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“I was there for the groundbreaking of the Getty Center. I was there for opening day of the Getty Center. I think for a lot of people, it said LA has arrived.”
After nearly 15 years in the making, the Getty Center opened to much fanfare on December 16, 1997. Perched on a mountaintop with sweeping views of the surrounding city and coastline, the new campus quickly became an architectural and cultural landmark in Los Angeles. This year marks the Center’s 25th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, we asked our community to share their Getty memories.
In this episode, Jim Cuno’s last as host and Getty president, he reflects on his time there. We also hear from staff, docents, and members of our community about the opening of the Getty Center and other favorite memories of the site.
James Cuno: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
Sarah Spitz: I was there for the groundbreaking of the Getty Center. I was there for opening day of the Getty Center. I think for a lot of people, it said LA has arrived.
Cuno: In this episode, we hear memories of the Getty Center in honor of its 25th anniversary
After 15 years in the making, the Getty Center opened on December 16, 1997. Situated on a hill, the complex has panoramic views from the mountains to the ocean. It’s become a fixture on LA’s scene culturally and architecturally.
This year, we’re celebrating the Center’s 25th anniversary. For this episode, we’ve invited staff, docents, and members of the Getty community to share their memories and favorite things about the Getty.
This episode also marks my final episode, as I step down after 11 years as president of the Getty. Today I’ll share a few stories and highlights my time here.
Spitz: My name is Sarah Spitz and I spent 28 years at public radio station KCRW. And I was the producer of what I recall to be two full days of live broadcasts from the Getty Center on opening day.
I’m a native of Connecticut. I moved out here when I was 12. I hesitate to admit that I’m going to be 70 in about two weeks. So I feel like Los Angeles and I have grown up together culturally. I come to California, the music center is just being topped off. I was at a groundbreaking for MOCA. I was in MOCA before the art went in. I was at Disney Concert Hall for a hardhat tour. I was there for the groundbreaking of the Getty Center. I was there for opening day of the Getty Center. Geez, you know, watching that thing being built was amazing.
At a certain point, there was no more parking at the Getty Center at that point. And so Ruth Seymour, who was the general manager of KCRW, was saying, don’t drive here. You can take the bus. Or if you’re driving, go find parking in the neighborhood. And after a certain point in time, the neighborhood started calling the Getty Center and said please tell that woman to stop saying that.
I think for a lot of people, it said LA has arrived in a big way as a cultural center. Yes, we had LACMA. Yes, we had MOCA. Yes, we built the Geffen. Yes, we have Disney Hall now, but oh my gosh, when the Getty Center, this, this palatial amazing, beautifully white shining monument on a hill, which you can see and be seen from— I mean, I think people just said we this is our moment. I mean, it attracted worldwide attention. Not just the exhibitions, but the research center, the garden, the tram, I mean, for heaven’s sake, the tram. So now I think that honestly the rest of the world woke up and said okay, LA needs to be taken seriously now.
Kathy Dunlop: Hi, I’m Kathy Dunlop. I’m currently a senior budget analyst for facilities. I’ve actually been at the Getty 34 years last month. I started as a temp for two weeks at GRI at 401 Wilshire filing timecards, and I just never left.
The first time I visited the site was actually for the groundbreaking ceremony. So we went up to the top of the hill, just a mound of dirt, had a champagne toast and just surveyed the views of LA and what would eventually become the Getty Center and that was, I think, in 1989. Also, I know it’s public knowledge or maybe not that the Getty cannot remove any dirt off site. So there were literally like mounds of dirt everywhere that they had to kind of stage until each building was built. So that was kind of unusual to see.
I transferred the facilities the day that people moved on site. So I was able to see the site with the first group of people on the very first day in June of 1996.
Two items that were part of my uniform for working on site wear a hard hat and an orange vest which I still have my orange vest with my Kathy and Dinwiddie construction logo on the back because only the North Quad had received its temporary certificate of occupancy at that time. And so the rest of the site was just filled with scaffolding dirt construction workers and potential danger so— So I was proud to be part of such a monumental time because we were able to go in as they were installing galleries and tour. We were served food and drinks at the topping off of the food service building where there were no walls and you could just see the sunset.
