Lifestyle

Mr. Broad Builds His Dream Museum


Billionaire collector Eli Broad hired Renzo Piano to design a wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to house his treasures. It opens Feb. 16

Eli Broad quit the real estate business years ago, but he hasn't stopped developing things. His latest project is the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a new wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that's billed as one of the largest spaces in the country devoted exclusively to contemporary art. "BCAM" debuted on Feb. 9 with a swanky on-site dinner party attended by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and wife Katie Holmes, and a bit of headline-generating controversy worthy of a Hollywood premiere. The building opens to the public on Feb. 16.

Broad became a billionaire several times over by catering to the needs of post-World War II families. His first company, KB Home (KBH), is still among the nation's largest homebuilders. He also built Sun America, now a part of American International Group (AIG), into the nation's largest seller of annuities.

The 74-year-old Michigan native has since been busy putting his mark on his adopted hometown, helping provide critical funding and political arm-twisting for new Los Angeles landmarks such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Grand Avenue Project, a $3 billion revitalization of downtown also designed by Gehry. "He's someone who really believes in what Martin Luther King called the 'fierce urgency of now,'" says Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of Los Angeles County's board of supervisors.

A longtime trustee of LACMA, Broad stepped in after voters rejected a bond issue in 2002 that would have paid for a massive redesign of the complex. Instead, Broad and his wife, Edythe, footed the entire $56 million needed to build the new wing. He attacked the project with his trademark efficiency, convincing Italian architect Renzo Piano, famous for his work on the Centre Pompidou art center in Paris and a dozen other prominent museums, to come on board. Piano agreed only if he could help redesign the entire museum complex, something Broad got the rest of the trustees to agree to.

Broad's Feats Amaze the Architect

Broad had stipulations of his own. He wanted at least 80% of the building dedicated to gallery space. To make that happen, Piano put the dramatic three-story entry escalator on the outside of the structure. The building came on line in record time, with construction having begun just two years ago. The work included demolishing an existing parking garage and closing a street, feats that still amaze the architect. "In Los Angeles, to take away a street and a parking garage," Piano says, "it's like destroying the Colosseum in Rome."

The result is an airy new space, which takes great advantage of Los Angeles' brilliant sunlight and views of the Hollywood Hills. The new contemporary wing was incorporated into a new entrance for the LACMA complex. Its courtyard is stocked with recent pieces such as Chris Burden's arrangement of 202 cast-iron lampposts and a 46-foot-long fire truck sculpture by Charles Ray. LACMA's director, Michael Govan, sees that as fitting, even for a museum whose mission is to cover every aspect of art from ancient Egypt to canvases that are still wet. "Here in L.A. we begin in the present," he says.

Broad says he and his wife began collecting 35 years ago with a Van Gogh drawing, but they quickly switched to contemporary art because they could actually meet and interact with the artists. "It led to intense conversations and social commentary," Broad says. "It was far more entertaining than spending time with bankers and other businesspeople."

The Broads' collection now numbers some 2,000 pieces. Some of it is held personally and some in an art foundation they formed, which now has more than $330 million in assets. The Broads approach collecting art as though it were a business. They typically buy works by already established artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Ed Ruscha. When they choose someone, they go deep, often buying dozens of works. The Broads have 120 pieces by Cindy Sherman, famous for taking photographs of herself in various outfits.

Controversy over Lending the Art

The future of their collection has spawned controversy however after the Los Angeles Times reported the Broads intend to keep their works in their foundation, which lends pieces out to museums all around the world, rather than bequeath it to LACMA. Broad argues that giving to one museum means the bulk of the works are kept in storage and rarely seen. Subsequent articles in the Los Angeles paper and The New York Times characterized the decision as a blow to the museum and its director, a rising star in the art world.

Govan, of course, downplays the news. "Despite what you read in the paper," he says, "Eli has been very generous in giving works to the museum." Govan singled out a massive new pair of iron sculptures by Richard Serra that take up the first floor of the new wing. They were bought recently by the Broads on behalf of LACMA.

Others don't see what the big deal is. "He donated a collection of dollars," quips Julie Taylor, a publicist specializing in architecture but with no connection to the museum. Indeed, he has.

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau .

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