Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: Getty Museum

Getty Museum:
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 5 stars (out of 5)

The last time I visited the Getty Museum at the Getty Center, I visited on a Saturday night because it had extended hours. I was attending a convention at the LA Convention Center and could not leave the site during daytime hours. I took a friend with me, we had no problem getting into the site, and we had a delightful evening.

So I thought I’d try again during my most recent trip to Los Angeles, but this visit did not start as smoothly as the last one. Traffic was backed up for half an hour just to enter the campus, much less get a parking space.

Turns out, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty offers free music concerts and open picnicking on its grounds every other Saturday. And when that happens, people come out of the wood work to see it.

This was one of those Saturdays.

But the Getty experience was everything the LACMA experience the previous evening was not. Despite the long wait, the Getty has a large team devoted to getting people in and out of the site, so what seemed like chaos from the street proceeded with order once I drove into the complex.

The signage and maps at the entrance quickly orient the visitor. If that weren’t enough, there’s both a huge information desk and an orientation video greeting people in the first building that beckons visitors in.

The exhibits were spectacular, though I was surprised that a few galleries were closed for renovation. Part of the surprise was that the printed materials and signage admittedly did not advise this. But most of the surprise came from the fact that it feels like the Getty Center just opened; how could they be renovating it? “Just opened,” however, occurred over 10 years ago.

The Getty takes its educational function seriously; not only does its web address sport a .edu extension rather than the .org extension used by most museums, but it is recognized as a leading research center for museum specialists, and for groundbreaking approaches to exhibitions.

That commitment to education was evident in a pair of exhibits on French sculpture. One exhibit explained how lost-cast sculptures are made. I’ve seen other exhibits tackle this topic, but they do so exclusively through signage, and usually in the context of an exhibit on sculpture.

The Getty staff actually made models of a lost cast sculpture at each of the major junctures in the process, so visitors could see what was actually involved. Each model was clearly explained in plain language, so even the least technical visitor could easily comprehend what was being presented. The exhibit used a single Dutch sculpture as its point of reference, but linked this exhibit to a larger one on 300 centuries of French bronzes.

The exhibits of French bronzes was superb. In both quantity and quality, the artwork was exemplary. But it was also well explained, with clearly written labels for each room of the exhibit, each major theme within the rooms, and each sculpture. Reading just exhibit, a visitor would understand not only the meaning of the group of sculptures, but also their significance in the French context. The labels on the artwork carried that explanation from general themes to meanings and historical and artistic significance of the specific pieces of art.

What was equally impressive was the music. I can’t say we sat and watched it closely, but we did pay attention and found the music to be both unique and entertaining, a contrast with the more conventional sounds at the LACMA.

But to be honest, even if the exhibits were not amazing, the grounds and the building are works of art of their own, and some of the time we spent appreciating the sky-top view of the Los Angeles area, the magnificent landscaping, and Richard Meier’s building.

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