Eli Broad, who helped reshape the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, has died, aged 87

Billionaire art collector, businessman and philanthropist founded the museum that bears his name and helped shore up Disney Concert Hall, Lacma and MOCA

The philanthropist Eli Broad Ryan Miller © Capture Imaging

The philanthropist Eli Broad Ryan Miller © Capture Imaging

Eli Broad, the billionaire art collector, businessman and philanthropist who played an outsize role in transforming the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, has died, aged 87. Among other ambitious undertakings, he co-founded the art institution known as the Broad—which has become one of the most popular museums on the West Coast—with his wife Edythe, who survives him along with their two sons.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation said he died on Friday at a Los Angeles hospital and did not specify a cause.

Broad amassed his fortune through his real estate and insurance businesses, and as a philanthropist, his imprint on the arts in Los Angeles is unparalleled. In the 1970s he was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and in 2008 he gifted the institution $30m to bail it out financially. He referred to the moment as MOCA’s “rebirth”.

In 1996, when plans to build the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles had ground to a halt, Broad partnered with then-Mayor Richard Riordan to organise a fundraising campaign. The effort generated $225m—including $15m from Broad’s foundation—and the concert hall opened to the public in 2003.

In 2006 Broad pledged $50m to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), and two years later the institution opened a new Renzo Piano-designed building with 72,000 sq. ft of gallery space on its Wilshire campus. It named the space the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Perhaps most famously, the Broad, his namesake museum, opened across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2015. Housed in a 120,000-sq.-ft building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, the Broad is home to over 2,000 works of art that form the couple’s collection.

The philanthropist and his wife were also major donors to medical research centres and schools across the country and plowed over $100m into improving American public schools.

The only child of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants, Broad was born in New York City on 6 June, 1933. When he was 7, his family moved to Detroit, where his father opened a dime store. The family surname at birth was Brod, which was pronounced like a slang term for women and caused him to be bullied, so in junior high he added an “a” to the spelling and changed the pronunciation to rhyme with “road”.

Broad graduated from Michigan State College, now called Michigan State University—which today is home to the MSU Broad Museum—in 1954 with a degree in accounting. He married Edythe Lawson that same year. At age 20, he became one of Michigan’s youngest-ever certified public accountants.

The Broad museum on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles Maciek Lulko

In 1957 he and Donald Kaufman, a carpenter-contractor, borrowed $25,000 to launch a home-building company called Kaufman & Broad (now KB Home). Their intention was to build simple, affordable tract houses in the suburbs of Detroit, but the enterprise soon became the biggest independent single-family home building company in the nation, making Broad a millionaire by age 30.

Kaufman & Broad soon expanded into Arizona and California, and after Kaufman retired in 1963, Broad moved the company to Los Angeles, where he also relocated. In 1971 the company purchased Sun Life, a small Baltimore insurance company, for $52m, and he gradually expanded the business into what was eventually called SunAmerica. It was sold in 1998 in a deal that personally netted Broad some $3bn.

Broad’s first major art purchase came in 1971, when he and his wife bought a Van Gogh ink drawing at auction for $95,000. The couple’s focus quickly shifted to contemporary art, as Broad felt that the world’s savviest collectors were buying the work of living artists. They soon amassed what would be one of the largest private collections of post-war art in the country, including works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, John Baldessari, David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Beuys and countless others. In 2005, he paid $23.8m for Cubi XXVIII, a 1965 David Smith sculpture; it was the record auction price for a contemporary artist at the time.

Broad’s aggressiveness and the scope of his power sometimes raised hackles. In 2010 he played a prominent part in MOCA’s controversial hiring of the prominent art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as director, a decision that he later seemed to regret. In 2012 he reportedly helped force the resignation of the curator Paul Schimmel from MOCA, which led to the resignations of prominent board members including John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger. Gehry and Broad were known to have butted heads over the years—the architect once called him a “control freak” in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The Broads once lived on an estate in the city's Brentwood section that was initially designed by Gehry but was finished under a different architect.

While his namesake building was under construction at Lacma, Broad revealed in 2008 that he would not be donating his works to the museum, although the gift had been widely anticipated. He made this decision when “it became clear that no museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art included, would commit to placing a large percentage of the works on permanent exhibit,” The New York Times reported that year. Worried that most of his 2,000-plus works would wind up in storage, Broad opted instead to found his eponymous museum.

“Donating artwork to existing museums meant that about 95% of our collection would sit in storage, with no one to see it, and we realised the best way to do that was to create a museum for our collection,” he wrote in a 2019 essay published in The Los Angeles Times. The plan had been to open the museum in Los Angeles’s Westside, but then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convinced Broad that a spot along Grand Avenue—which was already home to MOCA and the Walt Disney Concert Hall—would be the best location.

We believe we have reinvented the American art museum.
Eli Broad

“We believe we have reinvented the American art museum,” Broad wrote in the essay. “Edye and I are proud to have committed more than $500m (which does not include the value of the art) to create the Broad and an endowment that will allow generations of Angelenos and people from around the world to experience contemporary art.”

“Eli saw the arts as a way to strive to build a better world for all,” Joanne Heyler, the founding director of the Broad, said in a statement. “He was a fiercely committed civic leader, and his tenacity and advocacy for the arts indelibly changed Los Angeles.”

In his early days in Los Angeles, Broad homed in on what he saw as a cultural deficit in the city, and his long efforts to remedy that may be his biggest legacy.

“In 1963, when my wife, Edye, and I moved here from Detroit, Los Angeles did not have what I thought of as a true downtown,” he says in his 2019 essay. “A great city needs a vibrant center where people come to enjoy cultural riches like museums, dance, opera, theater and the symphony, or to take part in civic life at parades, protests and celebrations.”