History of the Getty

The Getty is the legacy of the businessman and art collector J. Paul Getty, and his view that art is a civilizing influence in society. Throughout his adult life, he took greater and greater steps to make art available for the public’s education and enjoyment. Starting in 1948, he gave significant pieces from his personal collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1953, he established the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust. The following year the J. Paul Getty Museum opened in his ranch house in Malibu (today, Pacific Palisades).

Mr. Getty died in 1976, with most of his personal estate passing to the Trust in 1982. Drawing upon the vision Mr. Getty articulated in the Trust Indenture, the Trustees sought to make a greater contribution to the visual arts by expanding the Museum and its collections, and creating a range of new programs to serve the world of art. Reflecting this expanded mission, the Trust’s name was legally changed to the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1983.

Mr. Getty's philanthropy enabled the construction of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades and the Getty Center in Brentwood, the expansion of the collections of the Museum, and the creation of the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Foundation. With the Trust, these programs constitute “the Getty.”

J. Paul Getty (1892-1976)

J. Paul Getty at Jerash (ancient Gerasa) in Jordan, 1954.
J. Paul Getty at Jerash (ancient Gerasa) in Jordan, 1954. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute.

Getty’s education in the oil business began as a child, as did his collecting habit. Noncomformist by nature, Getty took calculated risks in both business and art collecting. His desire to increase the public’s access to art would lead him to turn the museum he started in his ranch house into the world’s largest cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to the visual arts.

 Personal Life
J. Paul Getty at the beach in Santa Monica, about 1916-19.
J. Paul Getty at the beach in Santa Monica, about 1916-19. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute.

Jean Paul Getty was born December 15, 1892 in Minneapolis to George F. Getty and Sarah C. Macpherson Risher and raised as an only child. He was introduced to the oil business by his lawyer father, who, taken by “oil fever,” had moved the family to Oklahoma in 1904. Two years later they settled in Los Angeles.

On summer breaks from school, “Paul”—as he was known throughout his life—accompanied his father to the oil fields. At the age of 15, he asked George if he could work for his company, Minnehoma Oil. George agreed but awarded his son no special treatment: Getty worked as a roustabout for $3 a day, 12 hours a shift.

Following the completion of his studies—Getty took courses at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley before earning a diploma in Economics and Political Science from Oxford University in 1913—George suggested he spend a year prospecting for oil. Though Getty hoped to be a diplomat or writer, he found the diversion appealing. By the age of 23, Getty had enjoyed so much success as a wildcatter that he had become a millionaire. In May 1916, Getty Oil Company was incorporated as a father–son partnership.

Getty promptly decided to retire and enjoy a life of “total indolence,” as he put it, until his own case of oil fever motivated him to return to the oil business in 1919. At his father’s death in 1930, Getty became the president of Getty Oil and by the 1960s, had grown it into a global conglomerate dealing with all areas of oil production from exploration to shipping. He also ventured into other businesses, among them hotels and a company that built mobile homes.

Described as an eccentric, a playboy, a genius, and a tightwad, Getty was a self-avowed non-conformist. He was always suspicious of conventional wisdom in business, art, and life. He married five times and had five sons. In his autobiographical writings, he proclaimed himself a failure at marriage.

After 1951, he never returned to California. Though he continued to call it home, he took up permanent residence in England in 1959 to be closer to his business ventures in the Middle East. (Getty refused to fly and was deterred from making the trip to California by the length of time it took to travel by ship and train.)

Getty died of prostate cancer on June 6, 1976 at the age of 83. He is buried at a private gravesite on his Malibu property.

 Getty as an Art Collector

Getty was a self-described “addict” of art collecting. He exhibited the collecting bug as early as 1904, when he made careful notes in his diary (also a lifelong habit) of his marble and stamp collections. As a teenager he acquired small pieces of Asian art while touring Asia with his parents. Purchases he made in the late 1930s established him as a bona fide art collector.

His private art collection reflected his personality and tastes. It was shaped by his extensive travels, trusted advisors, and willingness to take risks—a tendency that had served him exceptionally well in business. He appreciated the technical quality and provenance of a piece as much as he loved a bargain, and alternated periods of intensive collecting with time spent writing about his thoughts on art.

