Museum visitors like paintings more than sculpture, or anything else. That apparently immutable fact has always challenged curators of sculpture and decorative arts. There have been many strategies for dealing with it, and in its short history, the Getty Center has already recapitulated several of them.
When the Brentwood museum opened in 1997, the paintings were on the upper floor, and everything else was on the ground floor. In the first pavilion, of art prior to 1600, the ground floor rooms were subdivided by media: illuminated manuscripts, renaissance bronzes, maiolica, and glassware. Each room featured a collecting area that had been inaugurated with the purchase of an entire collection in the free-spending 1980s. Despite the arguable logic of that arrangement, the crowds voted with their feet. They preferred the paintings on the top floor. The most important sculptures were kicked upstairs, where they could be seen (or ignored) among the paintings.
In 2002 London dealer Sam Fogg mounted a show of about 50 gothic and renaissance stained glass panels and roundels. The Getty grandly bought the whole show, making stained glass its first new area of collecting since photography. The acquisition prompted a rethinking of the museum's installation. Meanwhile, in 2004 the Getty hired a new curator of sculpture, Antonia Boström, with new ideas. In 2007 she bought the museum's first star piece of medieval sculpture. It was a gilt copper and enamel Christ in Majesty, made in Limoges for the cathedral of Orense, Spain (above left). Created about 1188, that made it nearly three centuries older than the museum's earliest renaissance sculptures.
After two years of slipping deadlines, four reinstalled galleries of pre-1600 sculpture and decorative arts have opened. Orchestrated by Boström, the new rooms both adopt and reject current fashions in museum installation. Yes, there are touchscreens, and yes, the display mixes up media. In other ways, it's back to the future. The new rooms are actually a bit more respectful of chronology and national schools than the former ones (everyone else thinks chronology is so 20th-century). Boström has reclaimed important sculptures that used to be on the upper floor. For that reason, the display is richer and no longer feels like a reserve collection. The Giambologna Female Nude (pictured at top), back from a sojourn among the Titians and Dossis, is one of the first objects you see. She sits at the bottom of two-story well of California sunlight and has never looked better.
The Giambologna introduces the one "new" room, of classicizing art of the Italian and French renaissance. Richard Meier designed this curvy, light-filled space as an "art information room." Is there anywhere else in the U.S. where you can see renaissance sculptures in close-to-broad daylight?
The Getty Center timeline now begins with the room of "Sacred Art, 1150-1600," housing the Limoges Christ in Majesty and most of the stained glass (above). This room is said to evoke "a late-medieval cathedral treasury," a somewhat alarming statement that may suggest Thierry Despont Does the Cloisters. Well not really. The stained glass is displayed in tastefully futuristic frosted glass monoliths. The old glass is free of museum glazing and is backlighted perfectly. In all, it's respectful to the medieval objects and to Meier's building.
Another room is built around the Augsberg curiosity cabinet (above), now displayed on an equally curious octagonal table. It's among a constellation of the beautiful and bizarre, roughly representing the ethos of Emperor Rudolf II.
The smallest room, of glass vessels from 1400 to 1700, is the least changed from its former incarnation. It's now more open, and the vitrines are more densely packed, arranged by themes.
Instead of putting the sculptures in the painting galleries, the new regime brings paintings to the sculpture rooms. Inevitably, the Getty wants to tell the best story of European painting it can on its upper floor. That means the ground floor paintings are at best fascinating misfits. The most compellng is Hans Hoffmann's Hare in the Forest (c. 1585). An elaboration of Dürer's Hare, it was owned by Emperor Rudolf. There's nothing much like in any other American museum. Previously it was shown in the Dutch baroque rooms, next to tabletop still lifes of the 1620s it loosely prefigured. It was an outlier there. Here it's a perfect fit.