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Something's still missing

The hilltop center has brought fine exhibitions and programs, but its permanent collection remains uneven.

December 15, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

For a project once dubbed the Commission of the Century, the Getty Center is marked by one major success and one major disappointment. The place is wildly successful as a tourist attraction, drawing nearly 14 million visitors in the last decade. But even though many (and maybe most) visitors are locals, the Brentwood complex hasn't deeply embedded itself into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.

The trustees' choice of an ocean-view hilltop location pretty much secured tourism success, but it's not entirely responsible for the failure. Building a campus physically separate from the city only erected an unnecessary hurdle. The deeper source of the problem lies elsewhere.

Just in time to be an anniversary emblem of the predicament, the Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Collection, acquired in late 2005, was installed around the center's campus in June. Parts of it are now the first things a visitor sees when arriving at the tram station for the ride up the hill. And the selection of 28 Modern sculptures careens between sheer magnificence and mind-boggling mediocrity.

A curatorial indifference to a high minimum standard of quality recapitulates the glaring flaw in the art collection left by J. Paul Getty at his death more than 40 years ago, when Rembrandt's grave "St. Bartholomew" kept company with the clumsy frippery of a Dutch society portrait by Nicholaes Pickenoy. These motley sculptures won't injure the steady clip of Getty Center tourism, but culturally engaged Angelenos have no particular reason to return again and again to see them.

When the Getty launched new collecting fields in the 1980s -- medieval manuscript paintings, photography -- it was with jaw-dropping acquisitions that ignited the imagination. Modern sculpture is also a new arena, but this haphazard selection mostly just looks extravagant. The Getty's problem, in other words, has been an insufficient art commitment.

Odd but true. The institutional mission laid down by its oil tycoon benefactor is for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge," and the general has gotten in the way of the artistic. Fully experiencing a work of art is the highest form of that enlightenment -- and the better the art, the more profound the experience. There's no replacement for it.

The Getty has certainly added first-class masterpieces to its museum collection -- Titian's 1533 court portrait of an Italian general, poignantly attended by an adoring page; Rubens' rediscovered panel-painting of boisterous mortal combat between man and animal, taken from a famous scene in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and more. But for every one of those, there has been an irreplaceable Duccio devotional painting (now in the Metropolitan Museum), a Velasquez portrait (now in the Prado), an eccentric bust by F.X. Messerschmidt (now in the Louvre), the "Borromeo Madonna," attributed to Donatello (now in the Kimbell), Raphael's portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici's grandson (now in a private collection) or a late-medieval sculpture by the pivotal German genius Tilman Riemenschneider (now in a British foundation) on which the Getty inexplicably took a pass.

In the context of art that got away -- and only those works for sale publicly, not privately, can be known -- some acquisitions induce a wince.

James Tissot was an adept Victorian portraitist and religious painter, and his best work may well be found among the paintings he made before leaving Paris for London in 1870. But however fine his 1866 "Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, nee Therese Feuillant," which the Getty recently put on view, the picture remains a fine example by a second- or third-tier artist.

In myriad areas the Getty Center does rate high on the achievement scale for specialists and art professionals. The Research Institute's nearly million-volume library is a marvel. Residencies and grants to scholars and institutions globally have been a boon. The Conservation Institute has rescued treasures -- including video art -- no one else would (or sometimes could), inventing new techniques and training other conservators in the process.

That's all good. For the Los Angeles public, it's also the submerged and hidden mass of the Getty Center iceberg, whose tip consists of the art on view at the Brentwood site.

The collection surged from passable to admirable in the run-up to the 1997 opening, but it's seemed pretty much stalled there ever since, inching forward much too slowly for my taste. Artistically, the sure-bet has been the exhibition program -- especially the major presentations in the temporary-exhibitions pavilion.

The Getty Museum's 10-year run of exhibitions isn't just admirable; it's great -- a virtually unbroken string of exceptionally engaging shows. When the building opened, there was some grumbling that the modest size of the special exhibition gallery--about 7,000 square feet -- couldn't accommodate a blockbuster extravaganza. In reality that supposed flaw is an asset.

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