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The Art of Giving In to a Giver

Billionaire Eli Broad has donated $60 million for a new LACMA gallery. He also got to pick the architect and a board to select works.

August 23, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

When billionaire Eli Broad gave $50 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a new building and threw in $10 million more for artwork, he kick-started the Wilshire Boulevard institution's long-stalled expansion plan. But there was a catch: In return for his donation, he got to choose the architect and set up an independent board to oversee construction and the acquisition fund.

"People ask how I could turn over such power to Eli," says Andrea Rich, LACMA's president and director. "But I ask myself, is there a member of our board who has more experience in building or working with international architects, or who has more money and viability in terms of carrying this off, or has better taste in art and architecture, or has higher standards?"

Rich is grappling with a familiar problem. How much power should be granted to donors whose support is essential to America's art museums?

In New York, Guggenheim Museum trustee Peter B. Lewis threatened to withhold his money and fire Director Thomas Krens if he didn't cut the budget; the late Walter Annenberg's gift of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art arrived with the stipulation that they be displayed in their own galleries. In Philadelphia, the fate of the Barnes Foundation is in the hands of a judge, who will decide whether the late Alfred C. Barnes' art collection will remain in the stately suburban house he built for it or move downtown, in accordance with the wishes of potential benefactors.

Relations between museums and donors get especially dicey during building campaigns, when dreams of grandeur call for creative fundraising and arm-twisting. But in a philanthropic culture that prides itself on snagging big money without ceding control, the L.A. museum's plan is a special case. The effort to transform LACMA's melange of buildings into an elegant unity strikes a precarious balance of power with the major donor.

"I think Los Angeles can and should be the contemporary art capital of the world," says Broad, who sees change at LACMA as a key to that ambition. "This place is more important than Disney Hall. Many people can't afford to go there, but they can go to LACMA. It can do for Los Angeles what the Beaubourg did for Paris," he says, referring to that city's popular arts complex.

It's no coincidence that the architect Broad selected was Italian Renzo Piano, who, with Richard Rogers, designed the Beaubourg, officially known as the Georges Pompidou Center.

In accordance with a memorandum of understanding hammered out a year ago, Broad's $50-million gift will finance the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, an 80,000-square-foot structure with 65,000 square feet of gallery space. The $10 million will be used to purchase contemporary artworks for LACMA. The agreement provides for loans -- but no gifts -- from Broad's 750-piece collection.

"Frankly, it's easiest to build your own museum, not get involved with others," Broad says. "I believe in public institutions. I'm a product of public schools. I went to a public land-grant university [Michigan State]. I try to improve public education. So I don't want to have an elitist, vanity museum."

But the deal has raised pointed questions: Is this a scheme by an egocentric donor to create a private fiefdom at the museum while holding on to his collection? Or is it a smartly conceived alternative to the museum's radical tear-down-and-rebuild plan, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and scrapped nearly two years ago?

Either way, the challenge for LACMA is to give Broad what he wants without alienating other supporters of a project that is expected to cost about $250 million. Almost all of the funds will be raised from private sources. The county, which currently pays 42% of the museum's $41-million annual operating budget, will kick in $10 million for underground parking.

If the plan is realized, it may be a model for other museums. At the very least, it's an experiment worth watching amid a slew of building projects.

From the Museum of Modern Art's massive expansion in New York, slated to open in November, to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum's building in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, scheduled for completion in 2005, the urge to grow is pervasive -- and complicated. New York's Museum of Arts & Design had to compete with 30 organizations and win support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to get its new home at 2 Columbus Circle, scheduled to open in 2007. The Seattle Art Museum's long-range plan to triple its exhibition space involves a partnership with Washington Mutual Inc.

Broad, 71, came to LACMA's negotiating table holding a strong hand. His fortune, amassed through an international home-building firm and an insurance conglomerate, is estimated at $5.26 billion. His collection of contemporary paintings, sculptures and photographs, assembled over 30 years, is considered one of the nation's best. His philanthropy is well-organized through his foundations, which give millions to education, science and the arts.

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