The first thing visitors see when they enter the Broad, the new contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, is a tower of plates almost 8ft tall that looks as if plucked from the cupboard of a giant. The 1993 sculpture by the Los Angeles-based artist Robert Therrien is a fitting introduction to the hugely anticipated private museum dedicated to the collection of Eli and Edythe Broad. The $140m institution, which opened on 20 September, is an exercise in spectacle. It is also the culmination of the couple’s self-proclaimed quest to turn Los Angeles into the capital of the contemporary art world.
Over the past 40 years, the Broads have built one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the US. They have also become the most influential, controversial and scrutinised patrons of the city’s public museums. Along with his wife Edythe, Eli, who made his $7bn fortune in insurance and home construction, has given more than $800m to local arts organisations. (Nearly every public art museum in the city has a plaque with his name on it.) But at every step he has clashed with directors and fellow board members, and has been criticised for demanding too much control.
Broad surprised many when he declined to give his collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), where he lent works and paid for a building that bears his name in 2008. But after three years of construction, the Broads now have a museum that is wholly their own. The 120,000 sq. ft building, designed by the New York-based firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, serves as a storage facility for their nearly 2,000-strong collection and a showcase for their best works.
“We want to be different from the Frick and the Norton Simon,” Eli says, referring to the private museums in New York and Pasadena. “We want to be dynamic, more open.” In contrast to the Huntington, a private library and museum set among vast gardens in Pasadena, or the Getty, perched atop a hill, the Broad is at street level in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Two days before it opened to the public, more than 100,000 tickets had already been reserved. Admission is free, although the museum may levy a fee for special exhibitions.
The Broad will continue to send art on loan to numerous institutions; it is designed with collection sharing in mind. A central vault aims to make it easy for curators to access and retrieve work. Visitors can peek at this storage area through small windows in a central stairwell, glimpsing paintings by Albert Oehlen and George Condo. Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, says there is enough room here for the collection to grow by around 30%. That should last the Broad Art Foundation 11 and a half years if it continues to buy art at its current rate of around one work per week.
The inaugural installation features more than 250 works by 60 artists—around 15% of the Broad’s holdings—and focuses on the collection’s greatest hits. Heyler says: “We wanted to introduce the collection’s breadth—future exhibitions will showcase depth.” Crowd-pleasers include a video installation featuring bohemian musicians by Ragnar Kjartansson and a mirrored Infinity Room by Yayoi Kusama.
The museum holds the biggest collection of work by Jeff Koons (34 pieces, nine of which are in the initial hang) and has more works by Roy Lichtenstein than any other institution except for the artist’s own foundation. The Broads “collect over an entire career”, says the artist Sharon Lockhart, who met Heyler in 1993, just after graduating from art school. “I didn’t even have a studio yet—we had to watch a film on a monitor on the end of my bed.” The Broad owns 19 of her works; two are on show.
One of several monographic galleries offers a taste of the only near-complete group of multiples by Joseph Beuys in the western US. The 570 objects (mostly sculptures in materials ranging from felt to fish bone) were a departure when the Broads bought them in 2006. But Beuys’ importance to young artists and the abundance of art schools in Los Angeles was “a good reason to acquire them”, Heyler says.
Nevertheless, the inaugural exhibition has been criticised for its focus on the splashy and the monumental. Most of the paintings and photos are at least the size of a subway advert. The largest work in the exhibition, a 25-panel painting by Takashi Murakami, is 82 feet long. The smallest works—a selection of film stills by Cindy Sherman—are relegated to a vitrine as if they were artefacts. Certain rooms, like one that juxtaposes works by Damien Hirst with billboard-size photographs by Andreas Gursky, have the air of an art fair booth.
There are few opportunities for intimate reflection such as those offered by the Robert Irwin-designed gardens at the Getty or the Rothko room at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, across the street. But local artists say there is room for everyone in the city. “I love that there is a new art destination downtown,” Mark Bradford says. “Everyone is waiting to see what Eli pulls out of the vaults.”
Eli may not be able to control how the collection’s trendiest works—like a spot painting by Hirst or a sculpture of a melting streetlight by Urs Fischer—will appear to visitors 100 years from now. But he has set up a $200m endowment and additional funds for acquisitions. (To put this in context, Lacma’s endowment was $128m at the end of 2014.) With a purse of that size, future stewards will be able to keep adding to the collection as tastes change—and Eli Broad may have the last word after all.
First takes Nicholas Serota
Director, Tate, London
“I admire the form of Diller and Scofidio’s building in the urban landscape and the deft way in which they lift the skin, the ‘veil’, to create an entrance. The scale of the spaces are well judged for a collection that is primarily painting and sculpture. The Broad will add significantly to the range of contemporary art on view in Los Angeles.”
Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
“Curators always struggle with the light in Los Angeles: it’s a gift and a poison at the same time because it is so intense. The architects figured out a way to have natural light in the galleries. The open storage reminds me of the Schaulager in Basel. It’s a transparent, generous gesture from museum management.”
Artist, New York
“The Broad may very well turn out to be the most important museum for my generation. Eli and Edythe have consistently been among the most engaged collectors.”
Partner, Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, Los Angeles
“You can see how the collection has evolved from something very personal, with a strong connection to postwar painting with a distinctly American focus, into a collection that is diverse in terms of the communities of artists that are represented, from Los Angeles to Germany, Asia, South America and Africa.”
Director, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
“Holding its own along Grand Avenue’s eclectic architectural landscape and adjacent to the flamboyance of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, the new Broad is about strong design, but offers nonetheless a neutral backdrop for experiencing art. And its opening, along with that of the new Whitney Museum in New York, just might be expanding the definition of what museums look like today.”