Getty collected art with the same eye for underappreciated value that he had for a salt dome covering a rich store of oil. He wrote at one point, “I never like to follow the crowd.” Prizing beauty for its permanence, he preferred the art of royals and aristocrats from Western history—Greek and Roman sculpture, paintings by Renaissance masters, and 18th-century European furniture—though he also collected Middle Eastern carpets and even some 20th-century art. Possessing a deep appreciation for house museums, he favored the display of paintings and sculptures “in surroundings of equal quality.”

 Origins of the Getty Museum
Getty Ranch House Museum, Malibu, about 1957.
Getty Ranch House Museum, Malibu, about 1957. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute.

Though Getty delighted in the tax deductions that accrued when he donated art to museums, he also demonstrated a genuine desire to share art with the public. That desire may have been inspired by his mother’s will, which stated that, should her grandsons not have children, a Getty Art Foundation be established to fund the “advancement and promotion of the fine arts.”

In 1953, Getty established the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust. The next year, he converted part of his ranch house into a museum so that he could share his art with the public. He wrote soon after, “I’ve always had an idea at the back of my mind that this little museum might some day belong to the nation.”

Late in life, with his collection outgrowing his ranch house, Getty conceived the idea of building a major museum on his ranch property. He decided it would be a near replica of the Roman Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy, which had been buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. When it opened in 1974, Getty explained his choice to the Los Angeles Times: “It is fortunate that the United States has one ancient, private building which is authentic in spirit . . .. One could say ‘go to Pompeii and Herculaneum and see Roman villas the way they are now—then go to Malibu and see the way they were in ancient times.’” Critics derided the Villa as a gimmick, but the public loved it.

From his home outside London, Getty supervised its operations, approving every new acquisition. He proudly displayed the architectural model of the Villa but kept spending to a bare minimum—temporarily refusing even to pay for climate control for his works of art. Consistently, he cautioned the Museum’s staff that the institution would have to survive on the original endowment he had provided. He never revealed that in his will he had left virtually his entire estate to the institution in trust, giving it a greater endowment than any other museum in the world.

The Getty Evolves (1976-1984)

The Baroque Gallery displaying paintings and sculptures in the Villa Museum, Malibu, mid-1980s.
The Baroque Gallery in the Villa Museum, Malibu, mid-1980s. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

J. Paul Getty’s will turned his small namesake museum into the wealthiest art museum in the world. Charged with carrying out Getty’s wishes that the Trust provide for “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge,” the Board of Trustees embarked on years of research and deliberation to lay the foundation for an institution that aimed to serve all facets of the art world.

 Getty’s Will

When Getty’s will was opened in Los Angeles following his death on June 6, 1976, it stunned the art world. Counter to what he had told the curators, Getty had left the vast bulk of his estate—worth nearly $700 million (about three quarters of a billion by today's standards)—to the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust.

Getty revised his will 21 times between the time that it was originally signed on September 22, 1958 and his death in 1976. The 21st change or "codicil," made three months before his death, reaffirmed his enormous gift to the Trust.

The size of Getty's bequest posed an immediate challenge to the Board and the staff. By law, the Trust was required to spend 4.25 percent of the average market value of its endowment per year. Because the Getty was an operating trust, these funds had to be spent primarily on its own programs. Increasing the endowment from $50 million to $700 million meant increasing expenditures from roughly $2 million to nearly $30 million in a very short time. The businessmen on the Board worried that such a sudden increase would lead to profligate spending.

Legal and tax issues related to the settlement of the estate took several years to resolve. As it became clear that these issues would be settled in favor of the Museum, the Board faced another challenge in deciding what the institution would do with the income produced by the increased endowment.

 Imagining the Future

Getty staff and trustees had begun to imagine the future of the institution within days of the opening of the will. They struggled with a number of key questions. What would honor J. Paul Getty's interests and intentions? How should the Trust be organized to realize an expanded vision? What kind of expertise did the Trust need to implement a larger plan?

As director and principal donor to the Trust for 22 years, Getty had provided funds for research, conservation, and a library, but most of the spending had been for works of art. Yet, the Trust's charter supported any and all initiatives that provided for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge."

