Art and Anxiety in Los Angeles

Art and Anxiety in Los Angeles

Six months after opening, the Getty Center, the $1 billion mountaintop museum that has become Los Angeles’s biggest cultural attraction, started running newspaper ads asking people not to come. Featuring a dozen happy kids from different races, the ads were headlined “It’s a full house.” They recommended that readers “check out L.A.’s other cultural attractions.” This came after a feverish outreach campaign aimed at L.A.’s minority and immigrant communities, with banners throughout the city proclaiming the new building to be “YOUR Getty.” This anxious effort had sought to persuade critics that the Getty was not, repeat not, an “elitist” institution.

The Getty outreach campaign is part of a major effort by museums throughout the country to attract a bigger and more diverse audience—the art world’s strategy for combating attacks by Jesse Helms and others on public funding for the arts. If more ordinary voters believe that the museums are theirs, the demagogic campaigns to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and public art will be easier to defeat.

The Getty’s efforts stand in contrast to two other museums in L.A. that have undertaken notable initiatives in recent months: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has shown challenging contemporary art that drew big crowds, and the Armand Hammer Museum of UCLA, which recently ran a pathetically ingratiating show of sketches of Disneyland. These different approaches reveal a great deal about the American art museum today.

The underlying problem at the Getty—”it’s a full house”—is not that its outreach has been so good, but rather that its site is so bad. The problem stems from the original decision to build on a site that is virtually inaccessible. There’s no way for visitors to get up the mountain to the museum except on the Getty’s little three-car tram. The result has been immensely long lines of people waiting for the tram. On weekends visitors have faced a one-hour wait just to get on the tram for the three-minute ride to the museum, and the museum recently announced it no longer will admit everyone who arrives at the front door. Those who don’t have a parking reservation, who take the bus instead of driving, will be denied admission if the tram line is too long. That’s a harsh and humiliating reversal of the policy announced with great fanfare before opening day, when the museum responded to critics of its limited parking by inviting folks to take the Bundy Drive bus to the museum’s tram station.

With a $6 billion endowment, the Getty doesn’t need to fear Jesse Helms. Nevertheless, the institution is just as eager as government-funded museums to avoid charges of elitism. The decision made a decade ago to move the Getty’s main collection from its original site near Malibu to the Brentwood mountaintop was explained by officials as a way of getting “closer to the people.” That wasn’t complete...