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Museum Crises: A New Southland Plague: Quick’s Take

Southern California has been smitten by a virtual epidemic of museum mishaps of late.

The downward spiral started about two years ago when Victorville’s Roy Rogers Museum quietly closed, took its artifacts off their earthquake-proof pedestals (including stuffed horse Trigger) and moved lock, stock and barrel out of state to the new Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum and Happy Trails Dinner Theater in Branson, Missouri.

The hemorrhaging continues. Just last month Buena Park’s Movieland Wax Museum gave up the ghost after 43 years. At least some wax artifacts will stay in state, transferred to the wax museum at Fisherman’s Wharf (SFO’s culture snobs win again!). Other paraffin people and Movieland artifacts will be de-accessioned by sale to the public. (In defense of the art form, realistic miniature wax cameos have been a mainstay of commissioned portraiture in Europe over the last several centuries. The often overlooked Wallace Collection in London has a fabulous display.)

The biggest Southland museum fish of all, the Getty-on-the-hill, has also been caught in the downward spiral, and is currently weathering a perfect storm of staff churn, financial scandals and legal proceedings most of which seek the return of prized antiquities not to Missouri, but all the way back to Greece and Italy.

While ebbing relevancy felled the Rogers and Movieland Museums, not so the Getty whose travails may have a more obscure but equally fundamental origin. Could it be the architecture?

Getty Center creator Richard Meier made no bones about his goal of designing a hilltop complex that would first and foremost meet the institutional needs of Getty’s vast bureaucracy. The architectural result was perhaps more institutional than inspirational. As the Getty falls into disarray a decade later, the inevitable question arises: If Meier’s design by his own premise could jell the Getty, could it also unglue the organization?

Indeed, at the risk of committing a blasphemy, I must admit that I was NOT wowed by the Getty on the hill when it opened. Yes, it is impressive, massive, enjoys awesome views, and our community is far better off for it. But by my reckoning, the Getty’s formal architecture is more an extension of UCLA than a cutting edge architectural statement. (I actually prefer the red polished granite of the Bruins’ Julies Stein Eye Institute to the ubiquitous beige travertine marble that clads the Getty, chunks of which are even sold in the Getty gift shop.)

My real gripe on the Getty is its opportunity cost. It is not every day that a billion-dollar art space falls in a city’s lap. I wanted a world icon – something akin to Manhattan’s Guggenheim, Effiel’s Tower, Sydney’s Opera House, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Hotel and yes, Bilboa’s Guggenheim ironically designed by Santa Monica’s own Frank Gehry.

Good news! Architectural help may be on the way and the same Getty oil fortune is behind it. In late January, the Getty Malibu will reopen after $275 millions in renovations and, settled in its sylvan arroyo overlooking the Pacific, this is no UCLA clone.

This building is a hoot. It is a reproduction of the Villa dei Papiri Roman estate of Herculaneum (a suburb of Pompeii) that was buried by Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 and carefully excavated in the 19th century. The Getty Malibu reproduction has a tweak only an oilman or LA resident could fully appreciate –- an underground parking structure hidden beneath Roman glory! I think of it as a kind of postmodern reinforced concrete car catacomb – the only parking structure of its kind on Earth.

Maybe it’s time to similarly tweak and humanize the Getty-on-the-hill with some kind of off-the-wall addition. Even the venerable Louvre allowed I.M. Pei’s modernist glass pyramid in its center court.

I would start with the boring air-cushioned Getty trams, the opening chapter in each visitor’s experience. Let’s celebrate the genius and cultural impact of Walt Disney and replace the trams with a parking-lot-to-hilltop replica of the Disney Jungle Boat Ride, complete with the threatening hippo and politically incorrect gunshots. Or if Disney licensing is a problem, plant Easter Island giant rock art replicas on the hillside and transport visitors up on some kind of surfboard or Kon Tiki themed craft. Do something to make art fun and cutting edge again for the Getty people before the Southland loses yet another museum.Ed. Note: Dave Quick was marketing director at the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) from 1989 to 1994.

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