people eager to visit might just drive up, wrongly expecting to get in.

January 28, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Beset by controversy, targeted by Italian prosecutors, rocked by resignations, the leaders of the Getty Trust face a more immediate worry: Their renovated villa museum, which opens today, is an unqualified box-office success.

Reservations to see the Malibu-adjacent villa museum's antiquities and gardens are full through July 31, the kind of achievement that brings rejoicing among most marketers.

But at the Getty -- where nothing is simple these days -- the demand raises red flags for officials wary of turning away art lovers and angering nearby homeowners who spent years fighting the Getty Villa's plans to grow.

In a bid to cool opening-week demand, Getty officials bought full-page newspaper ads to thank art lovers for their "overwhelming" interest -- and beseech would-be visitors to stay away if they don't have a ticket in hand.

"We are just deathly afraid that people are going to hop in their cars and come out" without reservations, said spokesman Ron Hartwig.

"As they said in the Kevin Costner movie, 'If you build it, they will come,' " said Norm Dupont, president of the Sunset Mesa Property Owners Assn., who lives a 10-minute walk from the villa.

The Getty started offering timed tickets by phone and through its website on Nov. 3, planning to limit visitors to about 1,200 a day. Admission is free, but parking is $7.

Officials acknowledge that the combination of long-awaited and much-feared events has put the institution under a brighter spotlight than any advertising campaign could have.

In a city famous for looking forward, not back, the antiquities museum is for the moment among the edgiest places in town, and a global debate over cultural patrimony is now focused on a 64-acre plot just off Pacific Coast Highway.

Getty Museum Director Michael Brand, who might otherwise be assuaging the concerns of neighbors, was in Rome, emerging from a "frank and productive" meeting with Italian authorities, who have called for the return of 42 Getty-owned antiquities they say were looted.

The Getty's former antiquities curator, Marion True, who might otherwise be handling last-minute details in the galleries today, resigned last fall after revelations that she had arranged a personal loan through professional contacts. She is on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to buy looted antiquities.

Then there's Getty donor and former Trustee Barbara Fleischman, whose name is prominently inscribed on the villa's new outdoor theater. She might have been taking bows at the site this weekend, but resigned from the Getty board Wednesday after months of questions over a $400,000 loan she and her husband, now deceased, made to True shortly after donating and selling more than 300 antiquities to the museum in 1996.

The villa site, closed since 1997, showcases 1,200 Getty antiquities (from a collection of 44,000) in a re-created Roman country house surrounded by Mediterranean-style gardens. The site includes fewer than 400 parking spots for the public.

After years of "sometimes quite bitter" relations between the museum and its neighbors, said nearby resident Dupont, "I believe there has been much advance planning and care given."

Though he "can't guarantee that everything will work perfectly," Dupont said he expected no major problems. "And after the initial novelty and I've-gotta-see-it feeling wears off, the demand will reduce to more moderate levels."

Though a spokesman said more tickets may be released as staffers gauge what the site can comfortably handle, he acknowledged that weekends and summer dates will remain elusive. The Getty's best guess now is that the average visitor will stay 3.5 hours.

"I've got my ticket. I'm going to go next month," said Robert Barrett, who manages Hennessey+Ingalls, an art-and-architecture bookstore in Santa Monica. "I can't wait."

To a degree, the fuss over the villa fits an emerging civic pattern: Every few years, the laws of entertainment and economics in Los Angeles bend curiously, and cultural consumers briefly turn away from less rarefied amusements and join in a mad dash to gain entry to a museum or concert hall.

This phenomenon flared in 1997 with the opening of the Getty Center in Brentwood, then again in 2003 with the debut of Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown.

At this pace, the villa is likely to draw 300,000 to 400,000 visitors annually, roughly the same traffic it attracted in the early 1990s, when its displays included everything from Greek vases to Old Master paintings. In their legal wrangling with neighbors over use of the villa site, Getty officials had said they might see a visitation drop-off of up to 33% because of antiquities' more narrow appeal.

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