Another note was that, you know, when we knew Richard Meyer was going to come into our boss’s office who was Kurt Williams, the director of facilities at the time, Richard Meyer would love us to clear our space of everything because he just wanted white office space. So I don’t know how much we took that to heart or not. So I’m sure he had lots of heartburn coming in and seeing you know, family photos and memos tacked on the tack boards behind our desks.
And I guess I never thought I’d be in the same cubicle for over 25 years but I think I moved once for three months. Otherwise I’ve been in the same spot. So those were my those are my memories.
Elizabeth Morrison: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator in the department of manuscripts. My first glimpse of the Getty Center was over 25 years ago, when I actually came to interview for a job as a curatorial assistant in the Department of Manuscripts. The Getty Center wasn’t finished yet, and when I saw it, I had barely ever even been to California before. And I saw the Center up on the hill with still all the cranes and piles of dirt. And I just couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to think of working there one day.
The first time I ever entered the Getty Center was the day we moved from the Villa offices up to the Getty Center, and everything was so new and sparkling and shiny and huge compared to the Villa. They were still building it even after we had moved in. And so we would come in one day, and an entire place in the entire Center would have been carpeted or there’d be a new wall or there would be signage everywhere that wasn’t there the night before, because they were literally working 24 hours a day in order to get it ready for the opening in December of 1997.
When I started at Getty, I was 26 years old, and I just had my 26th anniversary with Getty which means that half of my life has been spent with the Getty and it could not have been spent in a better way. I feel like the Getty has been there to witness me almost growing up into an adult and becoming something that I’ve never thought that I’d have the opportunity to be.
Don Norris: My name is Don Norris. I started as a Getty docent in 1989 at the Getty Villa. In 1997, I was part of the docent team that opened the Getty Center and it was amazing.
I worked with the Olympics back in 1984. And this was equivalent to that excitement within the city that people were so excited about having a world class museum opening within Los Angeles.
The docent center where you had to sign in for your shift was located on the first floor behind the behind the security desk. And this was also a place where if they were getting a special tour, guests would meet their tour guide. And one day it was coming through there was, oh my goodness, that’s Charlton Heston.
Charlton Heston is a person I greatly admired and respected. I knew I had to go up and shake his hand, but he beat me to it. He introduced himself. He said, “What should I see while I’m here?” And I gave him one of our visitor cards. And I say if you could, maybe you can fill out a couple of thoughts about what your experience was while you visited the museum.
During my shift, he found me and handed me the card back with some comments that he made on the card just saying what a wonderful experience it was. He handed me the card somewhat discreetly. He was trying not to be recognized I guess. And he said do not give his card to anybody. You keep it. And I was like I can do that. And to this day I still have that card.
One thing I noticed very early on at the museum is that you could play the walls. If you hit if you hit the stone with the ball of your palm, just kind of tap it, it gives a tone. On the walkway to the to the garden, there’s a ramp that goes down and you tap on the wall. Each one has a different sound. And so you wind up playing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Okay, maybe not that.
Peter Sego: My name is Peter Sego. And I was in the very first class of docents at the Getty. Actually, I have an old paper. I’ll read you the headlines. It says “Volunteer Spots at the Getty Draw 1200 Applicants for 375 Jobs.” So actually, according to their paper, that’s a 31% acceptance rate. So it was easier to get into UCLA than it was to be a docent at the Getty, which was rather frightening but and that’s how I started.
I’m pretty sure that I’m the only person who gave the tour in Hungarian. Right next to where I live, was a rental property and the Hungarian consul moved in. And we had a short discussion and found out that I was a docent at the Getty. And I told him I’d be happy to give him a tour. And he said, that’s fine, but some of my staff doesn’t speak English that well so would I mind doing it in Hungarian? And you know, I was 14 years old when I left Hungary, so some of the technical terms were just as foreign to me as it would be to you in Hungarian. So I did a little studying up.
