When it comes to museums, I am spoiled. Some of my favorite haunts are not necessarily big-gunners like The Louvre or the Met, but I’ll visit the Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, or the Art Institute of Chicago over and over again. So, on a recent trip to Los Angeles, the idea of spending some leisure hours at the Getty Center Museum was more than welcome.
The Getty is actually one of the country’s most visited museums, and if you check the reviews online, they are almost five-star. The idea of the museum with art and antiquities collected by a somewhat eccentric, American industrialist known at one time as “the richest living American” was too good to pass up. It seemed impossible not to be impressed.
The Uber driver dropped us off at a designated point, and from there, we climbed a flight of stairs to the tram. The tram very slowly ascends the hills surrounding the Getty, leaving the world of Los Angeles behind. At its crawling pace, the ride afforded us a few very exciting sightings of deer on the brushy, woodland slopes. The tram came to a stop, and we were at the Getty.
Is it unfair to admit that I immediately judged it? It was a white, modernistic monstrosity, looking like a large dentist’s office, or a telecommunications building. After seeing the renaissance and neoclassical structures of museums in Europe, or the Beaux-Arts beauty of the Detroit Institute of Arts, this was … horrendous.
Placating my own disappointment with reminders that the works inside were what mattered, we ventured in. The photography wing was lackluster, mostly because wander as we might, we couldn’t locate more than ten photos, though we were told there were more … somewhere. The gardens were largely unimpressive, and I felt myself thinking they would have been better off leaving the brushy scrub, scraggly trees and errant deer.
We paused to ask directions to the paintings, as I’d already seen a brochure and knew there were gems awaiting. The museum boasts Rembrandt, Manet, Renoir, Turner, Titian, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and so, as disappointed as I’d been thus far, I knew that the Old Masters and Impressionists wouldn’t fail to impress.
And, of course, they didn’t. Art communicates a message across the centuries that speaks just as loudly now as when the paint was drying on the canvas. That said, there was still an emptiness to the space. Perhaps because the art largely came from a private billionaire’s collection, or because of the strange history of J. Paul Getty himself that the rooms containing the artwork felt oddly flat, less stirring than the golden galleries of the Scottish National Gallery or the hallowed halls of the Rijksmuseum, or even the cramped Rubenshuis. Several times, I purposely exited a room to step outside and peer over the side of the Getty Center, my eyes fighting the L.A. haze, seeking out sights of the city in the distance, the beauty of everyday life somehow more interesting than the museum walls.
After an hour and a half, we found ourselves ambling back toward the tram and the lights of L.A. below us, a few deer still poking around in the bushes, sometimes staring unwaveringly into the windows of the passing tram.
Arriving back in Santa Monica elicited a sigh of relief. The sunset over the water provided its own masterpiece, and a reality check: it isn’t necessary to visit the museums of the world to be spoiled by art.