Save Us From the Likes of George and Melody

For two years now at least, Chicago has been at the mercy of George and Melody, two wealthy people seeking to build a museum in our city.  Though George and Melody are accomplished, creative, and presumably well-connected, they never tried to build local support for their idea.  They never turned to other wealthy people in the city to join up with them and share in the expense of realizing their project (as was done, for example, to get the Auditorium Theater built).  They never mustered support from other leading cultural institutions or civic leaders, which might have convinced the public of the substantial benefits that would flow from realizing their idea.

Nor did George and Melody follow the example of themost ambitious museum-builder, the late J Paul Getty, who went out and bought the real estate on which his great museums stand.

No, George and Melody’s museum was to be built on public land.  Their museum was to go up on a parcel of public property that they would lease from the city for 99 years.  The lease payment would be a dollar a year.  For the museum’s design, George and Melody turned to a foreign architectural firm, so that not even the architect’s fees ended up staying in town.

For George and Melody, Mayor Emanuel was willing to make any concession.  The city government devoted oodles of time and expertise to ‘studying’ and fighting for this wealthy couple’s idea, at a time when our schools are out of cash and children in poor neighborhoods are being shot to death.  When the courts at last gave a cold shoulder to the presumptions of George and Melody, Melody chose to play the race card, lamenting that those thwarting the museum had deprived minority children of a signal something.

How different it might have been had George and Melody displayed some sensitivity to the city’s dire condition and sought to accommodate the public’s objections to their appropriation of public land.  As it was, their initiative fell short of being truly public-spirited.  Mayor Emanuel, for his part, was too willing to give too much away.  He ignored public anger about Daley-era lease deals that left Chicago with the short end of the stick and sought to subvert the public’s determination to prevent further desecration and development of the public lakefront.  Mistakenly, Emanuel promised George and Melody something that wasn’t his to give away.  And, instead of representing the citizens’ interest throughout the negotiations, Emanuel took up a position that was inimical to theirs.

On Getty’s Mountain

Visiting the Getty Center in Los Angeles was one of the high points of the season now ending.  Although I’d read a lot about this museum and its architecture over the years, still I was unprepared for the aesthetic vision it embodies.

I’d never been to a museum where the building and setting so overwhelmed the art that it housed.  We all know that the Getty Center is a relatively recent creation of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and that the Trust, with an endowment of some $6.2 billion, is the world’s wealthiest visual arts institution.  The Getty Center is the younger sibling of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades—the classical pavilion that J. Paul Getty had built in the 1960s to house his personal collection of art and antiquities.  The Getty Center, nestled atop a mountain near Bel Air, opened its doors in 1997, by which time Getty had been dead some 20 years.

The buildings of the Getty campus rise above Interstate 405.
Wealth frees the Getty Center from many of the constraints and worries that plague other museums.  Transportation via tram up the hill to the museum, admission to the galleries, even audio tours are all free.  The Getty makes no effort to merchandise its art (its gift shop is minuscule) and has set up an ‘open content program‘ facilitating the sharing and circulation of digital copies of works in its collections deemed to be in the public domain or to which the Getty itself holds the rights.  In short, its art is not treated as property.

Visitors to the Getty Center in the tram pavilion.
For these and other reasons, a trip to the top of Getty’s mountain has the character of an elevating journey.  An unlikely one, too, for the visit begins in an unceremonious way, with cabs and cars circling an underground depot built into the bottom of a hill, where they disgorge passengers, as guards bark directions and urge them to keep moving.  A growing crowd mills around a severely plain open-air pavilion, looking for someone to pay, and filing into line when docents tell them they are to wait for a train.

The Getty Center's lower tram station, © 2014 Susan Barsy
The tram line and the gardens around it are elegant and spiffy.  There is a perfectly straight row of blooming crepe myrtle trees outside.  Metal gleams gold out in a sculpture garden that most of us are too excited and distracted to study.

Passengers board the Getty Center tram.
The train—a sleek pilotless funicular—arrives, and we all pile on.  We ascend, snaking quietly up the steep side of a manicured mountain, as the adjacent highway and bland everyday world fall away.

