There is no other way to describe it: the Getty is a gift. My wife and I just returned from a vacation to southern California and one of the places we visited was the J. Paul Getty museum. There is a lot you can say about the place—its use of outdoor space as living space, the buckets of natural light which seem to pour sun everywhere, the beauty and contrast of its gardens, the quality of its exhibits, the beauty of the buildings themselves—but it's harder to describe the sense of gratitude that I felt at the Getty.
Why? The museum does not cost a dime to enter. It cost a mint to build, and likely costs a mint to maintain, but the visitor need not open her wallet for anything other than to buy a glass of wine to enjoy in the plaza. Anyone—anyone—can come in and enjoy it all. And all of its riches are available not as a result of public largesse, but of private patronage; particularly the patronage of J. Paul Getty, an American oil baron.
No doubt, a quick review of Getty's life and work might suggest that we think twice about feeling thankful to a man who many thought was a miserly, troublesome man. These days, some might consider boycotting such a gift because it was funded by riches derived from oil. His patronage might even be rooted in a sense of pagan patronage, borne of out of a desire to leave a legacy of greatness, and thus rooted in pride.
But for whatever reason, I am not greatly troubled by this at all. Perhaps it's because we at Comment magazine have been thinking about compromise. But perhaps taking the Getty as a gift is an indication of what compromise looks like. Or, rather, how we should look at compromise: a focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful when it stares you right in the face, even if it derives from that which is bad, false, and ugly.
This came home to me as my wife and I toured yet another gift museum—this one the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Nicole and I both marveled at one French still life by Louise Moillon. The tour guide describes Moillon's Still Life with Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries, as "a pristine vision of the world, sharply at odds with the trials of her own life." That vision is so good you can almost taste it.
So, compromised or not, thank you J. Paul Getty, and thank you, Norton Simon for your gifts.