Is The Broad a Great Public Collection or "The Largest Vanity Project of Our Lifetime"?

The Broad museum on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Eli and Edye's Gift to Los Angeles: The Broad Museum

"I have always worked on a public collection," said Joanne Heyler, Chief Curator of The Broad Art Foundation and Founding Director of The Broad, to an assembly of international, national, and local media gathered in front of the much-anticipated new contemporary art museum and permanent home of the art collection of Eli and Edythe Broad a few days before its opening. Heyler has been with the Broads since almost the beginning, working with them for over 20 years to develop the collection and their philanthropic projects, culminating with the establishment of the impressive Broad museum. Heyler's emphasis of the word "public," however, might seem curious, considering that the collection belongs to just two people. But, as Heyler explained, the idea of "the public" is crucial to the museum's mission of reaching the widest possible audience for its collection of contemporary art, and to that end, The Broad, situated in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, offers free admission. "This is Eli and Edye's gift to Los Angeles," Heyler stated proudly.

The Broad's "cool storage" room showing a work by Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The practical matters of opening the collection to the widest possible audience, however, extend beyond the borders of Los Angeles. The Broad Art Foundation, which was founded in 1984, was established as a lending program, making the collection's works available to museums and galleries worldwide. Over 8,000 loans have gone out to more than 500 museums and galleries over that period of 30 years. Now that the Broads' collection has coalesced under the roof of the new museum, this dedication to lending will continue as a primary function of the museum, and has even been built into the building's design.

The Broad museum's lobby with interior veil. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The building, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is predicated on the concept of "the veil and the vault": the vault being The Broad's large storage area for the collection, taking up most of the museum's second floor; the veil, a porous exterior structure forming a diaphanous cover over the interior vault, allows a diffuse natural light to penetrate the 50,000 square feet of exhibition spaces, located on the first and third floors. Approaching the museum from the street, the visitor is essentially invited under the veil, into a cavernous space with the grey mass of the vault hovering overhead. A pod-like elevator, stairway, and long ascending escalator pierce the vault's interior, allowing the visitor to pass through it, and, from windows in the stairwell, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the museum. As lead architect Elizabeth Diller pointed out, the design "turned a liability into an asset," transforming the usually hidden storage area into a main attraction.

Installation of works by Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons in The Broad's third-floor galleries. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Bruce Damonte.

In the expansive space of the third floor galleries, the viewer is initially greeted by a large open space, full of diffuse filtered natural light, surrounded by massive works by Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Mark Bradford, Marlene Dumas, Julie Mehretu, and El Anatsui. For The Broad's first hang, Heyler took a "straightforward, wide-lens, chronological approach," beginning with a room devoted to Warhol, whose Pop-Art presence is felt throughout the collection. Standouts of the inaugural exhibition include an eye-popping enclave of Ellsworth Kelly works; Anselm Kiefer's historic epic Deutschlands Geisteshelden (1973), whose evocations of receding woodgrain are echoed in a Mike Kelley piece (Infinite Expansion, 1983) on the opposite end of the museum; and alternately, life-like and imposing human figures by John Ahearn and Charles Ray. Areas of darker subject matter contrast with the Pop influences--animal bones in glass cases and a dead sheep suspended in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst share a room with a photograph of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange by Andreas Gursky, evoking themes of death and despair, interrupted by the obligatory inclusion of one of Hirst's spot paintings. Works by certain artists, particularly John Baldessari, Cy Twombly, and Jeff Koons, recur to a great extent throughout the museum.

Installation of works by Neo Rauch, Robert Longo and Mark Bradford in The Broad's first-floor galleries. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Bruce Damonte.

What emerges from the Broad collection is largely a paean to painting and sculpture, a majority, unavoidably it seems, devoted to male artists. This tendency is somewhat disrupted by the inclusion of some major installations on the first floor: a wool tapestry by Polish artist Goshka Macuga, complemented by two performers clad in the artist's digital-printed Lycra designs; a powerful and elegiac musical video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson (The Visitors, 2012); Takashi Murakami's epic mural-sized painting In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014); and the experiential and existential Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrored Room - The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), which purports to plunge the viewer to an endless space of reflection among a quiet riot of blinking LED lights.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room - The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. © Yayoi Kusama, Courtesy of David Zwirner, N.Y..

Waiting for my minute alone with the infinity of Kusama's installation, I overheard an outspoken journalist denouncing The Broad as "the largest vanity project of our lifetime," a sentiment that, given the rise of private museums and foundations established by prominent art collectors in recent memory, is not an unusual one to hold. While the Broad's collection is by no means a complete, unbiased view of the developments of contemporary art (and who can rightfully claim that, regardless of their private or public affiliations?), this sanctimonious attitude willfully ignores The Broad's potential outreach to the widest possible public, and the benefits that can be derived from it. The Broad's location, as a new jewel in a downtown revitalization project that Eli Broad has helped orchestrate, is not entirely without self-serving attributes, but it also makes the museum accessible to a much larger proportion of Los Angeles residents, particularly those from lower income, inner city areas. The other notable free admission museums in Los Angeles--the Getty and the Hammer Museum--are located a metaphorical stone's throw from each other in the exclusive neighborhoods of Westwood and Brentwood on the west side of Los Angeles. The Broad, on the other hand, is right in the heart of the city, easily accessed by public transportation coming in from all across the Southern California region.

Installation of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Ahearn and Robert Therrien in The Broad's third-floor galleries. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Bruce Damonte.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also addressed the crowd at the press preview that morning, boldly proclaiming "Los Angeles the contemporary art capital of the world." Nodding to the mayor, Diller acknowledged that The Broad's construction in Downtown Los Angeles is part of a "larger urban effort," and heralds the increasing concentration of cultural attractions in the city center. If one were looking for a popular mandate for the new museum and for Downtown's greater art presence, The Broad has certainly proved it, booking over 85,000 free tickets in advance of its opening. But if it truly wants to fulfill its mission to serve the public, as one of the most accessible free-entry institutions in Los Angeles, it should recognize this as a unique opportunity to introduce the wide lens of contemporary art, in all its facets, to a public that may not have the opportunity to experience it elsewhere. One can hope that through special exhibitions and new acquisitions (it estimates that it averages one new acquisition a week), The Broad will discover, and embrace, its obligation to the public to truly represent the art of our time.

Aerial photo of The Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo: Jeff Duran / Warren Air.

--Natalie Hegert