You know you’re 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 this curvy compound, 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 the artist’s work in depth.
His immense fortune – estimated at the time of his death at 87 on 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 interpretation of the Lichtenstein comic book from 1964 to 1965 by art collector turned crying merchant Holly Solomon in 1994, he paid by credit card. The card company was offering a mile-on-the-dollar deal to cover air travel costs, so Broad pulled off 2.47 million free airline miles with the paint masterpiece.
He donated the mileage to the California Institute of the Arts so that students could travel – a wonderful gift that, among other things, also earned him a large charitable tax deduction. The credit card company quickly changed its mileage rules.
Eli came by name recognized for better and for worse. He was instrumental in helping Los Angeles become one of the foremost cities internationally for contemporary art, he was also a bull in the newly emerging porcelain shop of LA 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. Finally, despite ups and downs, institutional relations did not go well.
Like many self-made billionaires, Broad was a firm believer that he knew the best. How else would a lower middle class kid in the Bronx have become so wealthy?
He was instrumental in bringing the stellar collection of 80 works acquired by the revolutionary Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to the new Museum of Contemporary Art as a gift purchase in 1984 – a decision that gave credibility international instant to the nascent 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” a sculpture to auction it off in New York City to raise the funds that would pay back the purchase part of the deal. Fundraising for the purchase was behind schedule, but rather than writing a check – which he could certainly afford – Broad thought it was wise to let the acquisition pay for itself.
The huge uproar when the project went public thwarted the plan.
The arrangement was strictly rational as a trade deal, but it would have ruined MOCA’s reputation. What important collector would engage with the museum again? Broad was never quite able 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 itself can come from the pursuit of profit, rather than from traditional charity. By focusing on results, he saw the sign of an art museum’s success linked 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 instrumental 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 – no d ‘between them having no previous museum experience.
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 a white cart to build a museum in a museum at LACMA, oddly named Broad Contemporary Art Museum and paid for with the collector’s gift of at least $ 50 million.
When Rich fell ill and resigned as a trustee, Broad was instrumental in bringing in Michael Govan from the DIA Foundation in New York City to fill the post. Once installed, however, Govan rightly opposed Broad’s plan to operate the new BCAM as a semi-independent operation. The day before the building opened, the collector picked up his art and walked around.
Broad followed in the footsteps of prior art benefactors like Norton Simon and Armand Hammer. They, too, have not been able to cede control to institutions of public interest, creating their own museums instead. The only museum in LA 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 LA as a burgeoning center for new art, Broad was ultimately conservative in her collecting habits. When he started in the 1980s, he was simultaneously forming two collections: one personal, where he spent large sums of money on top-notch art; the other firm, where he purchased work by emerging Los Angeles artists using 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, widely regarded 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 inexperienced artist whose reputation he has helped to secure.
The others were defended elsewhere first, and Eli eventually joined the team.