1954 Getty Museum
“Twentieth-century barbarians cannot be transformed into cultured, civilized human beings until they acquire an appreciation and love for art,” pronounced the cranky J. Paul Getty. Born in 1892, the immensely wealthy oilman spent much of his time in Europe, and collected predominantly European art created prior to 1900. Unlike many great art philanthropists, he was less interested in the creators of his day than in the great artists who had already claimed their place in history. These were precisely the kinds of artists he felt residents of his native southern California did not adequately appreciate. It should not be surprising, then, that Getty bucked several trends when he decided to start a museum in Los Angeles.
His approach mixed elitism and populism in the same ways that many nineteenth-century museums did. He firmly believed he had acquired truly excellent art that could be appreciated by all, and just as firmly believed that most ordinary people would need to be taught to understand it. He didn’t house the art in one of the bleak modernist buildings of the sort that were popular in his time. Starting in 1954, Getty displayed items in a wing of his own house that was open to the public without charge. When he decided to expand the exhibit to a proper museum, he built a handsome Roman-style villa on the same Malibu grounds, reminiscent of the buildings that would have housed art in the Mediterranean region during the classical era.
Getty thought a structure that looked like it was designed to house great and beautiful things would attract people to see what was inside. He spent $17 million to make the villa appealing. It opened in 1974.
The Getty Museum was further expanded in 1982, after the founder’s death, on a new campus in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles—where Getty’s other European and American art is housed, along with the $1.2 billion Getty Trust’s extensive research facilities. All the museums remain free and open to any barbarians seeking to be edified.
- Martha Bayles, “Is This the Best Way to Spend $4 Billion?” Philanthropy, July/August 1999, philanthropyroundtable.org/site/print/the_getty
- The J. Paul Getty Museum, About, getty.edu/museum/about.html
- “J. Paul Getty Dead at 83; Amassed Billions from Oil,” New York Times, June 6, 1976, nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1215.html