As the shuttle train chugged up the hill overlooking the busy LA freeway in the afternoon sun, I couldn’t help thinking how different visiting the Getty Center was from a trip to London’s National Gallery.
The Getty, as it is known, was built 14 years ago at a cost of $1.3 billion of Paul Getty’s oil money.
To maintain the fiction that entry is free, underground parking costs from $10 for cars to $185 for coaches. But then that tram takes you to one of the planet’s most magnificent art galleries, made to withstand earthquakes up to 7.5 on the Richter scale.
Four marble-clad buildings frame a central plaza, and on the south side are terraces overlooking a truly stunning view of Los Angeles, from Downtown to the Pacific. To catch a little of the flavour, see the photo on the Wikipedia entry for the Getty Center.
But the Getty also demonstrates that, where high art is concerned, money can take you only so far. With a virtually unlimited budget, the galleries have a fair sprinkling of paintings and sculpture by major artists: Turner, Gainsborough, Stubbs, Rousseau, Millet, Millais.
However, they are in a small minority, summed up by the room carefully labelled Rembrandt and his Circle. Only three of the 17 works there are by Rembrandt.
You can have as much money as you like, but Europe’s galleries long ago grabbed the cream – and they are not selling.
Nevertheless, those three Rembrandts are three times as many as I counted ten years ago, so the Getty is slowly clawing its way up the ladder. In the meantime it borrows cleverly and mounts headline-grabbing temporary exhibitions like the Leonardo da Vinci one last year.
Where the Getty can spend money, it does so to great effect. Tucked away at the far end from the art galleries is the Harold Williamson Auditorium, a 450-seat cinema and lecture theatre that is the last word in comfort and uninterrupted views of the screen.
I was there last week for a 60th anniversary screening of High Noon, the classic Gary Cooper western.
If you go to the movies regularly in LA, you get used to personal appearances. A-listers like George Clooney make the rounds every February as the Oscars approach, and few months ago I saw Malcolm McDowell giving a jocular Q&A after a screening of A Clockwork Orange.
But when a movie is so old that the stars are no more, the organisers can usually persuade the children to turn up. After High Noon we had Tom Zinneman, son of director Fred Zinneman, and Gary Cooper’s daughter Marie.
She had lived the teenage dream of being able to wander freely round the set of a top movie, with a young James Dean apparently lurking to pick up acting tips from Cooper and the others.
If an audience is packed with film buffs, the LA etiquette is to burst into applause when the celebrity guests’ – or their parents’ – names appear in the title credits.
So it was noticeable that this time Cooper’s and Zinneman’s credits were greeted in silence. No insult intended. It simply indicated that many of my fellow cinemagoers were local residents from the nearby well-heeled districts of Westwood, Brentwood and Malibu, enjoying a free night out courtesy of the late Mr Getty.
On the way home the freeway was still gridlocked from a crash that had occurred miles up the road all of two hours earlier. Welcome to another of LA’s little traditions.