Getty tram plaza, © 2014 Susan Barsy
On foot now, visitors climb the broad stairs to the campus of monumental buildings.  An oddly communal feeling prevails as fellow-travelers disperse to explore the grounds, galleries, and terraces of what architect Richard Meier seems to have conceived of as a modern temple complex.  The museum, temporary exhibitions, Getty Research Institute, and the Trust’s administrative offices occupy several interlocking buildings that give onto courtyards, gardens, and walkways.  Everywhere are striking views of the landscape, gardens, ocean, and city.

Looking down onto the cafe and the vista beyond.

People looking out from the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Looking west from a terrace at the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Often, these views are peopled with, well, people looking, which is chiefly what makes the experience so charming.  It isn’t just the beauty of nature, or the splendor of the Getty itself, but the spectacle of humans instinctively engaged in a cultural quest.  A spirit of exploration and enjoyment prevails.

Inside the Getty, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Inside, the Getty is like any other museum.  My priority was to see the painting collection, which is arranged chronologically in a chain of second-floor galleries.  Since its inception, the Getty Trust has had a reputation for building its collections by being the top bidder for masterpieces, acquiring many gems to fill out the collections its founding patron bequeathed.  The collection still has a thin institutional feel.  It doesn’t convey the intimate thrill one gets from viewing the Phillips Collection in DC; nor does it offer the quirky bricolage of the best larger museums, where the passions of many individual collectors have given the collections distinctive shapes and strengths over time.

 Detail, "The Deposition," by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

Detail, “The Deposition,” by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden (circa 1490), The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

That said, the Getty’s holdings reward careful looking.  Many of the paintings are glorious—the religious paintings, old Dutch and Flemish works, and some of the French paintings, particularly.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David's "The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte," at The Getty Center Los Angeles.

Detail of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte,” at The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photograph by Susan Barsy.

The painting collection is strictly European and ends abruptly around 1870—just when art and society got interestingly messy.  It is strange to see the story of painting told without anything modern or American.  As it is, the permanent collection comports with the Center’s larger identity as a steward of an idealized world of order and beauty.  Meanwhile, out in the garden, life goes on.

Kids playing on the Getty grounds.

Bougainvillea arbors by the Getty's Central Garden, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Human journey, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Tracking the American

I’ve been in Boston, attending the opera premiere of a friend and museum-hopping.  The timing was good, because I was able to visit the newly reopened Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well as the newish ‘Americas’ wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Interior view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The American galleries at the MFA gave me a lot to ponder and even more to admire.  I’d been wanting to see them ever since reading this review by Holland Cotter.  The galleries themselves are sumptuous: beautifully colored,  . . .

Gallery in the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

. . . some even brocaded.

View of galleries in the MFA's new Americas wing

They showcase one of the world’s strongest collections of American art–some four stories of it–, which has been beautifully arranged and curated.

Red gallery in the Americas wing of the MFA

Wandering the galleries is like skimming the entire span of our history, from Puritans to Pollock, and back centuries more.  The extent and variety of the MFA’s holdings and the space now devoted to them avoids the conflation of eras so common to American exhibits in many museums.  One has the sense of proceeding through distinct periods of time, each with its own styles and cultural preoccupations.  The displays thoughtfully integrate a wide variety of objects–including architectural elements (such as house timbers), furnishings (such as Puritan dressers), and even ships’ models–which help to convey the openness and cosmopolitanism that have been part of the American aesthetic from an early time.

Much has been made of the way the Americas wing incorporates into its narrative artifacts from indigenous Latin and North American peoples.  Yet what surprised me was how quickly, in a chronological viewing of the galleries, the impression of cultural diversity slips away.  Once beyond the Revolutionary-era galleries, with their obligatory nod to rebellion, any hint of conflict or painful heterogeneity evaporates.  The story remaining is the triumphal cultural progress of upper-class New England, a class eagerly absorbing, modifying, and mirroring the cultural practices of continental Europe, England, and Asia.  Except for a few rooms of folk art, the lives of other Americans–whether black, red, or working-class white–are pretty much missing.

Museums have what their benefactors give them, so in that sense we can’t fault the Boston museum.  But I wondered whether its holdings were really so lacking in any material depicting the lives of ordinary people.  Many museums use smaller works on paper to round out grand canvases that skew social reality.  Boston, in the nineteenth century particularly, was a center of social reform, political radicalism, and industrial innovation, where experience was reflected not just in sculpture and painting but in such new media as lithography and photography.  Including more such works would have better represented the output of American artists and the totality of subjects that drew their concern.  Doing so could only enhance the appeal of the Americas wing.