New Getty's impending opening boosts L.A. culture, Sepulveda corridor profile

The imminent arrival of the monolithic Getty Center in late 1997 has the art community of Los Angeles in a state of heightened anticipation, while residents of the Westside’s little-known Sepulveda corridor are both excited and skeptical about the development’s impact on their community. Regardless, a global spotlight will be trained on the 24-acre campus in Brentwood when it opens its doors in December.

“The Getty is an international organization, and we’re an international place,” says Al Nodal, L.A.’s director of cultural affairs, who refers to the site as a symbol of the arts in Los Angeles. “The center will be bringing in people from around the world, and it filters down to the rest of L.A.”

John Aaroe Realty’s Barbara Robinson says residents appear excited at the prospect of the Getty’s impending opening. “I think it’s a plus for the area,” she says. “I live in the area and people are very happy. In terms of its affecting property values, I haven’t seen it yet.”

Some homeowners, however, are fearful of the Center’s affect on traffic, congestion and noise. “Only the future will tell what the impact will be,” says Michael Harris, president of the Brentwood Homeowners Association. “Some will suffer more than others.”

In the meantime, L.A.’s much-maligned reputation as a center of high culture stands to gain from the Getty Center’s Education, Research, Conservation, Information and Leadership Institutes, as well as its grants program, which are being looked upon as a future haven for scholars and artists.

By far the best-known of the Getty enterprises is its museum, heretofore identified with the trust’s Roman-style villa in Malibu. The new Brentwood compound includes a space built to accommodate the museum’s ever-expanding collection of masterpieces, which includes European paintings, drawings and sculpture, French decorative arts and furniture, illuminated manuscripts and photographs from the Getty’s 60,000-piece collection. The smaller space in Malibu will be maintained for the museum’s Greek and Roman collections.

Although most of the institutes have been in existence for more than a decade, they will be united for the first time at the new Brentwood site, dramatically perched above the 405 Freeway just north of Sunset Boulevard. About 1.5 million visitors a year are expected to patronize the center, compared to the 400,000 visitors that currently visit the Malibu villa.

Renowned architect Richard Meier was commissioned to design the $733 million complex, utilizing a quarry full of white and sand-colored Italian travertine marble as his principal material. Plenty of courtyards, gardens, fountains and pools create a park-like atmosphere. The principal destination for most visitors will be the museum, which consists of five pavilions, each two stories high. Areas throughout the museum have been designed for educational activities.

Other buildings will house the five institutes, administrative offices, a 450-seat auditorium and a parking structure with space for 1,200 vehicles. A monorail will carry patrons from their cars to the center.

With the center’s high visibility, both physically and artistically, the arts community is preening to reap the benefits. “With the Getty, there is no doubt that L.A. will be put on the international map,” says Julia Ernst of the New York-based Gagosian Gallery, which recently opened a branch in L.A.

“The museums here are fairly young and it is hard to compare it to New York or London,” Ernst says. “But, L.A. is maturing. The Getty will make a difference, and hopefully Disney Hall will, too.” (Designed by Frank Gehry, the long-in-the-works Disney Hall is awaiting completion funds for its downtown site.)

As Ernst puts it, it does appear to be “L.A.’s moment.” Recently, almost 50% of the artists on display at the Whitney Museum’s internationally acclaimed Bienniale exhibition were from California, particularly Los Angeles. The Venice Biennale also had a strong California presence.

As far as contemporary art production, L.A. has an international profile and is regarded as on par with New York in many respects, according to Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. “The Whitney Bienniale is making a big point about the parity between east and west. But L.A. is still an extremely young city in terms of collections,” he points out.

All agree that the increased attention the Getty will bring is a shot in the arm to the city’s artistic community. Henry Hopkins, director of the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum, says: “The implication is that the East Coast is recognizing the vitality of younger artists from the West Coast. Europe is suddenly interested. This marks our maturity. These are good signs of growth.”

