New Getty museum gives ancient artifacts a fresh face

After 12 years, L.A.'s Getty Villa is open to the public, amid questions about the legality of dozens of pieces.

For all its money and good intentions, the richest art museum in the world can't catch a break. After nearly 12 years and $275 million, the Getty Museum is finally reopening its Malibu campus, known as the Villa. (The building is modeled on the Villa dei Papiri, a first-century AD Roman estate.)

Originally built in 1974 by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty to showcase an eclectic collection that included not only antiquities but French furniture and paintings by the Old Masters, the museum was closed eight years ago for an ambitious modernization and expansion. Everything but the ancient art was moved up to the Getty's sister museum in Brentwood. The beachside villa was refurbished and redesigned as a one-of-a-kind world-class "campus," devoted to the study and exhibition of classical art, with new on-site research and conservation facilities.

But what was intended as a grand moment in the spotlight for the newly updated Getty Villa is dogged by reminders of the headline-making controversy over the legality of dozens of items in the collection. Italian authorities have put Marion True, the former Getty curator of antiquities, on trial for her alleged role in smuggling antiquities out of the country. And the Getty has already returned six items (three in the past year), while more than 50 pieces in the collection remain in dispute, including some of the most prominent ones, such as a Greek statue of Aphrodite.

The Getty is not alone. Issues of cultural heritage increasingly face museums all over the world, says Malcolm Bell, an art history professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But the Getty has been a leader in establishing policies forbidding collection of items that might be stolen, he adds. "No other museum has adopted as rigorous a policy," says Bell.

With more than 44,000 objects in the Villa's collection, and 1,200 on display, Michael Brand, the newly installed Getty Museum director, calls the current legal shadow over a small number of disputed items "unfortunate." He calls the Villa's newly expanded mission is a "positive and important" moment for Los Angeles and the broader museum world. "What we're trying to say is that the ancient world is relevant to the modern world," says Mr. Brand. "Just as it was relevant to the 15th-, 16th-, and on up to the 20th-century world."

The new Getty Villa is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Rooms full of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts are devoted to such topics as "Theater and Spectacle," "Gods and Goddesses," and "Stories of the Trojan War."

The nonchronological ordering follows the current trend in museums all over the world, says acting curator of antiquities Karol Wright (she replaced Marion True in October)."This allows people to see that while these cultures are distinct, they have shared values and beliefs," she says. The thematic approach also addresses an issue that faces museums everywhere: less-educated audiences.

"People are not trained in classical literature and history as they used to be," says Jorge Silvetti, the principal architect on the Villa redesign. "There is no institution in the world, not even in Europe," he explains, "devoted to classical antiquities that is as complete as this, with all its new facilities," not to mention a substantial collection housed in an authentic period setting.

In response to criticism, notably from The New York Times, whose architecture writer suggested that the update erases the Villa's kitschy charm and takes itself too seriously, Mr. Silvetti responds that the Getty is not what it was when its founder was alive.

"This is now a major cultural institution in a major metropolitan area of the 21st century. One cannot take it lightly anymore," he says adding, "the building and its role in the art world has been transformed completely."

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