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Broad Strokes

After decades assembling one of the foremost collections of contemporary art, Eli and Edythe Broad open a landmark Los Angeles museum...

<< Back to Robb Report, Robb Report Collection August 2015

After decades assembling one of the foremost collections of contemporary art, Eli and Edythe Broad open a landmark Los Angeles museum.

The pharaohs of ancient Egypt built pyramids to leave a lasting personal stamp on the landscape. But the modern mogul is more apt to build a museum. While the museum is not specifically a monument to the mogul, it often bears his or her name, is jump-started with the benefactor’s collection, and is housed in an impressive edifice meant to stand for all time. This September, a highly anticipated contemporary art museum—the Broad—will open in downtown Los Angeles. It is underwritten by one mogul and his art foundation. That mogul, Eli Broad, is a self-made billionaire who made his fortune through far more earthbound pursuits—tract housing and insurance. 

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Perched on Grand Avenue, the three-story building is an elegant white cube clad with oblong panels perforated by oblique apertures, a design that has the effect of lightening the mass and giving it a sense of dynamic motion. Designed by the New York firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it promises to hold its own next to two existing cultural anchors of the city, both the works of internationally acclaimed architects—to one side are the silvery swirls of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, and across the street sits the red sandstone of Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). 

It is indicative of Broad’s profound involvement in the cultural fabric of the city that he helped fund the building of Disney Hall and was a founder of MOCA in 1979—and also helped bail out the museum when it was in financial hot water in 2008. He has long been a booster for the unified development of Grand Avenue. “I’ve always had an interest in downtown; every city needs a vibrant center,” says Broad, speaking during a recent interview in his offices at the Fox Plaza in Century City. Mr. Broad, as he is called at the office, is nattily dressed as usual, in a dark suit, red tie, and red pocket square peeking out from his breast pocket. He and his team moved into the space a year ago, completely renovating it and filling it with contemporary art, some of it acquired in the last few years. His own corner office, with far-reaching views of the city, is decorated with neatly arranged framed snapshots of him with presidents, civic and cultural personalities, and his wife, Edythe. Two works of art are on the walls—a medium-size 1981 silk screen by Jasper Johns next to his desk and a large abstract 2012 multimedia-on-linen work  by Julian Lethbridge.

A self-made man who earned his first million by age 27, Eli Broad is known as a driven perfectionist. Born in the Bronx in 1933 to immigrant Jewish parents from Lithuania, he grew up in Detroit. He is proud of his humble beginnings—his father opened several five-and-dime stores and his mother was a dressmaker. He attended public schools and Michigan State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in three years by taking summer classes. The year he graduated, he also married Edythe Lawson, or Edye, as he fondly calls her: “my chief inspiration officer.” 

As a young accountant, he saw a need for modestly priced housing, and in 1957, with a $12,500 loan from Edye’s parents, he started a company with Don Kaufman, a relative by marriage. Kaufman & Broad built two model homes in the Detroit suburbs, undercutting the competition and keeping costs low by eliminating basements and architect’s fees (Broad designed the floor plans himself). In their first year they sold 120 homes and took in $1.7 million. “My accounting background and my focus on the bottom line helped us continue to innovate financially,” he wrote in his 2012 book, The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking. Soon Kaufman & Broad moved on to Arizona, and in 1963 to Southern California, where Broad saw an opportunity in building townhouses in Huntington Beach. In 1969 it became the first home-building company to be listed on the NYSE, and in 2000 it became a Fortune 500 company. 

In 1989 Broad left KB Home, as it had been renamed, and turned his attention to Sun Life, an established insurance company he had purchased years before. He rebranded and rebuilt it as SunAmerica, and it became the best-performing stock on the NYSE for most of the 1990s. It was the second Fortune 500 company that he started and ran. In 1999 he sold the company to AIG for $18 billion, netting over $3 billion himself.  (Currently, Forbes lists his net worth at $7.1 billion.) When he stepped down as CEO of SunAmerica in 2000, he directed his full-time efforts to philanthropy—Broad and his wife are supporters of education and medical research—and art collecting.

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The art collecting started with Edythe, who began visiting Los Angeles galleries in the 1960s. At that time the L.A. art scene was nascent; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) wasn’t even built until 1965. She made several purchases here and there, and Eli got interested. He obtained some valuable early advice from Taft Schreiber, an MCA executive and art collector. Broad began adding visits to museums, art galleries, and artists’ studios onto his business trips. Later he attended international art fairs.

“I think from the beginning, just buying art wasn’t of great interest,” says Broad. “Collecting is really a learning experience, it’s a way one can broaden the way you can view the world. I like to say that life would be boring if I spent all my time with lawyers, accountants, and bankers.” He enjoys spending time “with contemporary artists who have a different view of what’s happening in society and the world than other people.” 

There is a rich legacy of collector-initiated museums in this country. During the Gilded Age, men who made fortunes in manufacturing, railroads, finance, and other industries sometimes turned to philanthropy and culture. Their collections are now some of today’s most celebrated museums, such as the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. Private modern and contemporary collections have found their way into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Norton Simon Museum, and more recently, the Rubell Family Collection and de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space in Miami.  

“The one common denominator I find great collectors have across the ages is an obsessive passion about the hunt,” says Inge Reist, head of the Frick Art Reference Library’s Center for the History of Collecting. She studies the history of collectors and private-collection museums.  “Collecting becomes a life’s project for them. I also think most if not all great collectors have a strong focus in deciding what category or categories they wish to collect, and have an abiding concern about quality.” She notes that such collectors tend to make their own decisions, even when they have advisers, citing Henry Clay Frick and his dealers Roland Knoedler and Charles Carstairs. “They don’t think of art as mere decoration, trophies, or investments. A sense of civic duty and a desire to educate their fellow citizens is a powerful motivator.”  

