Thursday night at Central Library's auditorium, Ken Brecher spoke lyrically about the time “when Grand Avenue came to life” and “contemporary artists were celebrated for what they told us” about ourselves. Brecher, the anthropologist who once had to let a Shakespeare box set float away in a flooded Amazon forest and now heads the L.A. Public Library Foundation, meant right now.
Or approximately this time next year, when the Broad museum opens on Grand Avenue, across from MOCA and down the street from Disney Hall. It will feature art from Eli and Edythe Broad's collection, most made since the 1960s by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean Michel Basquiat and so many others. There will be 200-300 works on view at a time, much of the rest stored in a second floor vault you'll be able to glimpse through glass as you ride the escalator up or take stairs down.
The museum will eventually have a subtly strange, see-through, honeycomb exoskeleton. Kevin Rice, project manager for the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, says there are places on the sidewalk outside where you can look through the wall and see all the way through to the sky above the ceiling. Though it's been mostly metal bars and beams for the past year and a half, it now has stairs, a freight elevator and most of its honeycomb skylight ceiling, enough of a form to show off.
So this past week has been an up-momentum-for-the-Broad week. Brecher was introducing a panel on which Eli and Edythe Broad appeared along with Joanne Heyler, who has directed the Broad Art Foundation since 1995 and will direct the new museum. Inge Reist, director at the Frick Collection's Center for the History of Collecting in New York, moderated. It's the first in the “Un-Private Collection” lecture series, a partnership between the Broad and Library Foundation that continues through the year.
Then, yesterday, the Broads opened up their in-progress museum to press for hard-hat tours. Eli, who turned 80 this summer, called the event together himself — no need for anyone to introduce him. He commented, as he has before, about deciding “the best place” for the museum was “Grand Avenue, the heart of Los Angeles,” while the clanging and buzzing of construction continued in the background.
Mayor Eric Garcetti took to the podium next: “For too long Los Angeles has not told its story to the world,” he said. “Today, you have expressed the soul of this city,” a soul that involves appreciation of sunlight and good architecture, it seems.
The Broads have been involved in the construction of other iconic buildings on Grand Avenue (MOCA, Disney Hall) and wanted a building that wouldn't “clash” with Frank Gehry's concert hall but “wouldn't be anonymous.” The firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro's proposal fit that bill exactly, Eli said. They won the competition for the commission with this design that's meant to play with ideas of inside and outside and that, in architect Elizabeth Diller's words, has a “matte and porous” feeling in contrast to Gehry's “shiny and smooth” hall. The exterior veil is made up of fiberglass-covered white concrete shapes, made on site, the molds still there on the museum's third floor.
“It was a mixed blessing,” said Diller yesterday, about winning the competition. “We were very nervous about getting involved with Eli — Eli has been very involved in a way I have not seen before,” though she clarified she wasn't complaining.
The way the building works now is this: Visitors enter through glass doors on Second and Grand, where the veil angles up, “like lifting the skirt a little bit,” according to project manager Rice.
The first floor includes a visitor services desk, a 15,000 square foot gallery space for special exhibitions and an opening out to an in-progress plaza. Then you can take an escalator or cylindrical elevator up to the entirely natural lit third floor where work from Broad's collection will always be on view. While doing so, you'll glimpse into the vault where work is stored. You can see into it again at two points if you come back down using the futuristic-feeling stairwell.
“We made no effort to tweak the design [of the vault] to make it better for viewers,” Rice said.
“A collection has a certain kind of structure,” said Diller, “and it's important to remember that it's a collection,” a thing accumulated by certain people, with certain aims.
Fittingly, the new event series that began with the Broads' talk on Thursday is titled “Un-Private Collection,” referring to this private collection that is becoming increasingly public. Ed Patuto, the museum's new director of audience engagement, is organizing the series, and events will purportedly focus on how the personal and political interact in work by artists in the Broad's collection. (Art historian Katy Siegel and artist Mark Bradford discuss the pre-pop work of iconic Robert Rauschenberg in November.)
Thursday night, the Broads described their transition from collecting older art — the first work they bought was a Van Gogh drawing — to contemporary. Eli mentioned, as he often does, how much more interesting it is to talk to contemporary artists than lawyers and bankers.
“You also had better choices,” added Edythe, when you collected “artists of our time.”
Eli recalled going into the basement of Metro Pictures, a New York gallery, in the 1980s and seeing the early work of Cindy Sherman, whose slippery self-portraits they've been acquiring since. “We have about 130 works by her.”
“More than anyone I think,” said Reist.
“It's a lot of fun,” replied Eli.
And Heyler explained the benefits of having the resources of a private foundation. “We're able to have the ambitions and goal of public exposure for the collection. . . while we can move very nimbly and quickly in the market,” she said. The museum won't have a membership package or a development department.
“It will be well-endowed,” said Eli more than once, better-endowed than any L.A. museum other than the Getty, and when Edythe mentioned MOCA members will probably get free admission, the audience spontaneously applauded — had they announced, as they did Tuesday, that all admission would be free, the reaction may have been uproarious. Such good will is typical of almost-always-polite Library Foundation events.
Still, it contrasts the skepticism that often characterizes discussions of the Broad among artists, critics and other culture-invested, incredulous types. Sometimes, this skepticism comes off as stereotypical resentment: the have-nots harping about the haves.
But for the most part, these skeptics, at least not all of them, don't resent the Broads for bringing “Grand Avenue to life” with a new museum. It's that they get preoccupied with the ways money, power and influence shape which culture gets seen and celebrated.
Concerns in this vein stayed mostly below the surface Thursday evening, though there were some beautiful moments during the Q & A in which someone tried, very politely, to bring up something controversial.
The best one was this: After saying “it's just a privilege to see such extraordinary people,” a woman in the second row mentioned she'd heard Vladimir Putin made the most expensive painting ever sold in Russia. Then she referenced the debate the exhibition of actor-artist Dennis Hopper at MOCA stirred up three years ago. “Is this really an artist or is this a celebrity who has become an artist, and therefore the work has value? What are your thoughts on the interrelation between celebrity and art?”
“We spent time in Russia a number of years ago,” Eli said. “We visited artist's studios in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and we were impressed by some of these people who were not exactly popular with the regime. . . We also visited artists in Cuba at one time and elsewhere. So it's all interesting.”
“We don't own anything by Putin,” Edythe said with a perfect straight face.
See the list of upcoming programs on The Broad's website.
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