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Eli Broad: A Conversation With the L.A. Billionaire Philanthropist About His Critics and His Legacy

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Thu, Jul 12, 2012 at 7:00 AM
click to enlarge Eli Broad, the $6 billion man - PHOTO BY DAVID X PRUTTING/BFANYC/SIPA USA/NEWSCOM
  • PHOTO BY DAVID X PRUTTING/BFANYC/SIPA USA/NEWSCOM
  • Eli Broad, the $6 billion man

When

the Museum of Contemporary Art shocked the art world last month by

firing highly respected curator Paul Schimmel after 22 years on the job,

Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist and MOCA board member,

personally gave Schimmel the bad news. Broad, who founded two Fortune

500 companies before moving into philanthropy and art collecting, was a

natural choice for such a messy job: He swears he's too busy to care

whether people love him or hate him.

But the $6 billion man admits

he would like some respect for his efforts to make Los Angeles -- and

the world -- a better place. He lays out his case for that respect in his

new book, The Art of Being Unreasonable. It's a mash-up: part

autobiography, part how-to business guide, part apologia for what his

legion of critics charge is his heavy-handed, micromanaging style of

venture philanthropy in the fields of art, medical research and

education reform.

He's also known as the king of Monuments to Me:

He has made sure the Broad (pronounced like road) name is on at least 10

buildings nationwide. His ultimate self-monument is the museum, due to

open in 2014, that will house his personal art collection. It is known

simply as "the Broad." Broad, 79, has been married to his beloved wife,

Edythe, for 59 years. Together, they have given more than half a billion

dollars to L.A. institutions.

L.A. WEEKLY: Edye didn't want you to write the book. Does she still feel the same?

ELI BROAD: Edye is a very private person. But she's fine with it now.

Why do you have so many critics?

People

think I'm abrupt and too determined. But I don't have time for idle

chitchat while trying to get all this stuff done. And some people simply

don't like my style.

Do you resent all the criticism?

It

goes with the territory. If people want to criticize me because it

sells papers, that's fine. I just don't like it when it's inaccurate.

Is this book an attempt to rebut the notion you are abrasive and controlling?

I

hope it helps people understand why I am what I am. I don't like to

spend time in endless meetings talking about stuff that isn't going to

get anything done. I have meetings but they're short, prompt and to the

point.

Why do you put your name on so many buildings?

I'm

proud of what we're doing. I want my name associated with stem cell

research, with the arts and education reform. And I hope that others who

have accumulated great wealth will emulate what I'm doing.

Are you interested in buying the L.A. Times when it comes out of bankruptcy?

If others are interested, I would join the effort, but I don't want to do it alone.

Why have you made no Hollywood film investments?

I don't want to be in the film business. I'm not even sure it's a business.

You say Occupy Wall Street is right. About what?

If

you look at the last 30 years, what's happened to our middle class --

which made our country great -- is they've gone backwards. The only way

to remedy that is to dramatically change K-12 education so we end up

with a workforce for the 21st century.

You've had four careers -- accounting, home building, retirement savings and philanthropy. Which is your favorite?

Philanthropy.

It was great building two Fortune 500 companies and creating all those

jobs, but in philanthropy we're making the biggest difference in

education reform, scientific and medical research, and getting the

public more engaged in the arts.

Critics say you're a micromanager who hires experts but then fails to get out of the way. True?

I

don't think that's true! I hire experts and listen to them, but that

doesn't mean I accept carte blanche everything an expert says. I've seen

all too many buildings by great architects built and they don't serve

the purpose they were built for because they never had a strong client.

For great architecture, you need a great architect and a strong,

determined client to make certain the building ends up serving the

purpose for which it's designed.

What's the difference between charity and philanthropy?

Charity

is just writing checks and not being engaged. Philanthropy, to me, is

being engaged, not only with your resources but getting people and

yourself really involved and doing things that haven't been done before.

Do you accept the criticism that you're a "venture philanthropist," someone who demands results for their investment?

Yes.

I believe in venture philanthropy. We don't just do things that people

come to us with requests for. There are things we believe ought to

happen and we help make them happen.

How did you conquer your childhood dyslexia?

I grew out of it. It just faded away. I'm still a slow reader, but I absorb everything I read.

What four newspapers do you read every morning?

In this order: L.A. Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. I no longer get business magazines. I now get Education Week and Scientific American.

So L.A. Weekly is not part of your routine?

It is not. I admit that I get it on occasion.

You're a lifelong Democrat, but not nearly as far left liberal as your father. Why?

My

father grew up in the Depression, when it was the big bad bosses versus

the poor working people. I'm still liberal nationally but not as

liberal as those in the California Assembly or Senate.

What's the origin of your restlessness and impatience?

I

come from a lower-middle-class family and always wanted to do something

in the world. I'm an only child, so I felt the need to accomplish

things.

Regarding the Grand Avenue project, you write

that one county supervisor was making a big show of hardheaded

stewardship. Was that Mike Antonovich?

You're a good guesser.

The Grand Avenue project is currently stalled because of the recession. What are its prospects?

I think it will happen. It's just a question of when.

Frank

Gehry has been quoted as saying, "Eli is a control freak. I told him I

didn't like him. He says you'll learn to like me. " Did Gehry ever learn

to like you?

We have dinner every month or so. In fact, I might see him this evening.

What's the overall message of your book?

Don't

accept conventional wisdom, take risks, ask why not, do a lot of

research, get great people around you that are not yes people, and move

on.

It's that simple?

It's that simple.

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