Getty's will also implied support for a broader vision for the institution. Anticipating that there would be legal challenges that might block the gift to the Trust, the 21st codicil outlined an alternative plan. If Getty's estate could not go to the Trust, Getty wanted it to go to the University of Southern California, provided that the school would establish "an institute to be known as the J. Paul Getty Institute of Fine Arts, the purpose of which shall be the advancement, by means of regular courses of instruction and otherwise, of knowledge and appreciation of the fine arts ... ." If USC could not accept the bequest, it would be offered to the University of California and Stanford University, respectively.

The Board received suggestions for the direction of the institution from staff and outside advisers such as Otto Wittmann, the former director of the Toledo Art Museum. The Museum's director, Stephen Garrett, presented a draft plan to the Board of Trustees in June 1977 that focused on acquisitions, scholars, and "the creation of an art institute." He stressed the importance of working with other art museums and organizations in Southern California. He suggested expanding into other arenas of collecting, including old master drawings. In order to grow, he pointed out that the Getty would probably have to find a new site and that the Villa would be "best suited to the Antiquities collection." "Conservation is an area where I think we should make a major development," he told the Board and proposed new laboratories as well as teaching facilities to train conservators for the field.

 New Leadership Seeks a New Vision

In preparation for the receipt of Getty's estate, the Board began its search for a president for the Trust. They sought someone with the background to manage the Getty's substantial endowment as well as to implement the new vision.

The Board hired Harold M. Williams in February 1981. A native of Los Angeles and trained as a lawyer, Williams had worked in industry, academia, and government. He also had a passion for the arts. As an attorney and manager at Norton Simon, Inc., he had risen to become chairman at a young age and was influenced by Norton Simon's patronage of the arts. Afterwards he was dean of UCLA's Anderson School of Management and appointed head of the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Jimmy Carter.

As Williams told the Board, he wanted to find ways in which the Getty, an unusual place with unusual resources, could make a significant contribution to the visual arts. The driving question for him was "How can we be of service to the field?" Shortly after taking the job, he began what he called "a year of exploration" to assess the needs of the art world and consider a range of new programs for the Getty.

To help him in this effort, he hired two talented individuals who had served at the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities: Leilani Lattin Duke and Nancy Englander. Individually and collectively these three spent much of the next year traveling throughout North America and Europe, interviewing people in the world of museums, art history, and conservation.

As they traveled, Williams was struck by the fact that each institution they visited favored one aspect of the visual arts over others. Universities and scholars stressed the historical context of the work. Museums focused on the character and quality of objects. Conservation centers emphasized the science of conservation over aesthetics. Few institutions thought about the needs of schoolchildren and teachers. Increasingly, Williams and his team perceived the need for an institution that would bring together all of these elements as partners in a single institution devoted to the visual arts.

 A New Vision Approved

The vision that emerged from Harold Williams’ “year of exploration” that conceived of the Getty as an interdisciplinary center for learning and a resource to the world of art and art history. The new institution would include a research center and scholarly library, a conservation institute, an art history information program, arts education, a grant program, and new publications initiatives, as well as a new museum.

With its approval of these initiatives in 1982, the Board effectively remade the Getty as a multifaceted institution engaged in a broad range of programs related to art, art history, and education. With final resolution of Getty's estate on the horizon, the Trustees authorized Williams the following year to seek court approval to change the name of the institution from the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust to the J. Paul Getty Trust. They argued that the broad language of the Trust Indenture was "intended to give the Trustees wide latitude in carrying out the directions of the Founder, and does not limit the Trustees to expending funds solely on facilities operated by and sponsored by the Museum." The court agreed.

Between 1982 and 1984, the Getty grew quickly. In addition to an expanded museum, a group of independent but related programs devoted to scholarship, conservation, and education were created. These programs became the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities (now the Getty Research Institute), the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts (dissolved in 1998), the Art History Information Program (later named the Getty Information Institute and dissolved in 1999), and the Getty Grant Program (now the Getty Foundation).

The Getty Now (1984-present)

A crane lowers a tram onto the tracks during the construction of the Getty Center in late 1994.
Trams arrive for installation at the Getty Center in late 1994. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute. Photo by Vladimir Lange.

