The Maneuvers of Billionaire Collector Eli Broad Have Museum Directors in a Tizzy

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

In his Lives
of the Painters
the Italian architect, painter and writer Giorgio Vasari
relates an hilarious encounter between Michelangelo and Piero Soderini, the
head of the Florentine government. They met around the master’s unfinished
David, where Soderini found fault with the sculpture’s nose, remarking
that it was "too thick." Looking to satisfy the powerful patron, Michelangelo
climbed up on the scaffolding, grabbing a chisel and a handful of marble dust
on his way. Tapping lightly, he let the dust fall little by little without actually
altering anything. When he was finished, he looked down at Soderini and instructed

look at it."

that’s much better," the patron replied. "Now you’ve really
brought it to life."

providing valuable information about Michelangelo, this anecdote has survived
because it speaks volumes about what is still a mostly hidden, private concern:
the A-list, major-league art collector. Referred to as "major collectors,"
patrons like the Renaissance Soderini today are mostly captains of industry,
men and women (men mostly) who collect art for–among other, less exalted
reasons, like personal vanity and huge tax writeoffs–largely philanthropic
purposes. Today’s entrepreneur Medicis and Soderinis are archly recognized
by society journalists and climbing art world insiders, and achieve public recognition
the old-fashioned way: by trading in financial support or prize collections
for a plaque on a museum wing or, better yet, their very own arts institution.

The politics
involved in such maneuvers can seem as Florentine and inner-circle as the papal
succession. There are anonymous and self-perpetuating museum boards to consider,
packed with wealthy businesspeople and politicians and therefore teeming with
conflicts of interest; ambitious directors ready to pounce and haggle over profitable
minutiae for their institutions; and last but not least, city and state governments
perennially hungry for new sources of revenue. Add to this the fact that the
most important subsidies received by art museums in America remain charitable
contributions and gifts of property and you have a situation in which–the
public function of the nation’s museums notwithstanding–the private
collector is king.

Enter the
collection of billionaire Eli Broad, now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum
of Art. Possibly the richest man in Los Angeles and one of California’s
heavyweight power brokers (he brought the 2000 Democratic National Convention
to glitter city), Broad has purchased more than a thousand works of art since
1972, either personally or through his eponymous foundation. Broad’s the
largest single charitable donor in the U.S. after Bill Gates, and gave away
some $137 million last year. Determined to keep folks guessing, Broad’s
less than orthodox decision to display his private collection at several museums–LACMA
(where he is, of course, a trustee), the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC,
and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston–before donating it to any of these
institutions has set off a tizzy of nail-biting among museum directors.

The exhibition,
"Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections,"
is one of the major art-world events in the U.S. this fall, partly because it
involves considerable stakes, but also because it offers insight into a largely
secretive, confidential sphere: the mind of a heavy-hitting collector of contemporary
art. Here’s Broad on art collecting as a compulsive/obsessive disorder:
"Collecting becomes a compulsion and an addiction… It wasn’t
just the objects. It was meeting the people, the curators, the directors, the
dealers and the artists." And again on what drove him and his wife to spend
several fortunes on objects that others buy and trade like corn futures: "We
clearly don’t collect art as an investment. It’s something we want
to learn from, live with, and be inspired by."

had a theory that the great collections of the world were made when the art
was contemporary," Broad tells Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelevansky, the
show’s curators, in an interview published in their excellent exhibition
catalog–"you can’t go back and create a great Impressionist or
Post-impressionist collection today." And so it is with Eli Broad’s
collection. Largely an 80s affair, the collection clearly mirrors the period
when Broad and his wife were most actively visiting galleries and artists’
studios to shop for art. The Broads’ zeal for discriminating collecting
also shows up in the inclusion of some great work by artists from other decades,
like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Charles Ray.

About Warhol,
Broad admits to some reluctance to his art until a 1989 retrospective at MOMA.
Credit this initial reticence, then, for a basic insight Broad demonstrated
in purchasing only the best of this artist’s early work while avoiding
the later stinkers. Among the Warhols on view are a blue serial painting of
Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination, an edgy black-and-white
painting of Thomas Francis C. (once the number 6 man on the FBI’s Most
Wanted list) and Big Electric Chair, an eerie blue-green number that
ambivalently illustrates mechanized death while reminding us that the lame,
obsequious Warhol of Interview and the rich ladies’ portraits at
one time really did have something to say.

understanding of Warhol’s work came when I saw it all at one time,"
Broad has said. The same is clearly not true, though, about the work of Cindy
Sherman, of which the Broads have apparently bought multiple storerooms. Fresher
and less weighed down with simplistic Lacanian nonsense about identity formation,
Sherman’s first body of work, the Untitled Film Stills of 1977-80,
cycles together pseudo-documentary self-portraiture and the black-and-white
look of classic Hollywood films to still genuinely disturbing, narcissistic
effect. One wishes the same could be said about the work of Julian Schnabel
or David Salle. Two careers’ worth of overblown guff are represented in
this exhibition by canvases so dreary that they would make even the most inept
and self-satisfied art student blush, had they been painted at any other time
than the helium-swallowing 80s.

But no matter,
the work selected for exhibition from the vast resource that is the Broad collection,
as its subtitle indicates, spans three other decades of art and thus largely
escapes the lapidary stone laid at the feet of collectors by writer William
H. Gass: "When money tries to buy beauty it tends to purchase a kind of
courteous kitsch." Filled to the brim with wonderful paintings and sculpture
by Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Anselm Kiefer and many
others, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons" is a rewarding exhibition, especially
if one takes the trouble to parse out the appreciative development of the owners’
art-buying compulsion. "My current plan is to leave [the collection] to
one of several institutions," Broad foxily told The New York
last week. The statement is not likely to make interested museum folks
sleep any easier.

Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections," through
Jan. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 323-857-6512.