Art at speed: a key part of Los Angeles County Museum of Art's transformation is the newly-opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the result of Eli Broad's philanthropy and insatiable appetite for art: Louise Nicholson talks to him at his LA home.
Eli Broad doesn't bother with pleasantries. Suntanned and dapper in sharp suit, red striped tie and polished shoes, he greets me in his Frank Gehry-designed hillside home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, with a smile, a handshake and: 'Were you there yesterday? What Renzo has done is wonderful, isn't it?' He stops, brings his hands to eye height and intertwines the fingers, saying, 'He's a weaver.' His sharp brown eyes allow no disagreement. Then he checks his watch. At 74 years old, this pre-eminently successful businessman, ardent art collector and effective education and art philanthropist is a man still in a hurry.
The 'weaving' he is referring to is Renzo Piano's design for the newly completed first phase of Los Angeles County Museum's 'Transformation' project, which--as described in Patrick McCaughey's article on pages 26-32--links the newly created Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) extension with the existing buildings. At the opening ceremony on the previous day, Piano had said that he was indebted to Mr Broad's 'strength', rather than mentioning his $56m gift. 'Every building is an adventure', he smiled, 'but making a building with Eli Broad is a great adventure. Mr Broad kept telling me the building must be functional, 80% of it for art. I told him the only frivolous space was for toilets.'
Mr Broad's influence runs through the whole project. The crowd attending the opening stood on a street transformed into LACMA's new entrance pavilion. 'Taking a street away in LA is a miracle', laughed Piano. Mr Broad's well-known impatience with building schedules--he completed his own house himself when Gehry seemed to him to be dawdling over it--has meant that the first phase of LACMA's 'transformation' was achieved in just over two years.
Mr Broad sits down--surely a rare event--in his sparely furnished living room (Fig. 2), shaded from the crystalline Californian sun outside. Around him hang wall-filling paintings by Anselm Keifer and Andy Warhol, a Lichtenstein beside the fireplace, and a small Calder on the coffee table; above him are the bold curves of Gehry's bare metal ceiling--'He wanted to paint it; I like it like this.'
Buying art and building museums is a fairly recent occupation for Mr Broad. Born in New York's Bronx and raised in Detroit, he was a star economics student before making his first fortune leading the developers Kaufman & Broad Inc. Moving to California in 1963, already a millionaire, he then made another fortune with SunAmerica, his retirement insurance company. 'Los Angeles has been good to us', he sums up. 'It's a meritocracy.'
It was his family that brought him to the arts. 'You have to understand where I come from. I'm an only child but all my cousins have multiple degrees. I'm the only one who went astray into commerce. My first involvement in education and the arts since I left university was at the Pitzer.' He is referring to Pitzer College, where in 1972 he joined his first civic board. His wife, Edythe, was meanwhile quietly collecting art. 'She has a good eye. I had no background in art history', he says.
Business friends, including the knowledgeable collector Taft Schreiber, opened his eyes. 'I've had some kind friends. Back in 1971, I'd go to his house. He had a great Jackson Pollock, a Matisse, a de Kooning. It was interesting to hear him talk about them. I'm an avid reader. I started reading and visiting museums.' The next year he started to buy. 'I don't remember the exact chronology. But there was an 1889 drawing by Van Gogh, a late 1933 Miro, a 1937 Picasso painting, then several works by Henry Moore--we met him at Much Hadham.'
Having moved on to Moore, the Broads soon progressed to contemporary art. 'We went to exhibitions. We met Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, in the late seventies.' The following decade they became very active. 'We started spending a lot of time in the East Village in New York. We were lucky to meet Jean-Michael Basquiat living in a basement. We went to a retrospective of Warhol--I find retrospectives teach you a lot. We first saw the work of Cindy Sherman in the basement of Metro Pictures. We were visiting all the galleries, and here was someone who made herself up; it crossed the boundaries of photography. I think we bought some. It was very inexpensive at that time.' They filled their days with art. 'Saturdays we'd go to Soho and some uptown galleries. There was no rest on Sundays because the museums were open.'
For Mr Broad, buying art is 'a learning experience. It's about meeting the artists and learning about the art. Jeff Koons is a lovely person. We've known him since the difficult days. We're delighted when he comes to our beach house with his children. Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein were good friends. So was Bob Rauschenberg. I find that great artists are exceptionally intelligent; Jasper Johns's intelligence is awesome.'
At that point a bigger purpose emerged. By 1984, the walls of their home full, the Broads established The Broad Art Foundation, nicknamed 'the lending library'. 'We wanted to continue to collect. A lot was being acquired by foreign collectors and leaving the country. The foundation has made more than 7,000 loans to 450 institutions. Several artists have told us they'd rather sell a piece to us than to a museum. We get it shown. We've done that religiously for 20 years now, millions of people have seen the work.' Mr Broad's experience at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCa), where he was founding chairman in 1979, endorses his argument. 'When I was at MOCA I negotiated the deal for the Panza collection', he says, referring to the contemporary American and European art collected by Count Giuseppe and Mrs Giovanna Panza di Biumo. 'I look back now: what percentage of time has that been on show? Maybe 20%? That collection is of such quality it should be seen, if not on their walls on someone else's.'
