Getty uncorks culture amid L.A. pop patina

Give L.A. its due.

The city has always had a hard time proving it had more to offer the intellect than Jerry Lewis and “Clueless.” If Hollywood culture is enslaved to the whims of the masses, it follows that L.A. itself would not be widely perceived as a place of enduring artistic enlightenment.

But today’s opening of the mammoth Getty Center, a $1 billion complex dedicated to fine arts, conservation and education, is bound to raise the cultural profile of L.A. around the world, and could help retire the notion that what passes for art here is solely the province of dealmakers, film critics and gossip columnists.

At the same time, the long-lamented distance between Hollywood and many of the region’s cultural institutions may be narrowing — witness David Geffen’s philanthropic gifts to theater and the arts and Michael Eisner’s $25 million pledge to Disney Hall. The Getty promises to further narrow the divide, in what would be a marriage of highbrow art and pop culture.

To accomplish that union, however, entertainment industry overseers will need to step aboard, said J. Paul Getty Trust president Harold Williams. “I really hope we can engage them not only with the Getty but with Los Angeles,” Williams said. “They haven’t been involved, historically, but they’re too important a part of this city not to be involved.”

The Getty is determined to harness the power and influence of Hollywood. Barry Munitz, who will take over the presidency of the Getty Trust next month, said he discussed the idea with Paramount studio chairman Sherry Lansing and Disney corporate affairs veep John Cook (a Getty trustee) at one of four inaugural dinners held last week at the museum. That dinner was also attended by Eisner, ICM chairman Jeff Berg and director Robert Wise.

“Sherry and Cook and I were saying that one ingredient here has to be bringing the entertainment industry and the cultural community much more closely together,” Munitz said. “How? Sharing exhibitions and guest experts, joint performances, collaborative academic programs, cooperative lecture series. We’ll have film seminars where we discuss history, scholarship, production, conservation.

“What we want is a coalescing of Los Angeles culture,” Munitz said. “It’s such a natural, and so full of exciting opportunities.”

Lori Starr, the Getty’s director of public affairs, said the Getty Villa — a re-created Roman mansion that the late oilman opened near Malibu 23 years ago — has long been a resource for Hollywood filmmakers researching period costumes and furniture. “I remember giving the animators of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a tour of the 18th century decorative arts,” Starr said.

Such contacts will continue at the new institution, which not only dedicates 14 galleries to 17th- and 18th-century decorative arts, but also displays paintings and drawings by great masters, illuminated manuscripts, photographs and sculpture.

Gramercy Pictures president Russell Schwartz said the new Getty Center is “a great cause.”

“Anything that enriches the community and that I have an option of going to, I’m a big supporter of,” said Schwartz, who was disappointed to learn that the new Getty auditorium seats only 450, not enough for a premiere. “The good thing is that the Getty doesn’t need patrons, but I hope it doesn’t become like Hearst Castle, inaccessible and elitist.”

Until today, the museum was indeed inaccessible to all but the invited few, who in the last few days included George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marvin Davis, Anjelica Houston, Candice Bergen, Sidney Poitier and Diane Keaton.

Now, visitors who wish to drive to the site must make reservations for spots in the 1,200-vehicle garage — which is booked until the beginning of March. Taxis, buses or bicycles are options for more immediate accessibility.

Getty Trust prexy Williams — a native of L.A. who will retire in January after 16 years at the Getty’s helm — said that while the history of the area is inextricably tied to movies, “the medium itself is transitory — there’s nothing permanent about it.”

“The reality is that culture in the broader sense is a recent phenomenon in L.A.,” he said. “If you juxtapose that with the idea of a ‘city without a center,’ and then you have earthquakes, fires, O.J. — it creates an image not only for visitors but for ourselves. I hope the Getty Center will help us see ourselves differently and that people in other places will see us differently too.”

That may take some doing. The L.A. area’s most sought-after attractions involve Hollywood in one form or another and, given the popularity of films, that’s not about to change. Visitors flock to Disneyland and to Universal Studios. Tourists clamor to watch tapings of “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Tonight Show”; they photograph the embedded names of stars on Hollywood Boulevard; they live for the moment when a famous face appears on Rodeo Drive; and they buy the ubiquitous star maps, the better to admire fabled real estate.

“When I come out here, it’s never on my mind that I’m here for the culture,” said actor, author and raconteur Spalding Gray, who has taken six trips to L.A. this year to film episodes of “The Nanny.” “In New York, culture is indigenous. In L.A., you’re dealing with a desert; that’s why it’s so appropriate for the movie industry. It’s manufactured, it’s imposed — even the water is piped in.”

Some local titans of culture agree, if only in part, and point to the sprawling nature of the nation’s second-largest city.

“It may not have a substantial cultural heart in the traditional sense, and that has a lot to do with the geography of the place,” said Ernest Fleischmann, managing director of the L.A. Philharmonic. “But the quality of what culture exists is superior to what you find almost anywhere else. Even before the Getty, there was an enormous amount of interesting stuff in museums — at the Museum of Contemporary Art, at the L.A. County Museum, the Norton Simon.

“There’s a profusion of art galleries and a lot of art being made. There are terrific actors working in theater, with a huge variety of plays. In music, the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra rank right up there with the best.”

The problem is that all these things happen in isolated spots, Fleischmann said. “You have to get in your car and seek them out. And one of the unfortunate things about the Getty is that it’s up there on that hill in all its imperialist splendor, instead of being down here with us, making things happen in conjunction with everyone else.”

It’s a criticism that the Getty, caretaker of a $4.3 billion endowment and a 110-acre hilltop complex with a commanding view of Los Angeles, is trying hard to dispel. The trust’s various institutes are involved in 17 projects in L.A. communities — from mural conservation to providing library computers to helping high-school students research the history of their neighborhoods.

As the Getty settles into its place in the disparate mix of L.A., there will be much time to contemplate its effect on the city’s culture. But it probably won’t make much difference to the rest of the world’s idea of L.A. as chief purveyor of mindless fantasy, of celluloid heroes and miscreants.

“I think the quality of the culture here gets obliterated by the glitz — it’s so loud and showy,” said Tara Ison, L.A.-born screenwriter and author of “A Child out of Alcatraz.” “I have a feeling there’s always going to be a struggle between the two. It’s the nature of the region.”

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