About a year into our docent-ing the docent manager asked us to do a calculation, how much did we walk. And I knew was quite a bit, but I made a calculation. And it was a total of 1500 and some miles, which is the total distance from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. And that’s combined, all of the docents. So it was a pretty good aerobic exercise.
James Latham: My name is James Latham. I am the chief of operations for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. And I’ve been a park ranger for over 20 years.
The Getty is well within my territory. I like almost every place outside at the Getty, but especially one where I can see the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. The Santa Monica Mountains, with its chaparral and oak trees, provides habitat for many animals: mountain lions, coyotes, gray fox. If you look up, you may spot a red-tailed hawk or a raven.
The Getty offers visitors an opportunity to experience Los Angeles in a unique way, that allows them to experience not only what’s in the galleries and on the ground, but experience the mountains and the vistas of the oceans all from one place.
Sandy Rodriguez: My name is Sandy Rodriguez. I’m an artist and a researcher that is Los Angeles based.
I arrived at the Getty July 3rd, 2003. It was incredible to be on the campus to experience the collection and the Center in the early two thousands, because growing up in Los Angeles, my experience had been with the Getty Villa.
The Getty Research Institute is one of the most extraordinary sites on the Getty Center’s campus in that it is six floors of an art library collection with special collections and a two-gallery exhibition space on the Plaza. It has this incredible architecture and a light that comes through each one of those layers of floors of books. And while you may only be curious about a specific title, when you go down to pull the book, then you’re introduced to an entire section of books that may spark your interest.
It is one of the most spectacular places to do research because it is so stunning and such an incredible collection. I think there’s only one other collection of books that would really compare to it, and that’s all the way on the other side of the country. I don’t even know how many volumes they have, but you don’t live long enough to go through all of them I’ll tell you that.
There are some extraordinary artist books like contemporary Chicano artist books, like Maria Brito. You can even pull Diego Rivera’s sketchbooks from California mural commissions. Of course, you can pull a number of European artists’ sketchbooks as well, but you can also call the original like zine drawings and materials that Raymond Pettibon did for the band Black Flag. You’ve got so many amazing things within that collection.
Tricia Nelson: My name is Tricia Nelson. I live in Burbank, California. I moved to Los Angeles in 1996. I recall I worked at Disney online and a creative director friend of mine, got a reservation and a lot of us went when it first opened in those first few months as an off-site meeting and we you know, the gardens weren’t in full bloom, but it was just gorgeous. We’d seen it going up slowly and heard on NPR, and it was nice going so I’ve been and I occasionally would take visitors and family.
And one of my most vivid memories of the Getty Center is quite vivid. It’s of Saturday, September 7, 2019. There was an event called Plantasia, a celebration of hippie-dippie MOOG album that was made from plants. And it was an entire thing. The gardens were open. They were activities. It was a gorgeous day. And it was just so delightful. I’d never heard this album before. And it was on loop playing above. As we walked around the gardens, we, I mean, I because I went by myself. And I just soaked it all in. And I was just sitting enjoying the people enjoying the gardens, and I thought, I don’t want to leave.
I had Hollywood Bowl tickets with friends that night for Barry Manilow that I remember vividly and having to text them like, uh, I can’t go, I’m sorry. And I felt a weight lifted. And I spent the rest of the afternoon in the gardens and I bought the album, and I brought it home and it brought back those delightful feelings of being in the garden.
Another vivid memory I recall, I took my parents and my brother up when they came to visit from New York, and we’re in the elevator with C. C. H. Pounder, the actress TV and from Avatar is from my parents country, Guyana South America. And my dad said something like oh it’s so nice to see your fellow country woman and she turned around said what? And she looked at you know, she shook my parents hands and she looked at my brother and she said, “Young man come give me give me a hug.” And it was just so nice. So yeah, a lot of memories of the Getty.
Cuno: I’m Jim Cuno, President of the Getty Trust.
