Recommended: Getty Center to-go guide
Los Angeles's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the hitherto disparate entities of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that's the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and the landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a kind of monastic retreat designed for James Bond. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for by the panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west all the way around to Downtown in the east.
Once you've parked at the bottom and taken the electric tram ride up the hill, one thing becomes apparent: it's a big place. To the west of the plaza is a café, a restaurant and the circular Research Institute, which houses one of the world's largest art and architecture libraries, and a roster of public exhibits. Beyond it is the Central Garden, designed by Robert Irwin. North are the other institutes (some off-limits to the public) and the Harold M Williams Auditorium, where talks and symposia alternate with concerts and film screenings. And to the south, up a grand Spanish Steps-style stairway, is the museum lobby, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and often-excellent temporary shows, spanning everything from fashion in the Middle East to Cuba in art.
The Getty's budget is the envy of museums the world over, but it was a Johnny-come-lately to European art; until, say, the Vatican has a fire sale, the collections won't match the museums of the Old World. Still, that's not to write off its holdings. Certain aspects—post-Renaissance decorative arts, the expanding photography selection—are magnificent, and others are fast improving. The museum is constantly adding to its contemporary art collection, and in 2005 acquired the excellent video-art holdings of the Long Beach Museum of Art.
The collections are spread over four two-level pavilions, all linked on both levels by walkways. The art is displayed more or less chronologically: the North Pavilion contains pieces from prior to 1600; the East and South Pavilions feature works from the 17th and 18th centuries; and the West Pavilion runs from 1800 to the present day. The plaza level of each pavilion contains sculpture and decorative arts, along with temporary exhibits in other disciplines; the first floors are given over to paintings.
On the ground floor of the North Pavilion, room N104 contains an eye-catching array of glass objects dating from the 15th century, while N105 is home to a rotating series of small-scale displays drawn from the Getty's collection of illuminated manuscripts. Upstairs is dominated by Italian religious paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries; highlights include a vast altarpiece by Bartolomeo Vivarini (N202) and a scintillating Venus & Adonis believed to have come from Titian's workshop (N205).
The East Pavilion is heavy on the Dutch and Flemish masters. Notable pieces include Gerrit van Honthorst's Christ Crowned with Thorns (E201); several works by Rubens, among them The Entombment (E202); and Gerrit Dou's intensely detailed Astronomer by Candlelight (E205).
One of the museum's strengths is the collection of 17th- and 18th-century decorative arts, most of it French, that monopolizes the ground-floor galleries in the South Pavilion. Some rooms contain individual exhibits (seek out the bed in S109); others are virtual reconstructions of French drawing rooms, complete with original paneling. Next to this opulent array, the galleries upstairs can't compete, but they do contain two Gainsboroughs (S204) and Odilon Redon's Baronne de Domecy, a dream-like piece that overshadows the rest of the pastels and watercolors in S206.
The ground-floor galleries in the West Pavilion are given over to European sculpture and decorative arts from the late 18th and 19th centuries plus, in W104-W107, changing exhibits from the Getty's drawings collection. Upstairs is a strong-ish selection of paintings, mostly from the 19th century. Room W201 contains a seascape by Turner entitled Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, but the key exhibits are in W204: several Monet pieces, a Cézanne still life, a delightfully raffish Renoir portrait of composer Albert Cahen d'Anvers, and Van Gogh's Irises.
Elsewhere, look out for the rotating displays culled from the museum's world-class photography holdings. And don't miss the fine sculpture gardens at the museum's entrance and by the West Pavilion, home to works by (among others) Miró and Moore.