In the last few hours we had at the Getty Museum before all staff left the building as part of Los Angeles’s safer at home initiative, we shot some short videos in the exhibition Michelangelo: Mind of the Master. They were shot hurriedly and we had no time to prepare, but now I’m glad we did it.
The exhibition had opened at the Getty Center a few weeks earlier, and we’d talked a number of times about filming some social media segments. But I’d put this off, being slightly delinquent and—if I’m honest—terrified of being filmed.
Ordinarily, we tour visitors in the galleries, answer questions that arise, and point out details in the drawings. So it felt odd to be in the totally deserted exhibition space, talking about the drawings to my iPhone 5 SE held by Christopher, a producer in digital content who had scrambled at the last minute.
After the exhibition opened, I had been doing tours along with Getty co-curator Edina Adam, and the galleries were always packed; we’d had over 2,500 visitors to the exhibition every day, perhaps partly thanks to a mercifully positive review in the LA Times.
In collaboration with the designers, we’d arranged for the exhibition to be spacious and comfortable, placing the drawings on pedestals in the middle of the galleries and keeping the walls free for large murals of Michelangelo’s related sculpture and paintings. But working on these videos the galleries felt clattery and strangely desolate, a sensation now familiar to us all from the many eerily quiet public spaces.
For me, bringing the exhibition together marked something of a personal milestone. The majority of the Michelangelo drawings are from the collection of the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. I had first seen these drawings as a seventeen-year-old student. I remember the moment vividly, pulling aside a curtain to view each sheet (the curtain prevented too much light, which can damage the drawings), and marveling at feeling so very close to Michelangelo. It was thrilling to see visitors having the same revelation from the same drawings.
What I didn’t realize as a student is something that has also astonished many visitors: the fact that these are survivors from the many drawings that Michelangelo burned over the course of his lifetime. The artist was fiercely protective of his ideas, and also—according to artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari—did not want to seem less than perfect.
When will the exhibition (and the Getty) be open to visitors again? To be honest, we don’t know. The COVID-19 situation is fast-evolving and we’ll be guided by considerations of public health and safety. Watch this space, and in the meantime please explore highlights of the exhibition online, sample the audio tour, and enjoy the catalogue (published by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the co-organizing institution) and these last-minute videos. Find the videos below and on Getty’s Facebook page.