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When Eli And Edythe Broad realized that their art collection was outgrowing their Brentwood home, they decided to set up a foundation and share their holdings. In 1984 they established the Broad Art Foundation to collect, maintain, and loan out artwork. The collecting had two key missions, says Joanne Heyler, who has headed the foundation since 1995 and has assumed the post of director/chief curator for the new museum—“to focus on the best contemporary art made in the last quarter of the 20th century, and to collect those artists’ works in depth. Obviously, we have far surpassed the initial time line and moved well into the 21st century.” Over the past 30 years the foundation has made some 8,000 loans to more than 500 museums.  

Today the Broad Collection consists of approximately 2,000 works by more than 200 artists. “One of the truly distinctive hallmarks of how the Broads collect is that they collect in depth,” Heyler says. “We’ve collected more like an institution.” For example, they own about 125 pieces by Cindy Sherman, the largest single collection of her work, and these span the breadth of her career, starting from her student days, continuing to her famous “Untitled Film Stills” series, in which she appears in her own photographs like a character in a movie, to recent digital prints. They also have about 570 multiples by Joseph Beuys, 45 works by Ed Ruscha, 34 by Roy Lichtenstein, and 22 by Cy Twombly. These holdings alone would be the envy of many museums.

Several museums hoped, even expected, that Broad’s collection would come to them, especially LACMA, which has long benefited from Broad’s largesse. The museum received $60 million from the Broads for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in 2008, the largest single gift LACMA has ever received. However, shortly before the new building opened, Eli Broad said that he would keep the collection.

In 2010, he announced that he would open his own museum. The reason? Existing museums would show only a small percentage of the collection at a time, Broad explains. “We want to share the collection with the widest possible audience,” he says. Opening a dedicated museum—and offering free admission—was his solution. “We looked in a lot of places, but at the end of the day I kept coming downtown.” For him, being across from MOCA is a plus, with the potential of shared visitors and programming. 

After conducting a design competition, Broad chose Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York firm known for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to projects such as the much-lauded High Line in New York City. “Liz Diller came up with the best answer,” Broad says. “How do you do something next to Disney Concert Hall—not clash with it but not be anonymous either?” He believes that the new building achieves that aesthetic requirement and fulfills their logistical needs as well.

Built at a cost of $140 million, the Broad is a three-story building with 120,000 square feet. Visitors will enter from either corner of the building along Grand Avenue, where the “veil,” as the exoskeleton of the building has been nicknamed, lifts. Once inside the cavernous space of undulating walls, museum-goers check in with staff members holding mobile devices. 

While admission is free, the museum anticipates large numbers during the first months, so a ticket reservation system will help control capacity. There is a 15,000 square-foot gallery on the first floor, but most of the exhibition space will be on the third floor, so the visitors will step into a cylindrical glass elevator or a long escalator that moves through a dramatic tunnel.  Both ascend to the middle of the third floor, which is one continuous 35,000-square-foot expanse, built without pillars, a feature that allows maximum flexibility for setting up temporary walls as required. Soft filtered daylight pours through the panels from the sides and overhead. Most visitors will want to descend on foot via the staircase, because window panels along the way offer a chance to peek at the storage facilities. 

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On September 20, the Broad will open with a highlights exhibition of about 250 works, arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with such postwar art giants as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Because pop art, which emerged in the United States in the early 1960s, is a major strength of the collection, works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ed Ruscha will probably figure prominently. Moving on to the 1970s and 1980s, artists on display will include Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, and Jeff Koons. Robert Therrien’s Under the Table (1994), a whimsical sculpture of an oversize table and chairs, will be featured in one corner. 

And the Broads continue to collect. “I think many people will be surprised to see how actively we have been adding new artists to the collection,” Heyler says, “and to see some of the less expected holdings from the 1980s, when the Broads were so actively engaged in the art scene in New York. Works by Sherrie Levine or George Condo will be shown, for example, along with our very well-known works by Basquiat or Haring.

“The remarkable number of in-depth holdings reflects the Broads’ deep and longstanding engagement with art and artists,” she continues. “It also underscores that their motivations are not about financial speculation, but rather, as Eli says, the ‘psychic rewards’ of a life spent in art, and by a deeply held conviction that contemporary art has an essential civic and cultural role to play in Los Angeles and the world. The foundation’s three decades of prolific lending has always focused on the public role of their art, and now, the museum will put the collection on comprehensive, regular view in the city where it was formed.”

In conversation, Broad is clearly proud of the fact that he has met many of these artists, visited their studios, and even befriended them. When Koons was in financial straits in the 1990s, undergoing a bitter divorce from and custody battle with former Italian porn star and politician Cicciolina, Broad advanced him a hefty sum in anticipation of the sculpture Rabbit.

Broad’s The Art of Being Unreasonable presents a telling image on the book jacket, where Broad, in his signature dark suit, stands beside Koons’s Rabbit, a gleaming stainless steel sculpture that looks like a blown-up balloon rabbit—clearly suggesting that “being unreasonable” is linked to the processes of artists, generally viewed as mavericks who think outside the box. And yet there is also real discipline and consistency in Broad’s modus operandi, which applies to his philanthropy as well as to his collecting.

In a career of firsts and superlatives, the Broad will certainly be listed as one of Eli Broad’s crowning achievements. Yes, he admits that it has not been easy getting the project off the ground. “It’s tough doing something so complex in the city of Los Angeles,” he says with a soft smile, “but we made it.”  

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