I generally don’t feel well in a museum until I’ve drifted through its highly surveilled architectonic labyrinth and followed the exit sign back outside. Indeed, the nicest part of my visit to the Broad, Los Angeles’ latest attempt at a world-class modernist treasure hoard, was the time I spent out on the museum’s spacious lawn, where I could sip a $5 iced coffee through a green straw, compulsively checking and rechecking my iPhone and reviewing the many selfies I’d just shot inside the museum in front of legendary paintings by Andy, Jasper, Bobbie, Cy, Roy, Ellsworth, and Ed. (At the Broad, photography is permitted—dare I say even encouraged.) The backdrop of iconic 1960s paintings looked great, and the art from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and onward, a little less so. But the real question: How did I look? I could have sworn I was skinnier on my way in there.
The brand-new museum, with its “veil-and-vault” concept designed by the starchitecture firm Diller Scoffidio & Renfro, comes across as part Breuer and part Beinecke, with a splash of Bat Cave. It also has a reputation for long lines. When I arrived, I have to admit, I cut the damn line, flashed my press pass to an accommodating millennial who checked me in on his portable device (there’s no admission desk). I felt like I was entering an Apple Store for an appointment at the Genius Bar.
In the late 1990s, while raising money for Frank Gehry’s eye-catching Walt Disney Concert Hall, Eli Broad—the American entrepreneur and philanthropist and collector of contemporary art—lamented that it would take considerably more developer mojo to transform that bleak section of L.A. into an active art scene. (L.A. does have a way of remaining a big sprawling shantytown, home to tumbleweeds and disoriented coyotes who’ve wandered down from Mulholland Drive in the middle of the afternoon.) Determined to “build it” so that “they”—meaning “we”—“will come,” Broad (rhymes with “road”) formed a committee with significant cultural clout and lobbied to transform the vacant patch of prime real estate across from another art museum into … something. His pitch was for a sort of L.A. Champs-Élysées, circa 1910. “You have to have a vibrant center downtown,” Broad has said, “where all people come, where they’re proud of the city, where if you ask them where they’re from they say, ‘Los Angeles.’ ”
In 2008, when the market corrected and land prices dipped for a brief second, Broad made a deal with the mayor, and a large section of Grand Avenue became his. And now, eight years later, here I am, reclining in the shade of a grove of 100-year-old transplanted Barouni olive trees. How on earth, I thought, did Broad get these trees? Their acquisition seems far more mysterious than how he got his hands on Jasper Johns’ 1967 “Flag.” The trees are popular, I learned on Google, for their resistance to drought and adaptability when transplanted. The Broad is also decked out with its own electric-car-charging stations, and for the environmentalist, a state-of-the-art rooftop drainage/irrigation system that reroutes runoff rainwater to the lawn.
It’s simple how Eli Broad operates. It’s literally encoded in his name. If you change the order of the letters “B-r-o-a-d,” you get the word “b-o-a-r-d,” and Eli Broad is nothing if he isn’t chairman of the board. He sits, or has sat, on the boards of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); he rescues boards in financial crisis by donating tens of millions of dollars (in big business, this is known as a “hostile takeover”); he gets the right people onto the board, the wrong people off the board, on behalf of all those who are “on board.” As his bro, the art dealer Larry Gagosian, says: “He rubs people the wrong way. He’s difficult. But so what? He gets the job done.”
Larry, in not so many words, makes Broad come off as a tough. But again, so what? From his days as an upstart workaholic accountant in Detroit to running two Fortune 500 companies (which he sold to become one of the world’s wealthiest men), Broad has consistently gotten the job done. First he formed the home-building company KB Home, helping to turn America into a coast-to-coast suburb populated by families like The Simpsons, and he then founded the retirement-insurance company SunAmerica, providing psychological relief and security to people (like Homer Simpson) who had maxed out three credit cards to purchase a brand new KB Home. (I’m oversimplifying a bit, but you get the point.)
