No good deed goes unpunished.
That adage seems sadly apt when it comes to collector/philanthropist Eli Broad, whose eponymous downtown Los Angeles museum, opening Sept. 20, has already sustained potshots from leading art critics, giving new symbolic meaning to the signature dent in its Diller Scofidio + Refro-designed façade:
Beginning with a display of some 250 selections from his 2,000-work collection, The Broad is intended to realize Eli’s desire (as he expressed it to me in a 2008 interview) to have his collection “shown to the biggest possible audience,” both through its own exhibitions and by operating as “a lending program to art museums and galleries worldwide” (in the words of its mission statement).
Whether the founding of this institution is as much a function of egotism as altruism is beside the point. After reading three jump-the-gun reviews by leading art critics, I couldn’t help but feel that their eagerly awaited appraisals were as much referendums on Broad’s character as assessments of his accomplishment.
Here are the relevant excerpts [emphasis added]:
—Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post: “Ask around, and no one seems to like him [!?!], though many call him effective and all agree he is the city’s supremely influential cultural leader, a Tamburlaine of contemporary art. They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.
—Christopher Knight in the LA Times: “The show stresses art from New York and Europe, where art’s primary trading floors are located, but not Los Angeles, where the collection was assembled….Markets always distinguish between what’s salable and what’s not, but they can’t calculate quality.”
—Holland Cotter in the NY Times: “The Broad feel[s] ordinary, old-school, predictable. A tight, unadventurous building design doesn’t help. The exterior, with its sheets of perforated, biomorphic white cladding—the color and texture of gefilte fish—is eye-filling but unmagical.”
Never in the annals of architecture criticism has a building been likened to gefilte fish. (At least it’s not chopped liver!) I’m not sure whether the self-styled Unreasonable Eli feels blindsided by all this negativity towards his magnanimity, or has by now grown used to it.
His mission strikes a responsive chord with me: I have long been an advocate of systematized collection-sharing by object-rich museums whose storerooms are full of objects that other institutions would be delighted to display. He has also generously deployed his vast wealth to further educational reform and scientific advances (notably stem-cell research).
The early critics’ chief museum-related gripe seems to be that Broad’s collection focuses too strongly on blue-chip market favorites. But this ignores the fact that Eli and his wife, Edythe, bought many of these artists early on, before they became auction stars. What’s more, the roster of works in their collection is more eclectic than reflected in the inaugural hang, which understandably emphasizes greatest hits.
Critics (including me) who visited the Broad Foundation’s private art facility in Santa Monica, at the time of the 2008 opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, were struck by the greater adventurousness of what we saw in the scruffy smaller facility than at the Renzo Piano-designed BCAM.
I haven’t myself eyeballed The Broad’s inaugural installation and I won’t be there for its major press preview tomorrow. (Another assignment intervenes.) But a lot of what the first-look critics have described struck me as very familiar. As LA Times art critic Christopher Knight observed, “Two large Broad exhibitions—in 2001 and 2008—were held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [where I saw the latter], so this opening has a lot of déjà vu.”
At the end of his review, Cotter suggests that The Broad enter into a “collaboration with an institution that has a stake in exploring the same history, meaning, of course, the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street. The two could share, to their mutual benefit, space, expertise and personnel.”
Broad was founding chairman of MOCA and famously offered it a $30-million bailout in 2008, when its financial survival was at stake. Some believe that the synergy with The Broad will benefit the resurgent MOCA. Others think that The Broad’s free-admission policy could undercut attendance at its fee-charging neighbor.
Regarding MOCA’s future relationship with The Broad, Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s celebrated former chief curator (whose departure in 2012 is thought to have been related to differences with its now departed director, Jeffrey Deitch, and possibly with Broad), told me this when I caught up with him last week at the press preview for his theatrically installed, visually alluring Mike Kelley show in New York at Hauser & Wirth (the mega-gallery for which Schimmel is now a Los Angeles-based partner):
I’m forever hopeful that some day the Broad Foundation will ask MOCA to operate its collection. It would never happen the other way, but this way it could happen. I do think it [The Broad’s proximity] is great for MOCA, in that MOCA had suffered for years, always looking into living here and moving there. With The Broad being downtown and across the street, it’s settled; it’s done. And it’s a good thing!