Five and a half years ago, when dust was still rising at the Getty Center and all the world was speculating about what, exactly, the $1.3-billion castle on a hill would be, the Getty's No. 1 art guy made an astonishing statement. "We have gained respect for visitors who don't come to a museum with the idea they are visiting a school or library, but as if they are going to a park," said John Walsh, a scholar of Dutch painting who directed the J. Paul Getty Museum from 1983 to 2000.
As the opening drew closer, artist Robert Irwin expressed similar thoughts about the 134,000-square-foot Central Garden he designed for the Getty Center: "My hope is that people will recognize that this is a sculptural environment, but that they'll also find it inviting enough that they'll flop down on the grass because this is a garden to be used."
That wasn't obvious from the get-go. Even as the Getty Center opened its doors to throngs of arts professionals and the public, some observers complained that its lofty site in a ritzy neighborhood exacerbated its elitist image. Commenting in a Christian Scientist Monitor article published on opening day, author Mike Davis likened the center to "a remote spaceship that dropped into the Santa Monica mountains" and warned that "the locals are still waiting to see if it's friendly."
It seems that many have. On the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest days of the year, more than 8,700 people visit the center. Young couples who want to be alone hike up to the museum instead of taking the tram. Families eat brown-bag lunches at outdoor tables or treat themselves to salads, pizzas and sandwiches in the cafeteria.
Local visitors make beelines to their favorite vantage spots and point out distant sights to their guests from Cincinnati, Toronto and Omaha. Little boys stick their fingers in fountains and waterways as their parents herd them along. Children roll down the hill at the top of the garden, squealing in delight.
It's a scene of human dramas and life lessons. An elderly man, walking with a cane and wheeling an oxygen tank, pauses to get his bearings at a scale model of the center, displayed on the museum's plaza, then soldiers on with his slightly younger mate. A young father teaches his tiny daughter how to climb the stairs to the temporary exhibitions gallery: "First one foot and then the other."
On days like this it may appear that people go to the Getty to do anything but look at art. But no, every gallery is crowded, and for each person who strolls through, there's someone engaged with an artwork.
Some work on assignments. In a display of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, Montebello High School students fill out a questionnaire on a marble statue of Marcus Aurelius, on loan from Berlin's Pergamon Museum.
Nearby, Liz Cvitan, a student from Mount St. Mary's High School, prepares a report on a Roman statue of Venus, but she often comes on her own or with her mother, artist Kirsten Cvitan. "I used to go to the old Getty Museum, but now that it's closed for renovation I come here," Liz says. "It's a lot of fun to get to know the art."
Upstairs, art education transpires more informally. A man sprawled on a couch with his son gazes at Nicolas Poussin's 1651 painting "Landscape With a Calm" and explains that the French artist was an ace at differentiating clouds from mountains while using the same blue-gray palette. In another gallery, a young man stares at "Bust of a Noblewoman," a sculpture made by Guiliano Finelli in 1630, and asks his date, "What makes her noble? Money?"
The gallery that always draws the largest crowd displays the museum's collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures. Today is no different, but Dutch artist Gerrit von Honthorst's 1622 painting "A Musical Group on a Balcony," installed on the ceiling of a small passageway, is a bigger hit with kids. Adults, who tend to look ahead, not up, usually miss it. But youngsters spot the figures on the ceiling, proclaim the artwork "cool" and walk in circles, heads thrown back.
"No matter where you go, that guy in the red-feathered hat is looking at you," Jason Matthews, 10, tells his friend.
So it goes at the museum, where every information center is packed with people looking up facts on computers or checking out exhibits on techniques, media and styles. The same is true at the Family Room, just outside the museum's East Pavilion, where kids color furiously or dress up and have their pictures taken, à la Old Master paintings.
"I want to be a queen," one little girl informs her mother.
It's all a bit much for some visitors.
"Another friggin' line? I don't think so," grumbles a man who has already waited to ride the tram and buy lunch, as he spots a queue for an orientation film. But instead of going home to watch TV, he lopes off to the galleries.
Others find refuge at the Getty Research Institute, which stages small shows from its vast collections in a circular building just west of the museum. "Oh thank God, a nice empty place," says a woman, peering into darkened galleries where a mere dozen people are looking at "Landscapes of Myth" and its images of Greece. "It's a mob scene out there," she whispers to the guard.
Even so, attendance at the Getty Center dropped from 1.7 million in 1997, the opening year, to 1.5 million in 1998, then to 1.3 million, where it seems to be holding fairly steady. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art packed in 1.3