There is (and was) a downside to upselling wide-eyed consumers a product that they never could afford. But Broad was able to retire from KB Home and sell SunAmerica to too-big-to-fail global insurer AIG before having to take responsibility for any of the unfortunate negative repercussions of his progressive, lucrative financial innovations.
Perhaps a little bit of Jewish guilt drove Broad to the art of “venture philanthropy”—that is, the art of giving back. And yet, for all the generosity it entails, being on the receiving end of a large donation from Broad isn’t necessarily a blessing. If nothing else, it means stepping aside for Mr. Broad. Or allowing for a team of Broad-ified micromanagers to come in and set up shop. In the case of art-museum philanthropy, it meant agreeing to be pestered and perhaps also bullied by a man with the obvious ulterior motive of securing a permanent high-profile place to park his fairly lopsided art collection. (This can become problematic for a cultural institution that requires constant pruning and editing in order to maintain the historical canon.)
As skilled as Broad is at turning boardroom talk into boardroom action, getting his way remains a matter of nuance. And Broad uses more than money to get the job done; he uses forceful and effective communication skills and a great deal of heartfelt conviction. He has a gentle demeanor (at least when talking to Charlie Rose) and he comes across as totally earnest, even while slaying all competitors. He speaks at a low-enough octave and slow-enough pace to convince most any listener that he has absolutely nothing to hide. Stylewise, you might say he is a finagler. (So many art collectors are, for they operate right on the edge of legality in unregulated international art deals that, when done correctly, are kept under the table and off the books and can often serve as a form of legal, low-profile tax evasion. But that’s another subject entirely.) Let’s just say that Broad plays by the rules, and shares the wealth. Any man who can march in and buy Warhol’s silver and black 1963 “Single Elvis” (in which the King has his gun drawn) knows how to collect some friggin’ art.
But Broad is not so humble. His walk down the red carpet of philanthropy has repeatedly put him in the spotlight. He’s tried to put his name literally in big letters on the side of various art museums. At LACMA, visitors must pass directly by a somewhat distracting color portrait of Eli and his wife, Edythe, when entering a giant gallery housing a major Richard Serra rusted-steel sculpture known as “Band” (2006). Even though it is their sculpture, technically, and their museum (their building on LACMA’s campus), one feels like a guest at their home, being greeted by the hosts. In a J-way, it’s almost sweet!
Broad first appeared on the scene when he became the founding chairman of MOCA, where he was very active from 1979 to 1984, especially in brokering an $11 million purchase of the world-famous Panza collection, which was loaded with 80 top-notch Ab-Ex paintings and pop art, including numerous drop-dead Rothkos (imagine the value of even one of those today). In 2008, Broad helped MOCA stabilize its budget with a $30 million donation before going over to MOCA’s rival, LACMA, and donating $60 million. He also offered to donate (and then loan) his personal art collection, and became involved in a total Rem Koolhaas multibuilding overhaul of LACMA’s campus, which sadly petered out during the recession. The Broad-sponsored takeover did result in a pretty unimaginative Renzo Piano art barn that Broad was intending to stuff full of his own private collection until his recruit, current LACMA Director Michael Govan, put a stop to the plan.
When Broad came back to MOCA’s aid, he arrived with a big old check and a diagnosis, which, in so many words, advised the museum to dumb it down. Perhaps he wanted to see more wall-time devoted to the Panza paintings he had been so instrumental in securing before he jumped ship instead of the brainy, scholarly shows that, despite their respectability (due to the great work of the museum’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel, and other brilliant curators like Ann Goldstein), had caused a considerable decline in museum attendance.
“Paul wanted to run a Kunsthalle,” Broad once said, “where you just have exhibitions. … He wanted to do things curators want to do, publish catalogs, and so on.” So Broad helped to clear out the director’s job and then persuaded the museum to make an extravagantly controversial hire: Jeffrey Deitch, whose anti-intellectual blockbuster exhibits playing themselves off as overdue, racially diverse programming may have let some fresh air blow through the crusty institutional walls but didn’t exactly boost morale among the museum’s PhDs. Broad and Deitch, nevertheless, stuck to their guns, continuing to push for longer lines of underinformed artgoers coming out to be wowed by virtually anything. It was Jeffrey Deitch who helped Broad acquire a studio full of undervalued works by Jeff Koons, most significantly a suspicious-looking sculpture resembling an inflated bunny rabbit pool toy you might win at a boardwalk amusement park at the Jersey Shore.
Broad traces his use of the word “unreasonable” (it is perhaps his favorite word) to a quote by George Bernard Shaw. “The reasonable man,” Shaw once said, “adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Shaw, who truly was an unreasonable man, and a socialist, also said: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” Perhaps the second of Shaw’s quotes is more applicable to Broad than the first. Without his art collection, the crude facts of Broad’s business practices and accumulation of wealth would seem unbearable. In other words, we’d be less mesmerized by Koons at the Broad and get snagged on the collapse of the subprime-mortgage industry.
If the steady complaints of KB homeowners in recent years are true, the homes Broad’s company built are lemons, plagued by defective construction, lack of follow-through with repairs, untrained subcontractors, and the use of crappy materials. Broad is long gone from KB Home, and surely not to be blamed for the problems currently facing the company.
People—the populace—are flocking to the Broad. But why? Well, for starters, it’s free. “We expect to see more than 300,000 in the first year,” the museum’s founder said. “Some people are projecting more. What we know is that making admission free, based on the studies, gets you twice the attendance.” But what are people really standing in line to get? Selfies.
This fall’s favorite backdrop is a Cindy Sherman survey retrospective, Imitation of Life, filling the Broad’s first-floor galleries with 120 works drawn primarily from Broad’s own extensive holdings. Sherman’s pictures are far more empathic than solipsistic and, if anything, her images offer up a recipe on how not to make a selfie. Her selfies, in other words, are not like mine. They do not reflect an obsession for self-gratification, but a woman’s desire to literally get into another woman’s skin or to stand in another person’s proverbial shoes.
Nevertheless, the Broad never stops feeling like Selfie-dom in a picture-sharing website like Snapchat or Instagram. Regardless of the authenticity and rarity (and selectivity) of so many of the works in its collection, the Broad feels like it is being staged in someone’s laptop. The pictures and sculptures installed throughout the museum feel less like they are being experienced in the flesh and more like they are about to be swiped into oblivion with an index finger. When a man in a red jacket crossed in front of the blood-red Rauschenberg (Untitled, 1954) I was examining, I didn’t react with typical frustration. My problem was not being blocked; on the contrary, my problem was whether or not I would get the shot of the man in front of the painting.
The gimmicky, hands-on nature of the museum was most apparent between floors. When I descended one level, I came upon a crowd peering into a strange portal window. Eventually, I was able to peek over the shoulders of a herd of rubberneckers. I could see into a cavernous, artificially lit, climate-controlled storage room—the “vault.” It could have been a top-secret NASA laboratory or the underground meth lab in Breaking Bad. The facility was filled with racks of paintings—paintings seen not being seen. “Storage” was being flaunted, the showbiz of the bank.
I couldn’t concentrate on any work until I was finally scooped up by a Warhol, the 1962 painting Dance Diagram  “The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man.” It is a black-and-white silkscreen on canvas, framed under glass, and positioned like a doormat on the floor. It is a literal dance-step diagram, showing the would-be dancer where to step and pivot.
The work demanded nothing of me: none of my time or contemplation. A glance was enough. This was Warhol at his best; quick as Lenny Bruce. It was an ironic diagram teaching one “how to” breeze past a work of art.
Broad, coincidentally or not, is famous for this exact, choreographed maneuver: “People think it’s strange how briskly I move through museums,” Broad once said. “Sure, I could stand in front of each piece and stare at it for a good long time. But that’s not me.”
Broad’s attraction to the shallow surface of art is what makes Jeffrey Koons his favorite poster boy. In a 60 Minutes profile of the 2011 art market by Morley Safer, Koons shows up (like a 1950s vacuum-cleaner salesman) in coat and tie—together with Broad, the men look like a Forbes cover. Then begins a brief exercise in vapid self-congratulation. Safer asks Broad about the famous Balloon Dog (blue, 1994-2000). “What does it do to you?” he asks. “Do you get some sort of emotional kick?” Broad’s reply: “I do. It makes me smile. It makes me feel good. It makes me proud. It especially makes me proud when I see young people and others looking at the work. It introduces them to art in a way that no other work really does.”
The three men then mosey over to another colorful Koons, and Safer continues to probe all that “mystifies” him. “Michael Jackson and the chimp, is it?” asks Safer, and Koons corrects him. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles. I was trying to communicate to people that whatever you respond to … it’s perfect.”
Perfect? Koons seems to be saying that his art has no basis in his reality, only in ours. Could his art be purified of his own psyche? Koons thinks he can claim (on national television, no less) that his sculpture is perfectly in tune with whatever perfect thoughts we happen to be thinking. But the key to understanding Koons’ statement is not just in the word “perfect.” In my opinion, it is in his obnoxious insistence on the chimp’s name: “Bubbles.”
The three wise monkeys then approach Koons’ undeniable 1985 masterpiece, Three Ball 50/50 Tank (consisting of two Spalding Dr. J Silver Series basketballs and a Wilson Supershot). The iconic piece is commonly thought of as the three basketballs submerged in a fish tank, which by now we’ve all seen in pictures if not at the Broad. The tone of the interview gets solemn, as Koons tries to articulate how, banal as it may be, the work references “being in the womb a little bit, before birth and prior to any concept of death.” Gulp. Did someone switch the TV to the Existential Channel? You could hear a pin drop. But Safer knows bullshit when he hears it, apparently. He looks over to Broad and asks, “Do you totally get what he’s talking about?” Broad smiles and admits in his usual humble, harmless way, “Not to the extent that Jeff does.”
It’s a relief, in a way, that Broad doesn’t “get” Koons. If he did, imagine how much more bloated his collection would be with inflated kitsch, and how many more Tums we’d have to ingest to manage the bubbles, and the resulting art-burn.
Broad is a man who has made a far greater impact on the world than Jeff Koons ever will, by giving more people a substantial feeling of having more (a home), rather than giving fewer people the feeling of having less (an artwork imitating kitsch). The KB Home (built on a slab in the desert with no garage, to save money) was a small step for mankind. Yet it is hard to ignore the many parallels between the sort of bubbly high-’80s kitsch that Broad collects and the flat (like a can of Coke) suburbanization of America that he helped manufacture. And there was one artist on view at the Broad, Peter Halley (surprisingly not stowed away in the vault) that seemed to explain this parallel. Halley’s clearly articulated model—an essay in paint—embodies the tract house to the degree that his painting can be considered a “tract painting.” Made using rollers and masking tape and an assortment of consumer house paints, the extremely generic works have the appearance of a low-rent living room manufactured by the cheapest minimum-wage workers. Halley’s condo aesthetic also incorporates a textured paint additive called Roll-a-Tex. “When I wanted to make the geometry feel architectural,” says Halley, “I was lucky to find the Roll-a-Tex powder.”
Halley’s Home Depot-like art sticks out as a kind of blue-collar hero of Broad’s collection, as if Halley is the one artist in the room who actually took the time to learn from Las Vegas and Levittown, and Warhol, and Broad himself. Pointing out how many of the prominent 1980s New York painters were Jews, Halley once wrote in Artforum: “In my view, the artists of Jewish background specifically reacted to suburbia as a kind of diaspora from the city, which caused them to hearken back to a heroic vision of the urban Jewish intellectual—especially to the 1950s and people like Rothko and Newman—at the same time that they were reacting to suburbia.” Indeed, the notion of a reverse-diaspora (desire to be back in the center of things in the city) could be describing Eli Broad, who could not stop reacting to his own diaspora until he had created the centralized urban museum of his dreams.
This critical essay appeared in the Hanukkah issue of Tablet’s print magazine.