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Alas and Alack

by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Supercollector Eli Broad himself was on hand during the press preview for the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, his namesake $56-million, 50,000-square-foot addition to the sprawling Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It should have been a triumphant moment, but Broad looked like a little boy walking alone, self-conscious among the throng.

It was Broad’s playground, but few critics at the game were in sympathy with the collector’s last-minute decision to retain title to all the artworks in his vast collection, rather than donating some of them to LACMA. Broad gave $50 million towards the cost of Renzo Piano’s elegant, travertine-clad box, and took a leading hand in determining its design -- almost entirely art galleries -- but a few weeks before the gala opening, he reneged on earlier pledges to give all or some of the works in his collection to the museum.

Those closely involved in Los Angeles art-world politics had long predicted such a turn of events, despite Broad’s repeated assurances that he wouldn’t be financing the structure if he didn’t intend to fill it with his collection. Though nothing was in writing, the museum’s previous director, Andrea Rich, had agreed to call the new wing the "Broad Contemporary Art Museum," a moniker that many found preposterous, signaling a museum within a museum.

Those familiar with LACMA’s history collectively groaned at the news, remembering prior losses of art collections promised to the museum by Norton Simon, Armand Hammer, Ray Stark and countless other self-made, sore-sport honchos. (LACMA’s catalogue for its new BCAM space does not reproduce much of the art on view, but does include an extensive and timely history of the role of contemporary art in the encyclopedic museum as a whole, penned by curator Lynn Zelevansky.) Broad has couched his move in the language of corporate spin, referring to his decision to loan, rather than give, works from his personal and foundation collections to LACMA as a "new paradigm" for wealthy collectors.  

This bit of attempted gas-lighting might have convinced a few naifs but for the commitment of collectors Janice and Henry Lazarof, who all-too-recently recently donated to the museum $100-million worth of Picassos, Giacomettis and other significant works of modern art. This quiet triumph on the part of curator Stephanie Barron, who courted the collectors and kept mum about their gift for three years, cast a harsh spotlight on the unseemly decision by Broad. A couple of weeks before the opening of BCAM, the paintings and sculptures were installed with impeccable taste in the refurbished galleries of the original museum building. An immense Tony Smith sculpture, on loan, now rises within the atrium.

The New York Times reporter Ed Wyatt, who broke the story of Broad’s change of heart, told me that he was surprised that the collector did not seem to think his decision was any big deal. Contrary to rumors, Broad did not call the New York Times to leak the story. In fact, Wyatt himself later double-checked his notes, since Broad seemed so completely unaware of the effect his decision would have on the public perception of his stature as a philanthropist.

This is the rub, isn’t it? Broad, 75, has hoisted himself from modest beginnings as a Detroit accountant to a current net worth of $7 billion. Clearly, he gets great pleasure from his role as philanthropist, having been a founding trustee of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and having contributed massive support and funding to complete Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Richard Meier-designed arts building at UCLA. Undoubtedly, he views the unveiling of BCAM as a triumph -- and yet he is the one who has tarnished his own shining moment.

Frustrated by the negative reaction to his decision, he points to his donation of one of the new Richard Serra sculptures, a pair of arabesques of Corten steel that flank the main entrance of BCAM (the other is owned by Gap founder Donald Fisher). Broad seems to feel that critics are being churlish. Has he not done enough?

The good news is that Piano has bridged the space between BCAM and LACMA’s original William Pereira-designed facility with an open, airy pavilion called the "BP Grand Entrance," a pavilion named for donor British Petroleum and bearing solar panels on its roof. The panels power the hundreds of old street lamps, refurbished by Chris Burden and arranged like a forest of light beside the new museum, among a garden of towering palm trees arranged by Robert Irwin.

A bright red steel staircase on the BCAM exterior leads up to an open-air platform with lovely views of the hills, including the Hollywood sign. Vast glass doors open onto the third floor of BCAM, where light streams through louvers atop a slightly vaulted ceiling to illuminate an extensive selection of works by Jeff Koons. It could be confused with a retrospective: metal sculptures of brightly colored pool toys attached to chain link fences, Cinerama-sized paintings, the enormous sculpture of a turquoise balloon poodle, Michael Jackson with his monkey, and the giant red broken egg that was reproduced as a party favor for the BCAM opening gala. The effect could be dire, if not for terrific mural-length works at either end of the space by John Baldessari and Andy Warhol.  

Sadly, the rest of the works by Baldessari -- and Broad has early text paintings as well as the breakthrough shaped photographic pieces of the early ‘80s -- are in a narrow, improvised gallery that separates them from the cacophonous Koons. It would seem an insult but for the fact that Andy Warhol gets the same treatment: disaster paintings, Jackies, Elvis, Brillo boxes, all stuck in a dimly lit space that seems slightly clandestine.  

The tough paintings of industrial buildings by Ed Ruscha, shown in the U.S. pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale, share a gallery with Koons’ chrome-plated train. The space acts as a broad pass-through to a second, vast light-filled space divided into galleries dedicated to vintage Ruscha, as well as Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Broad doesn’t own all of these works; several of the Rauschenbergs are on loan from the Sonnabend Collection.

Many of these works are textbook classics, and anyone would be sad to think that they are not going to remain where they are as part of the museum’s permanent holdings. Broad has collected artists in depth, and that is a considerable strength of his collection. Beautifully hung by director Michael Govan and curator Lynn Zelevansky with Broad’s personal curator Joanne Heyler, these galleries are inspiring in themselves yet could tell equally strong stories if integrated with other works in LACMA’s permanent collection.

A freight elevator with glass doors is nestled within a commissioned red, white and black photo and text installation by Barbara Kruger. On the second floor, the galleries seem dim compared to the top floor, yet this dimness serves the fragile butterfly collages of Damien Hirst, which are accompanied by a glass room containing an automaton lab assistant examining insects through a microscope and titled The Collector. The surrealist impulse, so strong in Hirst’s oeuvre, vibrates at a fresh intensity in his pseudo-scientific works -- the medicine chests, a lamb in formaldehyde and a collection of animal skeletons.

Cindy Sherman’s photographs, meanwhile, are hung salon style by the artist and have never looked more powerful. Instead of a series of thematic riffs, they gain strength from their proximity to one another. Elsewhere, an entire gallery is given over to Robert Therrien’s giant table and chairs, while others are dedicated individually to Christopher Wool, Leon Golub and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In one gallery, a mélange of paintings by Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe offers an overview of the decade when Broad and his wife Edythe began collecting in earnest.

But back to Broad’s decision not to gift his collection permanently to the new institution that bears his name, the elephant in the midst of these beautiful galleries. Broad’s argument has been that no museum can exhibit his entire collection of some 2,000 works, that much of it will remain in storage and therefore that he should keep all of it and lend it to LACMA and other institutions. This would seem to signal his ultimate intention to open his own museum -- like Norton Simon and Armand Hammer before him -- and it is known that he has been shopping for a big piece of commercial real estate in the mid-Wilshire area, near LACMA.

Perhaps Broad will be convinced by universal complaints in the press and find his way to a compromise. If he truly wants to be remembered as a philanthropist and collector, he might consider changing tack and giving the museum some of the important works that appear so dazzling in their bright new galleries. He could prove those wrong who now damn him for his obsessive control.

At the very least, he should leave in place Charles Ray’s red fire truck, a veteran of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, made with the details of a toy but the scale of the authentic item. It stands on the plaza as though waiting for a conflagration.

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.