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World's richest museum plans how to share its wealth

The setting is serene and sylvan. To the west, the broad, sun-sparkled waters of the Pacific stretch to the horizon. To the east stands a stunning Roman-style villa, sheltered by mountains still mantled by clouds that poured down rain the night before.

It doesn't look like the sort of setting where you'd find much of a hubbub about anything. Yet this idyllic place - home of the J. Paul Getty Museum - has eyebrows arching, tongues wagging, and more than a few hands wringing throughout the international art world.

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It's been six years since the art scene was set agog by news that the late oil billionaire had left $700 million in oil stocks to his museum on the Pacific Coast Highway not 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. By last March, when the Getty will finally came through probate, that total had appreciated to $1.3 billion - making the museum the richest in the world.

''The whole world is looking over the Getty's shoulder,'' said Irving Lavin, an art historian with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. ''The (museum's) potential is gigantic, there's no doubt about that. It's unimaginable.'' Mr. Lavin also serves on an international advisory committee appointed by the Getty Trust.

In the time since Mr. Getty's gift was announced, museum and trust officials have labored to assuage widespread concerns among their colleagues that the Getty would burst onto the art market like a nouveau riche upstart - buying everything in sight and pricing its well-established yet poorer cousins out the art-acquisitions market.

''Our biggest challenge has been determining how we can make a difference and how to be responsible in doing it,'' said museum president Harold Williams. ''The resources are unique, and they clearly carry with them the responsibility to make a difference in the art world.''

Although art insiders say the Getty still is regarded with some uneasiness, the alarm initially occasioned by the museum's wealth - which translates into an operating budget of about $54 million a year - has eased substantially. That change is due largely to the efforts of Getty Trust officials, who spent more than a year traveling around the world and talking with art professionals to determine how the Getty's wealth could help meet the art world's needs. So far, the museum's plans - based primarily on those talks - include:

* Construction of a multimillion-dollar center for art history and the humanities. As trust officials envision it, the center would be an international gathering place for art and humanities scholars who would have a sophisticated computer-based network of research material available to them.

* Construction of an art conservation institute. The institute's purpose would be to further knowledge and expertise in art conservation by providing an information center, a place for scientific research, and internships for conservators with some of the world's leading conservationists.

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* Expansion of the existing museum. Officials are planning to build a new museum to complement the present villa, which opened in 1974 and is modeled after a first-century Roman villa buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Although the Getty will not be an ''all-encompassing museum,'' says Mr. Williams, its collection - based on Mr. Getty's interest in Greek and Roman antiquities, French decorative arts, and Renaissance and baroque paintings - will be expanded in art of the 13th through 19th centuries. He has noted, however, that because the museum's operating budget will be divided among all its proposed functions, the Getty's purchasing power will remain at present levels.

* Some form of commitment to art education in the schools. This remains the Getty's least-defined endeavor, yet it is one that already is drawing great applause. Museum officials are researching how the Getty can help support public art education, which historically has been sadly lacking. ''The need is clear,'' Mr. Williams noted. ''But how to meet that need is not so clear.''

''It's what a museum should be doing,'' said Dr. Frederick J. Cummings, director of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, of the Getty's efforts. ''More and more people are interested in art today. There's a greater fascination with it than ever before. . . . No other art museum is really capable of doing what the Getty can because they simply don't have the resources.''

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