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Getty's Bid To Change Role of Art

Center Opens

It has been called both masterpiece and eyesore, a modern-day city-state of the arts and an overpriced culture-mall-on-a-hill.

Either way, the new $1 billion Getty Center - which opens today after a decade of hype and gripe - will mean far more for Los Angeles and the world of American arts than just another museum.

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The ivory travertine limestone arts complex, perched atop 600 acres of prime L.A. real estate, began 40 years ago as a vanity showcase for the eccentric collection of billionaire J. Paul Getty. The end result emerges into the world arts spotlight as a new museum, five institutes, and a grant program fueled by a trust worth $4.5 billion.

Because of its sheer size, ambition, and endowment (of which trustees are required to spend 4.25 percent every 3 of 4 years), the expanded Getty will be, even by the most modest assessments, a cultural force without comparison.

With tentacles reaching simultaneously into art conservation, research scholarship, arts education, museum development, and grantmaking, it has the heady potential to revolutionize the role of art - from the back roads of China and Africa to the front steps of Main Street America.

It could also, warn critics, devolve into a showy but ineffectual exercise in esoterica. How exactly that plays out is already the focus of heated debate.

In the opinion of state historian Kevin Starr, the Getty will do for 21st-century world culture what Andrew Carnegie did for 20th-century America with his program to put a library in every town. The fact that it consults with foreign ministers as well the World Bank indicates its potential to put cultural and artistic criteria at the forefront of international discussions about aid and development.

At the same time, by becoming a local mecca of world-class arts endeavors, it will put L.A. on the world map as never before, says Mr. Starr. "Just as nobody now could imagine Rome without the Vatican, 50 years from now, the world won't be able to see L.A. without the Getty."

But former Getty scholar, L.A. historian, and cultural critic Mike Davis says that based on the center's track record so far, that vision will never happen.

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He points out that creative engagement with local organizations and artists is the most basic criterion for effecting change. "New York became an arts powerhouse by attracting and cultivating a vast local arts scene." Just the opposite has happened in the hands of current Getty management, he says, noting that "everything about the Getty is distant and elitist."

From the isolated campus, which he calls a "Rube Goldberg contraption in which the simplest actions are tortured and complex," to the museum collections - most notably pre-20th-century European paintings, furniture, and antiquities - Mr. Davis says "the Getty is more like a remote spaceship that dropped into the Santa Monica mountains. The locals are still waiting to see if it's friendly."

A fellow Getty scholar who spoke on condition of anonymity agrees. During his stint, he tried to interest the museum in collecting the work of living American artists but got nowhere. "The Getty brass claim they want to be accessible, but everything from how hard it is to get there to how hard they make it for scholars to use their [800,000 volume] library says that at heart, they are frozen in an elitist past," he explains.

In the eye of the storm, museum director John Walsh responds that there are many ways to stimulate living artists beyond collecting local work. He points out that regional artists are part of everything from the garden design to sculpture and themes for coming exhibitions.

Not trying to be like the Met

He sighs at the familiar criticism that the collection is old and Eurocentric and not yet world-class. He says the collection is still being built and the goal is not to be encyclopedic along the lines of a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Louvre. "We would rather concentrate on doing well the things we do, rather than trying to be all things to all people."

Mr. Walsh also points out that L.A. already has a number of fine, broad museums. He sees no reason to try to duplicate their collections. "Even if we could, which is debatable at this point in history, we would simply dilute our ability to buy much rarer things that might not come to Los Angeles, ever."

Sondra Meyers, a national arts advocate and former member of the US Commission of Fine Arts, is cautiously optimistic about the Getty's style. "They're too imperial for my taste ... and I think they could be more useful if they would do more with contemporary art."

But she is quick to support the Getty's overall mission. "We desperately need people to think about culture in a new way." She says that if the Getty doesn't learn to respond effectively to contemporary culture, it will become "a dinosaur."

