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“Essential Personnel”: My Q&A with Getty’s Communications VP on the Approaching Wildfires UPDATED

With the area’s surrounding streets and nearby freeway closed to traffic due to rapidly spreading wildfires that are approaching (but so far have not reached) the Getty Center, the Getty today is staffed by only “essential personnel”—mainly its security staff.

But Ron Hartwig, the J. Paul Getty Trust’s veteran vice president for communications, intrepidly reported for duty against considerable odds, to respond to queries about an emergency situation that has already claimed nearby homes but has so far spared the Getty. (Patricia Woodworth, the Getty’s CFO and COO, was also on the scene, Hartwig said.)

Ron Hartwig

Here’s what Ron told me in our phone conversation today at about 11:30 a.m., NYC time:

The fire is actually directly across the freeway from the Getty. Our greatest concern right now is for our neighbors. Some homes have actually been burned there and that’s very, very tragic. But the fire is not on the Getty side of the freeway.

That said, the Getty was really designed and built to protect against disasters like a major fire. Even the landscaping is designed so that the plants with the highest water content are closest to the building. Further away, they is more brush. But we also maintain the brush, so that we don’t have combustible materials. The buildings themselves are made of travertine and metal panels.

Our air filtration system is very sophisticated: It basically reverses, so that air is pushed out rather than in and smoke is not able to get into the galleries to damage the collection in any way. So the best place for the collection is right here at the Getty [emphasis added].

The reason we closed to the public yesterday and we’re going to close to the public today is that there was smoke coming from the fires that were up in the northern regions. We closed because we didn’t want heavy traffic going in and out of the doors of the galleries, which would compromise the filtration system.

I’m here right now in the Getty and the air inside is perfectly fine.

Rosenbaum: Might the fire jump the freeway?

Hartwig: That’s always a possibility and it’s happened in the past. But the fire department is attacking the fire very vigorously, because there are a lot of homes on that side of the freeway. They’re working very hard to put it out. The Leo Baeck Temple (a Jewish synagogue) is actually right across the freeway from us. The fire is a little north and to the east of that and the fire department is working like mad with helicopter drops and water drops.

Rosenbaum: Is there any chance that the fire may spread to where you are?

Hartwig: I don’t want to speculate. At the moment we’re feeling that it probably won’t.

Rosenbaum: If it did, you’re as fire-safe as you can be, but you’re not fireproof?

Hartwig: Basically, both the landscaping and the buildings themselves were designed to protect for just such an eventuality. Even where there are windows, there are shades to drop and they’re water-drenched and so forth. Thank God for Richard Meier’s design, 20 years ago, and the construction of the building.

The Getty Museum in more tranquil times (March 2014)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum: Are there any further actions that you’re taking, other than closure to the public?

Hartwig: We’re closed, obviously, to the staff. Yesterday, staff reported to work. And as you might imagine, the freeway is actually closed and streets all around us are closed, so it would be almost impossible to get here. In fact, I had to really talk the fire department into letting me come into the Getty.

Rosenbaum: Who else is there today?

Hartwig: Mainly our security people—essential personnel.

Rosenbaum: And you’re one of them—there to talk to people like me?

Hartwig: Exactly.

Rosenbaum: Why did you decide to go today?

Hartwig: It’s a normal procedure: When there’s a situation like this, I come to the Getty. We have very well define protocols for situations like this and they’re all in place and moving along smoothly.

Rosenbaum: Are you moving artworks in any way?

Hartwig: Not at all. As I said, the safest place for the collection is exactly here and where they are.

Rosenbaum: Have lenders expressed concern? People have important works on loan to you.

Hartwig: I can’t begin to answer that question at this moment in time, but I can assure them that they are in the safest place they can be.

Rosenbaum: Is the place closed until further notice? You don’t expect to open tomorrow, do you?

Hartwig: At this moment in time, I would suspect probably not. But the fire department is pretty good about dealing with these situations, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Stay safe, Ron and Patty!

UPDATE 5:45 p.m. (NYC time)—This just in from Ron Hartwig, in response to my query:

The fire is still burning but moving further east, away from the Getty but unfortunately near homes. That said, we are continuing to watch closely.

We will be closed to the public and non-essential staff tomorrow [Thursday] at the Getty Center [Los Angeles] and the Getty Villa [Malibu].

At about 4:30 (NYC time), Hartwig had written to me that the Villa would open tomorrow “unless circumstances change overnight.” He then amended this to say: “The fire department has asked us to keep the Villa closed to all but essential staff tomorrow as well, in order to facilitate any necessary emergency operations in the area.” He said this was requested by the fire department out of an abundance of caution, not due to adverse changes in fire conditions (such as more smoke from a wind shift).

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