You know you are a big deal when everyone in your field knows who you are just by hearing your first name.
Many rich people populate the international art world. But say “Eli” everywhere you go in these serpentine neighborhoods, and everyone knows you mean Eli Broad. In this regard, he was the Dear of the art world.
He could not sing, but he was particularly fond of Pop art and its descendants, amassing superlative collections of paintings, sculptures and photographs by Jasper Johns (42 works), Andy Warhol (25), Roy Lichtenstein (35), Ed Ruscha ( 45), John Baldessari (42) Cindy Sherman (127), Jeff Koons (36) and more. When he got involved in the work of an artist, he understood the importance of collecting in depth the work of the artist.
His vast wealth – estimated at the time of his death at 87 Friday to be nearly $ 7 billion – made it possible. But he could also use those funds in surprising ways.
When he dropped $ 2.47 million on “I… I’m Sorry,” a classic 1964-65 Lichtenstein comic take on a weeping art collector turned merchant Holly Solomon in 1994, he paid by credit card. The card company offered a mile-per-dollar contract underwriting air travel expenses, so Broad slashed 2.47 million free air miles with the masterpiece paint.
He donated the mileage to the California Institute of the Arts so that students could travel – a wonderful gift that, among other things, also gave him a large charitable tax deduction. The credit card company quickly changed its mileage rules.
Eli came by name of recognition for better and for worse. Having helped make Los Angeles one of the most important cities in the world for contemporary art, he was also a bull in the new porcelain shop of Los Angeles Museums.
On several occasions he has served as administrator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the UCLA Hammer Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ultimately, despite its ups and downs, institutional relations did not go well.
Like many self-proclaimed billionaires, Broad was firm in his belief that he knew best. How else would a lower middle class kid in the Bronx have become so rich?
He was instrumental in bringing the stellar collection of 80 works acquired by revolutionary Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to the New Museum of Contemporary Art as a gift purchase in 1984 – a decision that gave instant international credibility to the young institution. But the road quickly became bumpy.
One day, I was woken up at 3 a.m. by a phone call from Milan from an angry Panza, who was horrified that Broad, as chairman of the MOCA board, was considering taking off a painting by Mark. Rothko, possibly one of 11 Franz Klines and possibly a Robert Rauschenberg “combines” the sculpture to be auctioned off in New York City to raise the funds that would pay for the purchase portion of the transaction. Fundraising for the purchase was behind schedule, but rather than writing a check – which he could certainly afford – Broad thought it was a good idea to let the acquisition pay for itself.
The huge uproar when the project was made public thwarted the plan.
The arrangement was strictly rational as a trade deal, but it would have destroyed MOCA’s reputation. What important collector would engage with the museum again? Broad never quite managed to separate his business acumen from his philanthropic activity. He tried to impose his for-profit success on the non-profit museum sector, regularly wreaking havoc.
Broad was at the forefront of a new generation of problematic philanthropists, who believe that social good can itself come from the pursuit of profit, rather than traditional charity. With a focus on results, he saw the sign of an art museum’s success as related to its box office, rather than its more elusive artistic achievement. In 1972, he was co-chair of the Democrats political group for Nixon, which spoke of the dissonance that characterized his museum engagements.
Broad’s decision to open his own art museum on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles was emblematic of the man and his beliefs. He was influential in choosing directors to run the city’s museums, including former UCLA Vice Chancellor Andrea Rich at LACMA and New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA – none of whom had previous experience in museums.
As the art market continued to explode, the Deitch experience saw disturbing intersections of nonprofit and for-profit projects at the museum. Rich gave Broad cart-blanche to build a museum in a museum at LACMA, oddly named the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and paid for with the collector’s donation of at least $ 50 million.
When Rich fell ill and resigned as director, Broad was instrumental in bringing Michael Govan from the DIA Foundation of New York to the job. Once installed, however, Govan rightly backed down from Broad’s plan to run the new BCAM as a semi-independent operation. On the eve of the building’s opening, the collector picked up his art and walked.
Broad followed in the footsteps of prior art benefactors like Norton Simon and Armand Hammer. They too were unable to cede control to public institutions, creating their own museums instead. The only museum in Los Angeles that kept it at bay was the Getty, which didn’t need its money.
Ironically, despite all of her vocal support for risk-taking art and Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for new art, Broad was ultimately conservative in her collecting habits. When he started in the 1980s, he was forming two collections simultaneously: a personal one, where he spent large sums of his own money on top-notch art; the other company, where he bought work by emerging Los Angeles artists with funds from Kaufman & Broad, his home building company.
Eventually, a number of post-1960 LA artists established themselves internationally, including Chris Burden, Lari Pittman, and Robert Therrien. All are now well represented among the 2,000 pieces in the collection of the Broad Museum.
But when BCAM opened with selections from the Broad collection in 2008, 80% of the 176 works were by artists who had exhibited with just one gallery – Gagosian, generally viewed as the main commercial powerhouse. For the city’s cultural life, Broad was a die-hard populist, but there were limits to how far he would go. Tellingly, for all the grandeur of his collection – and it’s great, with extraordinary works – only Sherman ranks as an untested artist whose reputation he helped secure.
The others were defended elsewhere first, and Eli eventually embarked.