After my disappointment with the King Tut exhibit a couple days ago, I was a bit tremulous about the L.A. museum scene. We were actually considering leaving town a few days early, but then we realized our hotel was prepaid, so we proceeded forth undaunted. Yesterday, our persistence was rewarded with a visit to the J. Paul Getty Museum.
I had heard good things about the place — about its stunning hillside location with spectacular views of the city — about its impressive architecture. What I wasn’t prepared for was the incredible attention to every detail of the museum visitor’s experience.
Anyone who’s spent any amount of time visiting art museums is familiar with the museum shuffle: you look at each picture for a respectable amount of time, then shuffle on to the next one, gradually decreasing the amount of time you spend with each picture until you collapse from exhaustion or your visit is complete. The museum visiting experience becomes more about “making it through” or “seeing everything” than it is about actually enjoying the art.
The J. Paul Getty Trust actually went into the construction of its billion-dollar museum aware of this phenomenon — and then did something about it. First of all, admission is free, so there’s no need to rush yourself in order to get your money’s worth. You can come back as often as you like. There’s not even a hint of begging for donations. Instead of feeling shaken down, you’re comfortable knowing that Getty had plenty of money and this is what he wanted to with it. Next, the museum’s architecture and site make it a genuinely nice place to be. Even with its seven-story parking lot full to the brim, it never feels crowded — the pictures are appropriately spaced, and the museum is in five separate buildings, with wonderful bridges (and incredible L.A. skyline views) connecting them.
As the nice lady giving us the “architecture tour” pointed out, architect Richard Meier designed the museum with generous spaces for visitors to take a break from looking at artwork after artwork. Most museums have a chair or bench in the middle of each gallery, and the Getty is no exception. But Getty also has lots of benches, and even tables with shaded umbrellas, in the spaces between galleries. And unlike ordinary museums, these spaces are beautiful outdoor spots, with lush gardens and views of the city and the Santa Monica Mountains.
The other thing I’d heard about the Getty is that its actual collection of artworks was exceeded by the gallery space itself, and this may be true. There’s no monumental work like, say, Botticelli’s Venus at the Uffizi or Seurat’s La Grande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago that brings cachet to the collection. There are plenty of minor works by many of the big names, from Monet to Titian, but no real blockbusters. In some ways, I’d almost consider this an advantage — that way none of the works is overshadowed, like the way patrons stampede through the Louvre to get to the Mona Lisa, and visitors can focus their attention on enjoying the many wonderful works that are present.
My favorite exhibition was probably the illuminated manuscripts. Again, while there was no Book of Kells or Tres Riches Heures, there was an impressive collection, arranged around a theme: textiles in illuminated manuscripts. Each book was opened to a page that highlighted the use of textiles in different ways. There were examples of physical curtains literally stitched into the books to protect or cover important illustrations, but also depictions of textiles, to highlight the importance of a particular character or section of the books. Apparently the curators regularly change the theme of this exhibit, changing the pages of the manuscripts displayed to highlight a particular theme. It’s a wonderful way of exhibiting materials that, by their very nature, cannot be displayed all at once. And since the museum is free, it is also a way of encouraging visitors to return.
One final word on the Getty — it’s also got the best museum cafeteria I’ve ever visited. Even though it’s clearly designed to serve thousands of people, like the rest of the museum, it never felt crowded. There were plenty of tables, all with a stunning view of the mountains and skyline. Even if the indoor seating area did fill up, there were plenty of other tables located all around the property to take up the slack, none of them lacking something beautiful to look at while dining. And, at $3.95, the chicken soft tacos are probably the best bargain in museum dining anywhere in the world.