Wednesday, June 8, 2011

If Disney Designed A Villa

Unlike the Getty Center in the Sepulveda pass, the Getty Villa in Malibu requires some pre-planning for admission. Parking reservations are required, and can be made online. This was easy enough, even the day before the time we wished to visit. However, there were other issues. One must arrive at the villa while traveling northbound on Pacific Coast Highway. No turns permitted from southbound lanes. And don’t be more than ten minutes late or the reservations expire.

So there we were with our internet tickets making the turn into the driveway across from Malibu beach. I noticed two workmen in orange vests, but as they seemed to be adjusting traffic cones, I decided to continue on to the guard shack further up the hill. One of the cone guys yelled at me, so I quickly braked. “You need to stop here, buddy,” he said. I stared at him a beat while he continued to fumble with the cone. “Okay, go on up to the guard booth.” I was not sure why he required me to stop.

The museum is technically free, but parking is fifteen dollars. So my car must pay an entrance fee, but we humans go free. We parked and began the steep climb into the villa proper. Everything had been remodeled since my last visit. There were endless stairways, elevators, and paths leading up, up, up. Originally designed by the architect Stephen Garrett, the museum is a replication of a real Italian villa buried in the volcanic eruption near Vesuvius in 79 A.D. According to the video on the website, Garrett and oil baron J. Paul Getty copied the original villa’s Bay of Naples architecture when they began construction in the 1970s. Getty, however, never saw the finished product; when the museum opened, he was living in England and died there in 1976.

The 1997 renovation was a way of defining the new Getty Center in the pass while redefining the scope and purpose of the original museum in Malibu. The Getty Trust decided to make the Malibu location the home of the antiquities collection. They added a Greek-styled amphitheatre, a separate bookstore, and a new café, among other things. They set the place up to resemble an archaeological dig, hence all the stairways and scaffold-like design features. The new and improved villa seems too perfect. The frescoes and colors are too bright, resembling a Disney version of a 2000 year old Italian villa. The antiquities are installed indoors thematically, which makes sense, however, something felt like it was missing. The collection seemed sparse. The statues outside are replicas of those found at the excavation site in Italy, and what is most striking about them are their eyes. They penetrate like laser beams from the black sculptures. They are a bit creepy, even in a museum that is itself a lost world of a previous millennium.

The most off-putting aspect of my day at the villa, though, was the crowd.  People in Los Angeles and people who travel to Los Angeles, seem to have no concept of etiquette or manners.  Kids run through the grounds and exhibit halls screaming.  Parents take photographs of their kids splashing in fountains and with arms around the replica sculptures.  One group did a portrait peeking out from behind a pillar.  In a small alcove with a fountain, a mother watched while her son yanked on the water lilies blooming on the water’s surface.  Everyone, everyone, wanted to touch things.  Museums are for viewing things, people.  If your kid wants to swim in the fountains or fondle the statuary, take him to a public pool or Hollywood.  He can splash away and I am sure someone on the boulevard will let him cop a feel.

There was literally nowhere to go in some areas with people crowded around snapping pictures, and doing that most ridiculous of tourist acts:  making a video of a sculpture.  The thing does not move.  Yet several cameramen were crowded around with their iPhones and Sony Handicams filming the stone-faced Greek god.  I pity the friends of those poor shlubs when they get back to wherever they call home with their exciting movies from the big trip to L.A.  “Here’s Aphrodite standing in the gallery.  Ain’t she a looker!”

I am tired of seeing people at cultural landmarks in Los Angeles behaving badly with no idea what the hell they are doing there. “We’ll do Disneyland on Wednesday, the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, and finish the week at the Getty.” Go, go, go! What does a howling brat in a stroller appreciate in 2000 year old statuary? And why do the parents insist on continuing to look at the art and discuss it over the banshee wailing of their child? And what a discussion: “Look, Irma, that one ain’t got an arm.” Or, “Mommy, that statue of the man is missing his wiener.” Or my favorite: “Hey run up ahead and see if the snack bar has funnel cake.” Do they think they are at the county fair? Are they waiting for the livestock auction, the awarding of the judges’ prize for best squash?

The Getty Villa is a beautiful place, the way people in Los Angeles are beautiful until you get up close. Then, in the harsh southern California sunlight, something does not seem right. Things just do not seem real. They are too perfect. The Getty Villa is a museum that has had one too many facelifts. But hey, what the hell. It’s free, only the car has to pay, and the kids can run around for a few hours, up and down the endless stairways, through the amphitheatre, and over to the snack bar for some nachos. “Whaddya mean you only sell a cheese plate? What kind of hoity-toity place is this?” There are some nice statues and grandma can throw coins in a fountain or two while junior rips up the flora and fauna. If they’re lucky, they can still make Grauman’s Chinese Theatre before sundown.


  1. I haven't been up there in years, and you reminded me why. When I think "Villa," I still think "kitsch," which was my reaction when it first opened. The line about the funnel cake is a hoot.

  2. The museum has such a nice location, but it is just too "L.A." for me. It seems less about art, or in this case, antiquities, and more about the superficial with a few statues thrown in for atmosphere. Thanks for commenting, Vicky.

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  4. Paul, totally agree with you. This was my first time since it reopened. If one overlooks the Disney coloring it can be enjoyable. I got there early enough to not only have the parking lot almost to myself but was able to walk, view and read in silence. At about 11 am the gates of hell must have opened up and all those unruly patrons that you write about must have come back. A complete zoo.

  5. Thanks for the comment, RJ. I have actually had better experiences at both Getty locations when going at off hours like early in the morning, especially during the winter months. I used to go quite frequently on Friday or Saturday nights because they are open late, however they have dropped the late Friday hours. Still, Saturday night at the Getty Center remains a great date evening. Take care.


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