When the Getty Museum first opened in 1997, the museum's parking and transportation system were quickly overwhelmed to the point that anyone thinking about visiting the museum had to make parking reservations months in advance. Those unwilling to wait hoofed it for miles and then waited up to four hours just to take a tram ride to the museum's spectacular hillside setting west of downtown Los Angeles.
Today no reservations are required and it's possible to drive right to your parking spot, grab a tram and be on top of the mountain just a few minutes after your arrival.
Not that the Getty Museum is any less popular. On our recent visit we noted a steady stream of visitors of all colors and stripes running the Disneyland-style gamut that takes you several revolutions down into the 2,000-car garage and then through a fast-moving line to board your tram. By mid-day, it looked like most parking spots were spoken for, and probably would be for the rest of the day.
The Getty Museum is all about the visual arts and, far from being snooty like some Big City museums we won't mention by name, the Getty welcomes the masses by offering free admission and presenting all kinds of tours and aids to educate visitors about the significance of the treasures on display. A trip to the Getty is like a quickie art seminar that will teach you just enough names and buzzwords to make your friends believe you really are educated. It's a great addition to any Southern California vacation.
An afternoon at the Getty also seems to be a popular date activity judging from the many young couples we observed. Lots of families and kids were enjoying the museum -- in fact, the museum goes out of its way to offer special kids programs and activities that help make the visit enjoyable even for the very young. And then there were the somewhat older Red Hat Ladies who hit upon the Getty as the perfect place for a Girls Day Out.
What's attracting these many segments of society is a modern-day palace that cost the Getty Foundation a billion dollars and took 13 years to build. Situated on perhaps the last 124 acres in the L.A. hills not reserved for a movie star, the museum is worth the tram ride just to enjoy the spectacular views of the L.A. basin. Even on a smoggy day, it's impressive.
If you've priced Italian travertine flooring, then you'll have some appreciation for the money that went into the 14,000 tons of travertine that was used on walkways, in walls and on just about every available surface of the museumâ€™s five pavilions. If you look close enough, the travertine even has little leaf fossils which, weâ€™re sure, made it even more expensive.
The Getty Museum's courtyards, wide walkways and stairways, carefully sculpted gardens and sycamore groves all make the museum as much a park as a museum which undoubtedly is why the average person spends four hours per visit. But the star attraction, of course, IS inside the pavilions -- a collection of artwork and antiquities that is one of the most magnificent ever assembled.
It all started with the museum's namesake, J. Paul Getty, an oil executive and art collector who lived from 1892 until 1976. He founded the famous Getty Oil Company which eventually became Texaco. Getty began collecting art in 1930 and, upon his death, left his entire estate to the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust. Eventually, the trust ballooned to over $4.5 billion, which has allowed the Trust to continue updating the Getty Museum art collection with some of the finest, most sought-after pieces of art in the world. One publication noted that the Getty Museum has about 25 times the budget of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Compared to the Louvre in Paris and other famous museums, the Getty Museum is somewhat specialized. It includes Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, sculpture, manuscripts, furniture and photographs. Walking through the pavilions you discover that each exhibit room is uncrowded, and that each item exhibited comes with an easy-to-read description of why that particular artwork is important.
When you think about how ancient some of these works are, it's mind-boggling to look at them up-close. Unlike some well-known European museums, visitors to the Getty are able to get an unobstructed view of even the most famous paintings and artwork -- iif you've visited the Louvre, you may recall that it takes considerable effort just to get up in front of the crowd so that you can say you really did see the Mona Lisa.
Drawings and manuscripts are all displayed under low light to help preserve the pieces. They're arranged chronologically, starting with the illuminated manuscripts of the 9th Century, moving all the way to the High Renaissance period of the 16th Century.
In another pavilion, the Getty has displayed Decorative Arts -- in other words, anything that is made for the interior of your home -- which include furniture, clocks, porcelain, silver, ceramics, and tapestries -- 600 objects in all. That gives you some idea of how the Getty's collection has grown; J. Paul Getty only had 30 pieces of decorative art when he died.
In one of the most unusual photograph exhibits in the world, the Getty displays photographs from way back in the 1830's -- when the technology was invented -- all the way through the 1990's. We found this one of the most fascinating parts of the museum. Actual photographs of London in the early 1800's brought to mind English history and novels that immediately transported us in time, if only in our own minds.
The European sculpture is located throughout the museum's pavilions and includes work from the Renaissance through 1900. The oldest painting at the Getty was done in 1295 and the collection spans all the way up to 1895. The museum, of course, includes paintings from many well-known artists including Masaccio, Mantegna, Breughel, Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne.
One of the pavilions is set aside for changing exhibits and, while we were there, an entire exhibit was devoted to the paintings of Jacques-Louis David. Most fascinating here were the portraits of Napolean Bonaparte, who used the painter to create artwork for propaganda purposes.
All of the pavilions open out to the central courtyard where visitors can sit and enjoy an espresso or snack. In fact, the food service at the Getty is in keeping with the same high standards as the exhibit itself. An elegant restaurant serves gourmet meals while even the food court-style cafe has just about any kind of fresh-prepared food a visitor would want -- salads, sandwiches, grilled items, Mexican food -- you name it. If you're into cheap vacations, just bring your own sandwich and eat it in the courtyard.
Our game plan for the Getty worked just about right: show up just before lunch and enjoy a tasty meal before lingering through the afternoon, taking our time viewing -- and comprehending -- the masterpieces and historical artifacts that are the Getty. Soon it was time to board the computerized tram to the bottom of the hill and snake our way out of the garage. It had been like visiting a Disneyland for art-lovers -- though the price of admission at this adventure land was quite a bit easier to take.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Getty Museum is located in Brentwood, just west of downtown Los Angeles and is accessible via Getty Center Drive off Interstate 405. If your Southern California vacation is going to include time spent in Hollywood or on Sunset Strip, the museum is practically right next door.
WHAT: The Getty is an unusual collection of the visual arts, with most of the exhibits dating back many centuries. A stop at the Getty will make any California vacation just a bit more educational.
WHEN: Any time of year, although Los Angeles area lodgings will offer better rates as well as more vacation packages during the shoulder seasons.
WHY: The Getty Museum is both fun and educational. The Getty Trust has put together an amazing combination of exhibits in a spectacular setting that will make you want to stay and visit for several hours. Those looking for cheap vacations in Southern California will love the price.
HOW: To get more information on the Getty Museum, call (310) 440-7300 or visit www.getty.edu. Admission is free. Parking is $8, and is first-come, first-served.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)