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Villa's Reopening a Low-Key Marvel

The Getty's remodeled antiquities museum is unveiled to about 1,100 admiring visitors.

January 29, 2006|Mike Boehm and Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writers

The Getty Villa reopened to the public Saturday, a low-key unveiling that nonetheless left visitors marveling -- as much at the beauty of the $275-million transformation of the museum and grounds as at the antiquities collection inside. Despite storms buffeting the J. Paul Getty Trust for more than a year, all was sunny in Pacific Palisades, where trust President Barry Munitz held the door to welcome the first visitors.

"The presentation of the art is already an art. The site is art," said Denise Brkljacic, who with her husband, Predrag, and 38 others in a group from the Fullerton Senior Multi-Service Center, were among the first regular guests to set foot on the grounds since the villa closed in 1997.

Los Angeles police reported no traffic problems, and neighbors, who had fought the project, seemed to agree.

Visitors came, saw and were conquered -- by new architecture, extensive renovations to the old and the splendor of the 64-acre site high above the Pacific. Included are an entry pavilion, a 450-seat outdoor theater, an indoor auditorium, a cafe, research facilities, offices and parking.

The original villa museum, which oil baron J. Paul Getty established in 1974, patterned after the ancient Villa dei Papiri in Italy, has been remodeled, creating more open and light-filled galleries -- 4,800 square feet of them -- showcasing 1,200 of the Getty's 44,000 antiquities.

No one was more enthusiastic than the Paris-born Brkljacic: "I think it's the greatest place on Earth," she said as she stood in the villa atrium, with its placid pool, elaborate floor and gold-festooned ceiling with a skylight open to a patch of pure blue. "It's artistic, fulfilling, peaceful."

Brkljacic had one complaint: Wood-paneled elevator doors were maybe too artistic. "I couldn't find the elevator. It's so discreet, I had to ask." The conveyance opened directly into a small gallery devoted to griffins, the fierce, winged mythic beasts.

Neighbors, who gave up their bid to stop the expansion only after the state Supreme Court refused in 2003 to hear their last appeal, seemed mollified by the Getty's limits on admissions, with staggered arrival times to avoid traffic bottlenecks.

"I don't' think [traffic] was even an issue. I was out walking earlier today and it was absolutely perfect," said Barbara Kohn, a board member of the Pacific View Estates Homeowners Assn., one of the groups that fought the expansion for four years. "Whatever has been planned is working very well. So far, so very good."

The Getty deliberately downplayed the opening to avoid hoopla or crowds that would have run afoul not only of neighbors but also attendance and traffic restrictions imposed by the Los Angeles City Council as a condition of approving the renovation.

There were no ceremonies or VIPs, and -- unusual for an arts inaugural -- no invitations for media to spread the word that the welcome mat is out for folks interested in viewing, free of charge (with $7 for parking), one of the world's most important and lavishly housed troves of classical antiquities. The Getty wanted to treat it like a normal day, "just business as usual," said museum spokesman John Giurini.

"Turning up the heat," as Getty communications Vice President Ron Hartwig put it, could attract crowds of ticket-less visitors who might overwhelm the site.

At the 10 a.m. opening, Munitz, wearing a baseball cap and varsity jacket with Getty insignia, spoke briefly to no more than 100 onlookers. "You're here at a very important moment," he said. Under his jacket, Munitz wore an orange T-shirt emblazoned with the Latin motto, inspired by Julius Caesar, of the Getty team in charge of the reopening: "Venimus Vidimus Retranstulimus" -- "We came, we saw, we moved back."

Karol Wight, acting curator of antiquities, also spoke briefly, concluding, "I hope you have a terrific time."

Then the two held open the atrium's outer double-door for visitors to enter.

For more than a year, the Getty Trust, which operates the villa and the larger Getty Center in Brentwood, has faced a string of controversies over its management and allegations that more than 40 of its antiquities were illegally acquired. Former antiquities curator Marion True is on trial in Rome on charges that she conspired to buy looted artifacts for the Getty.

Yet controversy in no way seemed to mar the experience Saturday.

"Not a single person even asked me about it," Munitz said after spending several hours hobnobbing with visitors and even signing a few autographs on a "Today at the Getty Villa" opening-day placard that attendees received. Visitors also were given green foam headbands in imitation of the laurels bestowed on ancient rulers, conquerors and triumphant athletes.

Many wore them as they browsed galleries filled with ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan statuary, glass, pottery, jewelry, mosaics and metalwork, or ambled through gardens and column-lined courtyards with pools, fountains and Mediterranean-style plantings.

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