Eli Broad’s inverted vision

By Felix Salmon
September 20, 2012

Many years ago, Eli Broad was the very model of the modern enlightened art collector. In December 1988, he opened a 22,600-square-foot “lending library for art”, complete with soaring rhetoric:

Broad believes that the new facility is part of the solution to museums’ financial woes and a pointed example of how a collector can demonstrate social responsibility…

In the first place, he said, this center is not a museum. It’s a lending library. “We never wanted to have a building with our name on it that would compete with museums,” he said. “We loan works to museums and make them available to scholars.”

Broad explained that his foundation had already loaned art to more than 100 different museums, and that at any given point in time a good third of his collection was on loan somewhere. You don’t need to have your own museum for the public to see your art; in fact, if you do it the other way, by lending out your art to other museums, everybody wins. More of your collection can be shown at once; more of the global public can see your collection; and you get to support hundreds of great cultural institutions, rather than just your own.

The point here is that although museums lend out works too, it’s rarely a priority for them, and they never consider themselves a failure if they don’t lend out works. A foundation devoted to lending out works was a wonderful idea — and even 20 years later, when Broad decided that he would not donate art to his eponymous building at Lacma, it still seemed like it could be a good idea. As the NYT wrote at the time:

Whether this turns out to have been a good decision will ultimately depend on the character of the foundation. If they are stored and conserved properly, if scholars have ready access to them and if they’re made available for lending to museums, then nothing will be lost.

In offering to be a collaborator, not just a donor, he may be serving the public interest as well as his own.

I completely bought into this idea. In fact, in a column I wrote in April 2008, I suggested taking it one step further:

Broad’s new foundation will exist with the stated purpose of truly maximizing the public exposure that its art receives. That’s a proposition which could be very attractive to collectors wondering what to do with their legacy: they provide the art, and Broad will take care of all the paperwork and relationship management.

So if you’re buttering up a gallerist, maybe the best thing to do is no longer to hint that you’re thinking of donating your collection to a museum: better that you hint that you’re thinking of donating your collection to Eli Broad.

A year or so after writing that column, I met Broad for the first time, and I took the opportunity to ask him whether the Broad Foundation might be interested in accepting donations of art from other collectors who bought into its mission. He gave me one of those that’s-the-stupidest-question-I’ve-ever-heard-in-my-life looks, and basically ended the interview then and there.

With hindsight, it’s easy to know why: he’d already begun to sour on his own lending-library idea, and in truth the reason that he didn’t donate his collection to Lacma had nothing to do with the ideals of lending it out to other museums too. Instead, he was already planning what has now become what he likes to call The Broad — an edifice Christopher Knight aptly describes as “a $130-million vanity museum on Grand Avenue” in Los Angeles.

Why would anybody visit The Broad, or visit more than once? Broad’s collection is valuable to museums wanting specific works, but at heart it’s basically a list of trendy-and-expensive contemporary art, much if not most of it bought from a single dealer. (You know who.)

And so Broad has done something truly cunning: he’s taken his original, wonderful lending-library idea — and then he’s turned it inside out. On top of the $130 million he’s spending to build The Broad, he’s also pledged $30 million to MOCA, across the street. And boy did that donation come with strings attached. Here’s Knight:

The problem Broad faces is this: How can an inconsistent personal art collection, based almost entirely on judgments derived from a commercial market, get a desirable veneer of public stability and critical approval? Answer: For reinforcement, call in some revered Old Masters from across the street.

An exquisite 1949 Jackson Pollock drip-painting, a couple of landmark 1950s Robert Rauschenberg “combines,” a few of Mark Rothko’s greatest abstract fields of floating color — these and more are there for the borrowing from MOCA’s widely admired collection. Their reputations are settled.

Far from being a lender, Broad looks as though he’s going to be a borrower — of some of the greatest works in MOCA’s collection. Certainly MOCA’s director, hand-picked by Broad himself, isn’t going to stop him.

This is surely the ultimate dream for any self-made billionaire art collector: not to see your own works on the walls of a great museum, but to see the great museum’s works on your own walls.

Broad is still, in name, committed to the lending function of the Broad Foundation, but you don’t need a shiny Diller Scofidio edifice on Grand Avenue just to be a warehouse which lends out art. The problem with the lending library was that it didn’t glorify Eli Broad enough: it was too selfless to truly encompass the magnitude of Broad’s massive ego. And so The Broad was born, a permanent home for all that shiny Koons and Warhol. And a temporary home, it seems, for even greater works which can be borrowed from across the street.

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