I was head of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the time the Getty was built, and I watched it rise on the horizon. When it finally opens, I remember there were two people that I knew best at the time. One was John Walsh, who was director of the Getty Museum. The other was Deborah Marrow, who was then head of the Getty grant program, but now called the Getty foundation. Deborah was a great host, and John was a very distinguished museum director. He’s kind of a model figure for me as I was aspiring to become a museum director at that time. And Deborah would take me out to have lunch or have a sweet on the Santa Monica promenade because at that time Getty was offices were at the promenade. And I remember John saying one of the hardest things about opening a museum is you have to say the same thing over and over over again.
And I also remember that I came with a cohort of patrons from the Harvard Art Museums to see this new thing called the Getty Center. And as we came up it was pouring rain. And so everyone are going up on the tram. The next day, one by one, people got sick. So I associate the opening of the Getty Center with the fact that but all these patrons that I was shepherding around, were getting sick all around me.
I remember the magical opening of Pacific Standard Time. It was one of the first things that happened on my watch had nothing to do with me, it was all developed before I came, but there was the sheer excitement of it. And that kind of international recognition that the Getty Center and the Getty was going to be extremely important because of the reach that it had all throughout the world at that point. There was a performance artist of Japanese American descent, who would walk down the steps of the Getty Center, with ribbons unfurling as he walked down the steps and they came from his mouth. And it seemed like it was just a kind of nothing could not happen that the Getty Center because of that.
One of the memorable things for me at the Getty has been the birth of the Getty podcast. And I remember how we got started on those. I had a friend Deborah Treisman who’s in New York New Yorker fiction editor who has a podcast, has two podcasts in fact. And we met at the Odeon restaurant with members of her staff and talked about what it was that she was doing to develop The New Yorker podcast and how we might be able to work some of that into the Getty Center.
You know, the thing is, I’m curious and I find that I like to talk to people. And the podcast was a great opportunity to do that. And it’s one of the easiest things to do is just get in the room with someone and just ask them questions because they like to talk about themselves, first of all, and you like to talk with them about them. So it seemed to be just the easiest thing to do. And I just I do exercise every morning and 45 minutes to an hour and that’s just about the length of a podcast.
And one of the podcasts that I liked so much is in our time, on BBC Radio, and that was just a 45 minute podcast. So it just seemed like that was a kind of thing that you can do while you’re on an exercise machine of some kind or another you walking down the block or whatever. And I was never capable of conceiving of a podcast that will be limited to four or five different episodes.
And I find that people like to talk about their work and like to talk about themselves. And so it was rather easy to find people to talk to about those things.
So the first episode of the podcast was featured my conversation with Colin Renfrew, who was a notable archaeologist. But then other ones that were so important with early on was the four episodes of Frank Gehry. Now, Frank likes to talk about himself and there’s much that he’s done in his life and that helps us put into context what the Getty podcast could do. There are also two episodes of the Getty podcast with John Adams a composer that took at the Disney Hall. And then there were two podcast episodes that we recorded at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India. And there was kind of reach that we were able to bring to this thing. And so today there’s been more than 150 episodes and who would have thought that we would have gotten this far so quickly.
No doubt the most meaningful acquisition my during my tenure at the Getty has been the Johnson publishing company archive, which is famous for the publications of Ebony and Jet magazine among so many others. We asked our trustees to come together at the last minute, middle of summer three years ago, I think now, to commit to support this acquisition, and we would do it with the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation to bring together this great collection of photography that was so meaningful in the lives of so many people the United States. And so we did it and we spent the last two and a half, three years working together with the other partners to this acquisition to finalize it. And we’re now working with the National Museum of African American History culture to jointly present this collection.
Missing the most? Is just the company people that are here to the people that work so hard to do such good work. And also the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and brownies. I’m known for my affection for those food objects.
Now I’d like to share a note about the future of Art + Ideas. As you may have heard, I retired at the end of July, so this will be my last regular episode as the host of this podcast. The show will be taking a brief hiatus and will return later this fall with guest hosted mini-series. We hope you’ll tune in to hear conversations on art and sustainability, mindfulness in the museum, and more. Thank you for joining me the past 7 years.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. For new episodes of Art and Ideas, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
James Cuno: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
Sarah Spitz: I was there for the groundbreaking of the Getty Center. I was there for opening day of...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824