This brings Mr Broad to a fundamental belief: the importance of art in society. He sees his foundation as an educational resource for increasing access to and appreciation of contemporary art. Housed in a handsome 1927 former telephone switching station by the beach in Santa Monica, the foundation focuses on cutting-edge contemporary art, and displays selections from its 1,500 works on four floors and the roof, for prospective borrowers and other serious visitors to see by appointment. Joanne Heyler, its director and chief curator, also advises the Broads on their personal collection. "The foundation acquires artists of the moment, often collecting in depth', she explains, 'whereas the Broads' personal collection is more historical.' She works closely with Mr Broad. 'Eli's involved in every acquisition and approves every one,' she says. 'The Thomas Struth photos, for example. I remember well getting a phone call from Eli in New York, saying he thought we should have them. It's a very simple organic process, with the caveat that Eli has the final say. We sometimes disagree.'
Mr Broad believes that his foundation is a blueprint for the way that museums should behave. 'Museum are very small-minded. They want to buy all for themselves and are very stingy with their loans', he judges. 'Sometimes they are a few blocks from each other. Why don't they share? There are a lot of advantages. There are a lot of regional museums but you don't see great outreach from museums like the Met, who have 90% in storage.' He feels strongly that more people should have 'the broadening experience' of art, and sees his 'lending library' foundation as the solution--for acquisition, storage, conservation and insurance. "You set up an endowment to take care of it, and relieve the museums of some of their burden,' he reasons.
Being a good citizen is important to Mr Broad, and he regards the arts as an essential component in that. The civic life of Los Angeles has benefited from his drive, leadership and financial gifts. In addition to his work at MOCA, his foundation and the Broad Art Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, he ensured the realisation of Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall when fundraising had stalled. He believes that Los Angeles is on the way to becoming 'one of the four cultural capitals of the world', alongside New York, London and Paris. 'Cities are remembered by their artists and their architecture', he argues. 'A lot is happening here, and a lot more will. LA is being recognised as a cultural oasis. There is a great migration of museum directors and curators; we've got the Norton Simon, the Getty, the Getty Villa, the opera, the new cathedral Our Lady of the Angels, the Caltrans building designed by Thorn Mayne--I gave the idea of the competition for that, marrying the architect with the contractor and developer, saying here's a pot of dollars and not a penny more.' Asked about Berlin, a city he knows and loves, he laughs: 'Berlin's pretty good, we'll make that number 4a.'
Above all, his focus now is on LACMA, where his involvement goes back 30 years. Here his stimulus for a renewed civic awareness seems to be bearing fruit. 'If you look at LACMA, it was very tired. Now the young board of trustees--and I don't mind telling you many are billionaires--are not just supporters of LACMA, they are leaders in the city. LACMA is a 21st-century model for an encyclopaedic museum', he states firmly. And with that, he invites me to look at art from his own collection installed in his house.
"These are only the reserves', he smiles happily. 'Michael took the best for the show. He's got a great eye', he says, referring to LACMA'S director, Michael Govan, selecting works for the first hang at BCAM. We start in the living room. 'This is a great Keifer of the Tigris and Euphrates', he points out, unable to remember when or where he bought it. He moves swiftly on to the Lichtenstein beside the fireplace, then speeds on to the lobby to focus on six self-portraits by Andy Warhol. 'These belonged to MOMA, before I was a trustee--if I'd been one then, I couldn't have bought them. There is one panel like this on offer in London now for $4m. It is insanity, can't be sustained; it's such a burden on museums and collectors.' We move to a small room where the Miro, that early buy, hangs. 'Nelson Rockefeller sold that via a dealer. Every time he ran for office he sold another painting.' We pause briefly at the Picasso, slide past Chuck Close paintings, a big Calder, Tom Otterness sculptures, and much more.
We come to rest on a balcony, looking down over the garden, where a Richard Serra stands on the lush green lawns (Fig. 1), one work Michael Govan could not borrow. 'We had Richard d [+ or -] o that after we built the house. It was shaped at General Dynamics in Connecticut. Nothing with Richard is easy. It's 15ft high. If something is more than 14ft you have to get a permit to transport it through each state. Then, there was no way a helicopter or crane could put it down. They put steel over the driveway, then put it on rollers to go down the path to the lawn which had to have a steel structure underneath--they haven't done that since the pyramids. Edye said "that's no problem", so that's what we named it.'
Eli Broad smiles and checks his watch. 'Excuse me, I do other things, too.' And is gone.
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|Title Annotation:||COLLECTORS & COLLECTING|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2008|
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