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Eli Broad

The billionaire Eli Broad’s collection of post-war art goes on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Is this where it will come finally to rest?

Thinking Broadly at LACMA

Los Angeles

More than 30 years after Eli Broad began collecting art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is organising an exhibition of works from Mr Broad’s personal collection and from the foundation he established in 1984.

“Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: four decades of art from the Broad Collection” (7 October to 6 January 2002) is the first time that Mr Broad’s holdings have been shown as a collection outside of Mr Broad’s residence or his foundation. Some see the show’s venue as an indication that the works—classic modern post-war painting, Pop art, minimalism and more recent photography and conceptual objects—may end up as part of LACMA’s collection.

Since the death of Norton Simon in 1993, Los Angeles has looked to a new generation of collectors to support local artists, but more importantly, to acquire art in New York and Europe, in the hope that some of it might end up in local museum galleries.

Eli Broad, now 68, made a fortune in the 1950s, building houses for young war veterans’ families in Detroit, and then in Arizona and southern California. The firm that he founded evolved into an insurance business, Sun America, which continues to attend to the needs of maturing baby boomers. Mr Broad stepped down as the firm’s ceo at the beginning of this year to devote is time to “venture philanthropy”. The entrepreneur was drawn into collecting by another California businessman and arts patron, Taft Schreiber, in 1972.

The first art purchase Mr Broad made was a Van Gogh drawing, “Thatched huts in Arles”, for which he remembers paying $95,000 in 1972. He added works by Matisse and Miró to his collection, and then concentrated on the photography of Cindy Sherman, of which he owns more than any private collector in the US, the sculpture of Jeff Koons, and the paintings and prints of Roy Lichtenstein. Among his recent purchases are photographs by Andreas Gursky and Jasper Johns’s 1964 painting, “Watchman”.

Mr Broad has around 300 works in his personal collection; the foundation holds more than 700. “My personal collection isn’t that much of a risk-taker. I don’t know if you could consider Jeff Koons any risk,” said Mr Broad, who added that his foundation bought aggressively from the East Village scene of the 1980s, acquiring artists who are now prominent and others who are now forgotten.

“I don’t see myself as a great visionary who can go to an artist’s studio that’s never had a dealer or been in any exhibition, and say ‘This is a great artist.’ I’m not in the discovery business.”

To the public, Mr Broad is best known as one of America’s 50 richest men (his personal worth is $5.2 billion) and as the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which boomed while Los Angeles prospered during the 1980s. He left that board seven years ago, and became a trustee of the beleaguered LACMA, which at the time ranked among the lowest of American museums in support from its trustees.

Sotheby’s will not forget his $2.5 million purchase of Roy Lichtenstein’s painting, “I’m sorry”, with an American Express card. Mr Broad gave most of the 2.5 million Frequent Flyer miles to art students in Los Angeles. When asked, he admits that he used the card because it gave him extra time to pay.

The billionaire says his role as a LACMA trustee had nothing to do with the exhibition, curated by Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelavansky, which will travel to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC and to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. “I did not select any of the works that are going to be in the exhibition,” said Mr Broad, who noted that he agreed to lend the museum anything that its curators requested. In earlier interviews, Mr Broad resisted the notion—dear to Californian collectors named Getty, Simon and Hammer— of creating a private museum around his own collection. The Broad Foundation, created by him in 1984, was conceived as a “lending library” for museums, rather than a repository, and Mr Broad insists that no decision has been made on his collection’s final destination.

LACMA is now commissioning redevelopment proposals from five architects: Rem Koolhaas, Steven Hull, Tom Mayne, Daniel Libeskind, and Jean Nouvel. (Frank Gehry, an old friend of Mr Broad’s, is not on the list. “We invited him. We wanted him,” Broad said, but Gehry refused to be part of a competition.)

Could Eli Broad’s collection eventually be housed in one of the buildings planned for the $300 million project?

“One could speculate that, as in horse racing, the museum is an early favourite,” he admitted. “If I do become a major donor and I probably will, my name could be on a building, but we haven’t talked about it.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Thinking Broadly'