Will the Broad Museum Come With Strings Attached?

The Broad Museum opens this week on Grand Avenue downtown.
The Broad Museum opens this week on Grand Avenue downtown.
Photo by Iwan Baan

The design for the ambitious Broad Museum on Grand Avenue, officially opening this weekend, has been referred to since its planning stages as "the veil and the vault." The "veil" is the building's honeycomblike exoskeleton of angled, oval windows, initially meant to be much more ethereal and transparent-looking than it actually is. Eli Broad, the 82-year-old billionaire art collector behind the museum, is suing the engineering subcontractor that failed to give his building, designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the "quality" that was intended. "The vault" refers to the storage facility for the art that Broad and his wife, Edye, have collected over the past 40 years. Through a window in the main stairwell, visitors will be able to peer down into the vault. This means everyone gets a glimpse behind the scenes – and for free, since the museum will charge no admission.

It's a little strange – and no doubt intentional – that a $140 million museum paid for by an extremely wealthy businessman (who for years has attached strings to his donations to schools and museums) would position itself as the most transparent cultural institution on a street full of them. But will the Broad in fact turn out to be transparent – transparent in its mission, its motives and its relations with the community?

The answer involves a complicated web of factors: Broad's money and where it came from, his controversial involvement in the development of Grand Avenue (which includes the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, or MOCA, and Walt Disney Concert Hall) and his influence both outside the art world and in it.

Eli Broad, who according to Forbes is the 185th richest person in the world, initially made his money by building tract homes, and then made more by founding the life insurance company SunAmerica, which eventually was acquired by AIG. Broad stepped away from AIG in 2000, before the financial crisis of 2008, when the government bailed out AIG – which then gave its traders massive bonuses.

By that point, Broad was involved in a different bailout: a $30 million gift to the financially faltering MOCA, which involved a set of terms for fundraising and exhibition programming that MOCA ultimately was unable to meet.

Broad also has offered a bailout of sorts to the public school system. He's made numerous contributions over the years to the charter-school movement in L.A., and in 2002 he founded the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trained school administrators who later were criticized for "corporatizing" the public school system by closing rather than rehabilitating underperforming schools.

Local coverage of Broad's contributions to L.A.'s cultural institutions – which exceed $800 million and include $60 million to LACMA, for a building with his name on it – rarely goes into detail about his past business associations, his power plays or his education agenda. He's usually simply referred to as a "philanthropist and entrepreneur."

Critic Rhonda Lieberman, who wrote a critique of the billionaire art museum trend for The Baffler last year, says via email that when it comes to art-world philanthropy, "It is more important than ever to connect the dots, to ask where that money comes from. What agendas does it shape?"

The Broads began collecting art not long after they arrived in Los Angeles in 1963, when Eli Broad's first company, KB Homes, was 6 years old. The Broads didn't become prominently involved in the city's cultural life until the late 1970s and early '80s, when a group of local artists and a few collectors decided to start a museum, MOCA. Eli and Edye Broad were founding members of its board. They also caused some internal turmoil, according to the few people willing to talk about MOCA's inner workings.

Robert Irwin, one of MOCA's founding artists, has told interviewers that he left Los Angeles because of the frustrating control Broad exerted over the museum. Contractor and arts supporter Fred Nicholas, who chaired MOCA's board for a few years, says of Broad, "He's not the easiest man in the world to get along with."

MOCA, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, was the first architectural gem on Grand Avenue, and plans for Disney Hall began the year after it opened. Nicholas initially chaired the concert hall committee, which chose Frank Gehry as its architect. Broad later stepped in as a major donor, giving $5 million and raising $200 million – plus more. Because of his prominence and close relationship with then-mayor Richard Riordan, Broad often is credited with making the project happen, though other local figures – including Nicholas – were prominently involved.

Another of the notable buildings in the Grand Avenue collection, located at the corner of Grand and Cesar Chavez, is the Grand Arts High School. Broad donated about $1.5 million toward construction of the $232 million building and helped raise money for the school. He also approved the building's architects and has been vocal about the way it operates – including voicing his support for abolishing LAUSD's control of the school.

"L.A. has an extraordinarily weak business community," says urban design critic Joel Kotkin, who's been writing about Grand Avenue for the past decade. "Everything is kind of done as a deal – so a person like Eli can have a lot of influence."

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Broad has frequently spoken of making Grand Avenue the Champs-Élysées, or at least the cultural center, of Los Angeles, which troubles Richard Koshalek, who became MOCA's director in 1980 and chaired the Disney Hall architect search committee.

"Calling it Champs-Élysées is not the right thing," Koshalek says. "Los Angeles is different, it has a different character."

(In an interview published last week in The New York Times, Broad said: "At one point I misspoke and said that Grand Avenue was going to be the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles, which may have been an exaggeration.")

Urban design consultant and USC professor Robert S. Harris, who formerly chaired the downtown strategic planning committee, says calling Grand Avenue a cultural center is "not going to cut it."

"It's one kind of center among others," he says. The plans that Harris and Koshalek have supported since the 1980s involve re-envisioning the avenue itself, so that it connects to other parts of downtown and isn't just a series of cultural monuments plopped down on an unwieldy, multi-land road.

The Broad won't be the first influential cultural institution born of a controversial magnate. The Getty Center was founded by an oil maven who let kidnappers cut off his grandson's ear because he found their ransom unreasonably high. In 2012, when the Getty funded Pacific Standard Time, an initiative to celebrate SoCal art history, artists Richard Newton and Corazon del Sol made a shrine to the amputated ear of J. Paul Getty's grandson and drove it around the city in a U-Haul. Both were doing other PST-backed projects, but they wanted to emphasize that arts funding isn't always untroubled money.

It's too early to know what the Broad Museum will contribute to L.A. cultural life, and its contribution will be shaped by the ways in which other institutions and cultural figures engage with it.

"One more museum only makes the city more sophisticated," says Philippe Vergne, who became MOCA's director in 2014. "It's a remarkably memorable building," he says of the Broad, which is across the street from MOCA and therefore could serve to increase visitors to that museum. Vergne jokes: "If we don't build a walkway [from the Broad to MOCA], we'll install a network of zip lines."

To coincide with the opening of the Broad Museum, MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth reinstalled the permanent collection, emphasizing its breadth. A quirky painting by oft-overlooked Lee Lozano hangs next to pithy, pop-era work by Roy Lichtenstein. "MOCA's collection is built out of artists who gave and layered by everyone who's been involved with the museum over the years," Vergne says.

In that way, MOCA's collection contrasts with the Broad Museum's, which reflects the taste of a couple who were able to acquire work by artists such as Warhol, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman.

Says Vergne: "Diversity of what the city can offer – for me that's what matters."

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The Broad

221 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, California 90012

213-232-6200

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