Art Market

Wildfire Rages Near the Getty, but Museum Says “Safest Place” for Art Is Inside

Isaac Kaplan
Dec 6, 2017 10:45PM

Photo by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A 150-acre brush fire ignited in the hills of Los Angeles in the early hours of Wednesday morning, not far from the Getty Center, which is one site of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Surreal video footage circulated online of what has been called the Skirball fire (named after a the nearby Skirball Cultural Center), as it raged through land alongside the highly trafficked 405 Freeway. The major Los Angeles thoroughfare currently separates the Getty from the blaze (the highway has since been closed).

Six fixed-wing aircrafts and over 350 firefighters have been called in to battle the fire, the L.A. Times reported. Authorities have ordered evacuations for those in the projected path of the blaze, which is now only on the east side of the 405.

But the priceless artwork and artifacts—from pre-modern European masterpieces to contemporary sculpture—held at the Getty Center, which sits on the west side of the freeway, won’t be moving anywhere, thanks to the building’s fire-resistant architecture.

“The safest place for the collection to be is right here at the Getty Center,” Ron Hartwig, vice president of communications at the museum, told Artsy on Wednesday afternoon. The museum is closed to visitors and staff, though; it shuttered on Tuesday when smoke from other wildfires approached the institution.

“Systems to protect the art collection were in place as early as yesterday,” Hartwig said.

The museum was built with a host of defenses against fire. While designing the institution, architect Richard Meier and his team took into account the potential hazard posed by the surrounding arid California landscape, and the museum’s location, which is relatively difficult to access amid a disaster, Hartwig said. Artwork is shielded from smoke thanks to what he called a “very sophisticated” air filtration system that forces air out of the building in order to prevent ash and smoke from getting inside.

The structure is also constructed from fire-resistant materials, including travertine and metal panels. The garden around the museum is kept free of brush and also serves as a line of defense, with plants that have the highest water content located closest to the institution. The Getty is also equipped with a million-gallon water reserve tank and has well-rehearsed disaster plans for occasions such as this, Hartwig noted.

“The whole structure was thought of and designed to protect against being impacted by a major disaster,” Hartwig noted, stressing that evacuating the art is not part of the emergency plan.

Hartwig explained that roughly three years ago, a brush fire ignited near the museum’s parking garage, prompting the evacuation of staff and visitors while the artwork remained safely inside. The museum does feature some outdoor sculptures, but they are in areas unlikely to be touched by fire, Hartwig said, and are composed of fire-resistant material, such as stone and steel.

The Skirball fire is among the most recent in a series of wildfires raging across Southern California that have collectively burned over 70,000 of acres of land, displacing thousands of residents and leaving at least 43,000 homes without power as of Wednesday.

“Our hearts go out to our neighbors across the freeway,” said Hartwig.

The Getty is hardly the only major institution engineered to withstand natural disasters. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a host of flood protections were added to the Whitney Museum in New York City, then under construction, including a movable flood barrier. In Miami, the Pérez Art Museum Miami is safely seated on a platform above a floodplain of 18 feet, and also boasts hurricane-resistant glass.

Isaac Kaplan