“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 fastidious re-creation of a Roman-style villa on the same Malibu seaside grounds, providing a powerfully immersive sense of the rich artistic and physical environment experienced by a ruling family living on the Mediterranean at the peak of the Roman Empire. Getty himself closely oversaw the meticulous building process, and spared no expense to create his perfect time capsule. The Getty Villa opened in 1974.
Getty left a fortune and set of guidelines that allowed an enormous expansion of his museum after his death. The second nearby campus, the so-called Getty Center, comprises a large set of striking modernist building arrayed across a hilltop site with rich gardens and astonishing views. Since 1997 it has been home to all of the Getty’s non-classical art, a vast collection that continues to grow. The $1.2 billion Getty Trust also supports an extensive group of art research and conservation facilities. All of the museums remain free and open to any barbarians seeking to be edified.
- Philanthropy magazine analysis, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_getty
- The Getty Museum, getty.edu/about/whoweare/history.html
- Getty obituary in New York Times, nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1215.html