Getty Centers Jewish creators bask in glow of art complex

LOS ANGELES — When the billion-dollar Getty Center officially opened in December, Los Angeles reveled in a surge of positive press the likes of which it hadn't seen since the 1984 Olympic Games.

The opening of the complex, a museum containing masterpieces of sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and other art forms, drew nearly 800 journalists to special nine-hour tours. They duly noted the statistics: the 54 sky-lit galleries, the five adjoining research institutes, the 295,000 blocks of stone shipped from Italy for the construction — and the anticipated 1.3 million annual visitors.

Meanwhile, the city's Jewish community felt a quiet satisfaction in the accomplishments of the two men most responsible for the center's creation: Harold Williams and Richard Meier.

Williams became president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1981, topping a distinguished business and academic career. During the 13 years of the center's evolution, from 1984 to 1997, he was involved in every phase of its creation and was the ultimate arbiter of its design and scope.

Williams said he was born in Los Angeles into a Russian Jewish immigrant family.

He mentioned with some pride his late uncle, Noah Naftulski. A park in Tel Aviv bears the name of Naftulski, who was one of the founders of the second-oldest kibbutz, Kvutzah Kinneret, and who helped to introduce banana cultivation to the Jordan Valley.

During his tenure as dean of UCLA's school of management, Williams led an academic mission to Hebrew University. Since heading the Getty Center, he has established professional ties with the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

Williams retired in January. He has made no retirement commitments, except to join the board of trustees at the Getty's Jewish neighbor, the Skirball Cultural Center, which opened 18 months ago.

Meier, the architect of the Getty Center, is a Reform Jew, the grandson of German Jews who emigrated in the 1890s and settled in New Jersey. Among his family legacies were two "beautiful" menorot, one of which now stands in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the other in the Skirball museum.

After Meier graduated from Cornell University's architecture school, he decided to work abroad. The first country he visited was Israel, where he met with various architects and admired the Eilat coastline.

As he made his professional reputation, he was invited in the 1970s by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek to help plan the city's architectural future. "I'm not sure that Kollek followed any of my advice," Meier said.

Williams left his office in early January; he was succeeded by Barry Munitz as the new head man at the Getty Center and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Munitz, raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Brooklyn, was educated at Brooklyn College and Princeton. He then embarked on a successful career in the public, corporate, cultural and academic worlds, which culminated in the chancellorship of the 23-campus California State University system.

Munitz was an active board member of the local Anti-Defamation League chapter while living in Houston and is a frequent participant in ADL activities in Los Angeles.

Despite their differences in scale and endowment, the Getty and the Skirball, which is affiliated with the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College, work together as the southern and northern anchors of the same hilltop formation in the Santa Monica Mountains pass.

The connection was recognized by the Getty Trust more than a decade ago with a $1 million grant to the Skirball during the latter's early fund-raising efforts.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent