in Opinion | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Give and Take

Eli Broad, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the perils of philanthropy

in Opinion | 01 APR 08

Broad Contemporary Art Museum, 2008

You could have seen it coming. Right there at the altar – one designed to his own specifications and expensively paid for in order that his name be on it for the museum weddings of other less imperious (but potentially richer and more generous) Maecenases – the often engaged but never married patron Eli Broad (shall we call him the George Hamilton of the art world?) decided to renegotiate his prenuptial agreement. Actually, no such agreement existed, and when it came to the crunch, no negotiations were involved. Rather, moments before the ceremony Broad simply declared that what everyone had hoped but insiders had dared not expect – a common property union in which the newly, grandly reconfigured Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) would share possession of his much touted collection of mainstream contemporary art – was not to be. Instead, Broad explained, it would remain under the control of his foundation.

For anyone unfamiliar with Broad’s reputation for refusing to delegate authority or respect arm’s-length arrangements in the domain of philanthropy, this simply means his control. The rationale? According to him, the new plan would mean that the collection could be used by more institutions, with the campus museum of his alma mater, the Michigan State University, apparently being one of them. (All irony aside, as a former Midwesterner I can only cheer Broad’s democratic recognition that there is a public for Cindy Sherman and Jasper Johns in the ‘flyover zone’ – but then, so far at least, he hasn’t given them anything either.) More important from his vantage point, aside from the virtually infinite number of museum courtships this ‘deal’ promised, it guaranteed that the gems he had amassed would never languish in the shadows of LACMA’s storage when not on display, so numerous were they that not all could be on view at one time after the opening celebrations and so precious every one of them that none could be curatorially relegated to a lesser status than that of self-evident masterpiece for the ages.

Ah, vanity. Ah, the vanity museum. Ah, the dangers of not taking a good lawyer along when a tycoon with ‘commitment issues’ proposes to tie the knot. Since, presumably with Broad’s knowledge, a pass was once made at me to become the in-house curator of the looming benefaction-that-isn’t, I feel LACMA’s pain. It would appear that Michael Govan, the savvy former Dia director Broad finally convinced to take this on, and LACMA’s curatorial staff have been snookered. And, since LACMA is, in the main, still a taxpayer-supported municipal entity, so has the public. Damage-control press releases and interviews cannot paper this over, any more than a medical diagnosis of false pregnancy can conceal humiliation when the groom-and-father-to-be backs away into bachelorhood again.

Soon enough all of this will become farcical folklore in the annals of what is shaping up to be the Gaudy Age of overbuilt museums and under-maintained museum programmes. Garnished by high/low social comedy recounted in tabloid stories of parties a gogo, this emerging era of pretension and parsimony is guaranteed to make even the most trusting art lover doubt the seriousness of such institutions and of the people who work in them, even as the best directors and curators struggle to keep everyone involved on course, especially lone wolf benefactors. However, the long-term cost will be steep, and it is not the self-promoting ringmasters of this cultural circus who will pay it. (Never forget that for a man of Broad’s billions, the 60 million he gave for the construction of the pavilion that now bears his name, but which only temporarily and conditionally houses his art, is small potatoes.) It is the general public who will suffer for his bait-and-switch manoeuvres and not just financially.

In my next column I will address the functional illogic of Broad’s scheme to rotate his holdings in and out of museums, and the magnitude of his misunderstanding of what a public collection really is. For now I’ll just underscore the dent he has already put in the freshly reconfigured image of LACMA and in its ability to attract more forthcoming donors: that is to say, those who actually part with their art, such as Janice and Henri Lazarof, who with relatively little fanfare gave LACMA their modern masters just months before Broad (to the sound of trumpets) left the glass half empty. If contemporary barons of industry and finance are in competition with their Gilded Age antecedents, then Broad’s gambit is a recipe for failure. Imagine that Henry Clay Frick had announced that he was going plant a French-style mega-mansion on Fifth Avenue in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art nominally as its new wing, and that there he would show his precious pictures – when he wanted to. Looking for Bellini or Holbein or Goya? Call the museum hotline and ask where they are.

Robert Storr