Eli Broad, who died a week ago in Los Angeles at 87, knew full well that his abrasive, no-nonsense approach towards achieving success—both in his businesses and in transforming his adopted city’s cultural life—rubbed people the wrong way. He not only took perverse pride in that; he wrote a book on it: “When you really believe that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it’s hard to zigzag for the sort of small talk or conventional gestures that soothe egos….I’ve always thought that was a waste of time,” he huffed in his 2012 memoir, The Art of Being Unreasonable.
His importance to life in his adopted city is demonstrated by the LA Times‘ devotion of some 10 articles and opinion pieces to his passing, some of which reflect his self-defeating ability to irritate or alienate those who have covered him.
“Everything I’ve done in my life,” he told me at the beginning of our wide-ranging conversation in his office, “has really been to challenge the status quo—not to be satisfied with the way things are, but to try to improve them.” I was interviewing him while covering for the Wall Street Journal the 2008 opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). (My review of that was mixed, as were my related blog posts.)
I “get” Eli, perhaps because (as I learned from his book) we had a lot in common: Like him, I am descended from Eastern European Jewish immigrants (his parents; my grandparents) who managed to get to the U.S. before the Holocaust would have engulfed them. His father (and my grandfather) started life here as a painter—not an artist, but a house-painter, who lived and worked in the Bronx (where Eli and I were both born). Like him, I was an only child, with all that implies about learning to enjoy solitude and not learning to compromise with siblings. (We part company, however, when it comes to business prowess.)
I have customarily brought to important interviews a couple of index cards scrawled with a carefully composed list of questions. But Eli came to our meeting with his own agenda: It literally took me 11 minutes to get a word in edgewise, as I discovered this week when I revisited my 58-minute-long digital recording of our amicable encounter, which took place in February 2008. That said, when I asked hard questions, he didn’t duck them.
“I don’t know what you know about me,” he commenced, whereupon he launched into a detailed monologue about his professional and cultural track records (some of which I knew, some not). When I managed to interject some questions, he would often interrupt and begin answering, once he decided he had gotten the gist of what I was after.
So let me interrupt myself and go back to our actual conversation, at the end of which he told me he had to leave for an appointment “to see Prince Andrew(?!?) at the Mayor’s residence.”
Below are some key excerpts (restructured for coherence):
BROAD: Let’s talk about art. Art’s been very good to me: It’s been very broadening, educational, made a better person out of me. In all our corporate offices, we had art programs, so I believe that art serves an important purpose of stimulating creative activity, having people feel good.
Everything I’ve done in philanthropy has been different from the traditional model. We have not done what others have done in the past, which is write checks and not hold anyone accountable.
The more I thought about things, the more I became somewhat upset, frankly, about the attitude of certain museum directors and critics. They want to accumulate a lot of art and have no problem with storing 85%, 90%, 95% of it, and not showing it to the public and not being aggressive in lending that art to other institutions whether it’s small museums or university galleries and the like.
Why did I give money to build BCAM? It was very simple. If the building wasn’t there, they didn’t have room to show the art—our art or other art. I want them to have works from other collectors. I’ve always said that. I don’t want it to be 100% of our work. I hope that they get lots of other works.
ROSENBAUM: If you wanted to have lots of other works, wouldn’t it have been better not to have your name on that building?
BROAD: I don’t know. When I gave the money, I had an agreement that they weren’t to name any galleries. I let them name galleries for other collectors, as you saw.
ROSENBAUM: Why did you not want them to name galleries?
BROAD: Well, I paid for the whole building! Normally the lead donor gets the naming rights for 20-30-40 or 50%. I paid for the whole thing. But then, I wanted to be helpful. I said, “Okay. If you can get prominent collectors that want to name galleries and give you $10 million a gallery, go ahead [as happened with the Nathanson gallery].
In everything I’ve done, there are all these people who want to maintain the status quo. They’re very uncomfortable with change. I see this same discomfort in major parts of the artworld.
At the time of our conversation, he said had no plan to create his own museum, as later happened with The Broad. Here’s our 2008 interchange about single-collector museums:
ROSENBAUM: You don’t want your own museum.
ME: Tell me why you rejected that.
BROAD: I believe in public institutions. I went to public schools. I went to land-grant university, I founded a museum of contemporary art. But there are days, I must tell you, when I say, “What do I need all this criticism for?”
I suppose that he ultimately decided the only way to get things done the way he wanted them done was to do them himself, at his own institution.
So what’s the anticipated future of The Broad without THE Broad? In response to my query, Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director and Eli’s longtime art advisor, told me this:
After the long COVID-related closure, we will reopen May 26th (as was announced in mid April), and going forward we will continue to operate normally, mounting exhibitions, presenting programming and welcoming visitors.
Among all the postmortem critical appraisals of Broad’s art-related accomplishments, the one that most surprised me was Jori Finkel‘s eyebrow-raising putdown in The Art Newspaper. Among other potshots, she declared that he was, “until his death on 30 April, Los Angeles’s most prominent arts patron without exhibiting any particular affinity for or sensitivity to visual art (emphasis added).”
Huh? Although he may not have been verbally effusive in discussing the fine points of art appreciation, accusing him have having no “affinity for or sensitivity to art” was demonstrably untrue, as attested to by the artists and dealers who knew him better than pesky journalists. Finkel’s most questionable assertion was that Broad “clearly appreciated contemporary art as a financial investment (emphasis added).”
During my conversation with him, he had mentioned that “our collecting is very different than Charles Saatchi‘s.”
“Well, you don’t buy-and-sell,” I replied.
“We don’t sell,” he agreed.
Similarly, Heyler asserted to me that she “never had a single conversation with Eli in over 25 years of helping guide over 1,000 works into the Broad collection where he said about a work we were thinking of acquiring: ‘What do you think this will be worth in “x” years?’ He didn’t speculate in art.”
That said, he did successfully bet on art’s potential to enrich people’s lives and enhance their communities. From that, everyone profited.
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