Walsh is sanguine about the criticism - and the praise. "It's the season for heated rhetoric and exaggeration.... After things settle down, we can get on with the job of understanding what our role in Los Angeles really will be." He adds that it's impossible to know the Getty's full role just yet. "All the institutes have never been together in one spot before."

The concept for the current center was born in 1982 when the Getty Museum inherited the bulk of the billionaire's estate. Initially, the art world cowered, fearing the Getty would buy everything in sight and inflate art prices beyond everyone's reach (it hasn't).

Instead, the Getty quietly began to take on another mantle altogether - that of cultural curator to the world. The five institutes and grant program were created (see story, left) and up until now, have been scattered across the city.

The Getty Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, unites the various Gettys in one spot. The New York-based architect created a six-building campus atop a 10-acre mountaintop site at the end of a five-minute tram ride. With an eye to the 21st century, the complex pushes the technology envelope. Virtually every aspect of the Getty is on the Internet, and everything from the air-suspension tram to the computer-controlled, light-sensitive louvers in the galleries is semiexperimental.

Mr. Meier himself launched into new realms with the tan, travertine-limestone material, which he used only after neighboring communities expressed concern over his trademark all-white motif. Says Meier, "This is like a small village ... on a very human scale, but unlike anything else in the world."

Outgoing Getty president Harold Williams says the Getty intends to make a unique contribution to the arts world. "We want to make this a local headquarters for an international organization. There's no place like it."

Incoming Getty president Barry Munitz goes further, suggesting that the Getty aspires to be subversive. "We want to question the assumptions of our time, look at how our culture views the role of the arts, and have an effect in changing it for the better."

On the surface, many projects around the plaza seem obscure (preserving 13th-century Buddhist grottoes in China or earthen bas-reliefs from an ancient African palace), but the various institute directors say their choices fulfill the Getty's larger mandate. "We choose projects that will have a life beyond themselves, that will become a model for others and make a difference in the community as well," explains Deborah Marrow, Grant Program director.

Locally, she points to Getty grants that have funded summer internships in Los Angeles. More than 500 college students have worked in 75 area museums and visual-arts organizations during the past five years. "We feel very connected to local groups," she notes, to say nothing of the long-term impact of so much student involvement in the arts.

Getty in the classroom

Across the plaza at the Getty Education Institute (GEI), director Leilani Lattin Duke points proudly to a decade-long national effort to transform the way art is taught in public schools. The GEI funds regional centers where more than 1,000 teachers from 400 districts have learned to integrate the arts into existing curricula. "It may not be visible right away, but over the long haul, we're making a big difference," says Ms. Duke.

Critic Davis charges that it is "scandalous" for such a wealthy cultural institution to coexist with one of the most art-deprived school systems in the United States. But the L.A. school system has been a hard nut to crack, say those at the GEI, who cite internal politics and budgetary constraints. Duke says the newly created job of Los Angeles program officer is designed to focus entirely on that.

Los Angeles school-board veteran Mark Slavkin was tapped for the post. "We want to help the [school] district help itself. Money is part of it, but the political will to get arts education back in the schools is even more important."

Mr. Slavkin reiterates a point the Getty seems determined to make: "If we can't make a difference in our own backyard, it certainly raises questions elsewhere."

Even as it makes a full-court press in the local arena during its debut, the Getty's ultimate value is cumulative, says Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which state librarian Starr calls the Getty's closest comparison. "It is the overall impact of all the scholarship, conservation, and particularly educational programs, not to mention raising standards across the board."

Mr. Heyman likens the center to an arts university where much of its work is behind the scenes. "The Getty brings wonderful new resources to the entire art world." He emphasizes, as do others, that the Getty, with more than $100 million to spend each year, is in a unique position to do the sort of infrastructural work that only a place with vast resources can do - a reality neither friend nor foe can deny.

* For more information on the Getty Center - its architecture and the contro- versy surrounding it - see the Monitor article that appeared on June 28, 1996.

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