The East Coast also is recognizing that there is money to be found in L.A., a magnet of patronage that receives capital not only from Southern California but from the Pacific Rim and Latin America as well.

Another New York-based gallery, Pace Wildenstein, recently opened a branch in Beverly Hills. Both Pace Wildenstein and Gagosian have acknowledged that to better serve clients from this part of the world, they need a presence here. And as people are drawn to the Getty, it follows that they’ll begin to explore other parts of L.A.’s cultural offerings. “We are looking forward to the influx of international visitors that the Getty will bring to the area,” says Marc Selwyn, director at Pace Wildenstein. “L.A. is definitely moving up a step.”

Graham Beal, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says the Getty Center “makes us a real destination nationally, immediately.” He points out that such a huge entity devoted purely to visual arts makes a monumental statement. He doesn’t see it as competition for LACMA and the other institutions in L.A., but rather as a complement.

“As one director said, ‘They even have their own off-ramp from the freeway,’ as though there is only room in town for so much,” Beal says. “I have the opposite attitude, which is the more the merrier. We will not be rendered irrelevant. To the contrary. They are a completely different institution. L.A. is very well set to become America’s city of the 21st century, the way New York was for the 20th century.”

The Getty’s closest neighbor, the Skirball Cultural Center & Museum, stands to gain from the center’s prospect as a cultural magnet. “We are thrilled to have an institution like the Getty Center,” says Uri D. Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball, which focuses on Jewish history, culture and art. “It enriches the cultural corridor on Sepulveda. We share a mission of reaching out to the total community through the instruments of art and literature. The Getty will open up new worlds for visitors.”

If residents are divided over the increased attention and commerce the Center is bound to bring, even naysayers acknowledge the pros and cons. “In terms of positive impact, if you’ve got a cradle of civilization in your backyard that is convenient to participate in on a frequent basis, then that is a big benefit,” says Brentwood Homeowners Association’s Harris.

Brentwood Circle, which is located immediately below the Getty, is a prime target for congestion, while Norman Place might suffer from noise. And while some citizens of adjacent Bel Air are concerned with the possibility of bright lights and tram noise, Robinson points to the Getty’s low-impact design. “I hear that everything built off of Getty Center Drive is like a self-contained city,” says the hotshot Westside Realtor. “They have restaurants and shops and everything there, so I don’t see it as a disruptive presence.”

Such hoopla has not been associated with a museum for a long time. “No museum opening has been so recognized and talked about since the opening of the Pompidou Museum in Paris,” trumpets Hopkins. This is high praise coming from a man who’s associated with the last major museum to be built in L.A., the Hammer, which opened its Westwood doors in 1990. “Thousands of people will come just to see it, including teachers, artists and museum people. This is a different type of tourism than Disneyland tourism.”

The new mixture of visitors can only contribute to the cosmopolitan feeling of Los Angeles, Knight says.

For the Getty itself, the hype is nice, but beside the point. “We’re getting a lot of attention for the physical expression of our operations. We’ve been doing this, though, for the last 15 years,” says Barbara Whitney, associate director for administration and public affairs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Our relationships on the national and international fronts are ongoing. That changes the least with the operation of the center.”

However, the Getty does hope to change public perceptions about the museum, Whitney says, and to increase the dissemination of information about the new center, particularly the fact that it is free.

“We have big ambitions of a broad audience and we want to increase the comfort level of people with art museums and cultural facilities. And we want to increase awareness about all the cultural resources in L.A.,” she explains.

It remains to be seen if those goals will be met. But the hype can only help in attracting the newcomers the center desires.

However, Knight believes the biggest wild card for the success of the Getty Center will be the person who replaces departing Getty Trust president Harold Williams, slated to retire in January. “He’s brought it to this stage, now the place must be operative. That will be critically important,” Knight warns.

Regardless of the consequences, Los Angeles very well may find itself at the vortex of a hurricane of attention, locally, nationally and internationally, starting Dec. 7. Time will tell if the center can live up to its great expectations.

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