On February 28, 1982, the J. Paul Getty Museum becomes the most richly endowed museum on earth when it receives a $1.2 billion bequest left to it by the late J. Paul Getty. The American oil billionaire died in 1976, but legal wrangling over his fortune by his children and ex-wives kept his will in probate until 1982. During those six years, what was a originally a $700 million bequest to the museum nearly doubled. By 2000, the endowment was worth $5 billion–even after the trust spent nearly $1 billion in the 1990s on the construction of a massive museum and arts education complex in Los Angeles.
Jean Paul Getty, born in Minneapolis in 1892, built his fortune through the accumulation of oil companies. He began collecting artworks in the 1930s, preferring Renaissance and Baroque paintings and French furniture, and displaying them in his ranch house in Malibu, California. In 1954, he formally opened the J. Paul Getty Museum, which occupied a specially built wing of his Malibu home. Later, his collection outgrew the ranch, so Getty built a new museum in Malibu. The new Getty Museum was modeled after Villa dei Papiri, a Roman villa uncovered in the town of Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was completed in 1974, but Getty, who lived mostly in England after World War II, died before he could return to Malibu to see it in person. His coffin was sent back to California, and he was buried near his museum on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
In leaving a third of his fortune to the J. Paul Getty Museum, his only stipulation was that the fortune be used “for the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.” This gave the museum extraordinary freedom–an unusual legacy from a man who in his life had sought absolute control over his affairs. The laws governing trusts, however, indicate that the museum must spend 4.25 percent of its endowment three out of every four years in order to retain its tax-exempt status. In the first year after its endowment, that figure equaled $54 million; today the amount the museum must spend three out of four years is more than $200 million. The J. Paul Getty Museum’s greatest challenge, therefore, is finding enough art and culture to buy–but not too much that other museums accuse the Getty of hoarding the world’s masterpieces.
The museum spent a good chunk of its endowment in the construction of the Getty Center, a six-building complex set on a hilltop in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. The $1 billion complex opened in December 1997. Fourteen years in the making, the Getty Center includes a large museum, a research institute and library, an art conservation institute, a digital information institute, an arts education institute, a museum management school, and a grant program center. The buildings were designed in a modernist style by American architect Richard Meier.