To support collaboration among the Getty’s programs, the Trust broke ground on a new campus in Brentwood. The original site of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu was renovated to serve a mission focused on antiquities. Presently, the Getty continues to support the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy.

 Building the Getty Center

The Board approved the development of additional museum exhibition facilities and new programs in 1982. It also approved the search for a new site upon which they would be located.

The Trust felt it vital that a shared campus would foster collaboration. After considering several possible sites across Los Angeles, in September 1983 the Trust purchased a 110-acre hilltop site in the Santa Monica Mountains. The location and its topography would both inspire and control the development and design of the Getty Center.

In October 1984, following an international search, the Trust hired the New York-based architect Richard Meier to design the Getty Center. He was chosen for his proven skill in the design of museums, his understanding of the site and materials, his passion for art and books, and his commitment to establishing a Los Angeles office.

The Los Angeles Planning Commission approved the site master plan in 1987. Among its stipulations were height limitations that required more than half of the built area of the Getty Center to be placed below the hilltop level. An iterative design process produced a final plan that was approved in the spring of 1991.

Meier’s plan included a concept for a Central Garden, but the Trust decided to pursue something that was a work of art in itself rather than simply a landscape feature. The garden presented an opportunity to incorporate an aesthetic sensibility into the Getty Center that would contrast with the geometric forms of Meier’s classic modernism and enrich the visitor experience. In 1992, the Trust commissioned artist Robert Irwin to create a site-specific artwork. Responding to Meier’s architecture and the building site, Irwin developed a garden plan that includes a zigzag walkway, water features, and plantings intended to provide a rich sensory experience and highlight the ever-changing nature of this artwork.

Site preparation for the Getty Center began in 1987 and construction continued for the next 10 years. Nearly 300,000 pieces of travertine—a distinctive element of the Center—were quarried from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy and installed as building cladding or paving. Upon completion, almost a million square feet of buildings spread across the site—the majority of which is underground.

Getty staff and programs began to move into the Getty Center in 1996. The Getty Center opened to the public with much fanfare on December 16, 1997.

 A New Plan for the Getty Villa
Watercolor rendering of Machado and Silvetti Associates’ plan for the Outdoor Theater at the Getty Villa.
Watercolor rendering of Machado and Silvetti Associates’ plan for the Outdoor Theater at the Getty Villa. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute.

In late 1995, the Getty Trust announced a new, expanded mission for the Getty Villa in Malibu “as a center devoted to the display, conservation, and interpretation of ancient art in the broadest sense and as a branch of the Getty that promotes a deeper understanding of, and critical appreciation for, comparative archaeology and culture.”

The Getty Villa closed on July 6, 1997 for renovations. While the museum building retained its original design, architects Machado and Silvetti made various changes to the site, including moving the main entrance, installing windows and skylights in the upper galleries, and adding 76,000 square feet of surrounding structures, including new parking, an entry pavilion, and a classical outdoor theater. It also became home to a new Master’s Program on the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials, a cooperative effort between the Getty Conservation Institute and the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

The Getty Villa reopened to the public on January 28, 2006.

 The Getty Now

Today, the J. Paul Getty Trust is the world’s largest cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to the visual arts. Our work continues to advance the presentation, conservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. Learn more:

Further Resources

View of J. Paul Getty Life & Legacy installation at the Getty Center.

See the installation, J. Paul Getty Life & Legacy, at the Getty Center.

The historical records of the J. Paul Getty Trust may be accessed through the Institutional Archives.

Read key documents and policies relating to governance of the Getty.

View Getty's diaries (1938-1946, 1948-1976) online.

Books by J. Paul Getty

  • History of the Oil Business of George F. and J. Paul Getty 1903-1939. J. Paul Getty, 1941.
  • My Life and Fortunes. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1963.
  • The Joys of Collecting. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011. First published by Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, 1965.
  • How to be a Successful Executive. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1971.
  • As I See It: The Autobiography of J. Paul Getty. Rev. ed. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2003.
  • With Ethel Le Vane. Collector's Choice: The Chronicle of an Artistic Odyssey through Europe. London: W.H. Allen, 1955.
Resources about the Getty