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L.A. museums are learning to share

With Eli Broad's help, MOCA and LACMA will both own Chris Burden's 'Hell Gate.'

January 09, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

In an unusual deal brokered by Eli Broad, a powerful donor with an interest in the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the two Los Angeles institutions will share ownership of an outsized work by L.A.-based artist Chris Burden.

The gift, to be announced today by the two museums, is "Hell Gate," a 28-foot-long, 7 1/2 -foot-high model of the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River in New York City, fashioned of metal toy construction parts.

"Hell Gate" is a joint donation, a partial purchase funded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and a partial gift from former tennis star John McEnroe. Although sharing ownership of artworks is not rare today, it is unusual to see such an arrangement between two museums in the same city.

It is also out of the ordinary to find such a deal initiated by a donor. MOCA Director Jeremy Strick and LACMA Director Michael Govan confirm that the cooperative arrangement was, to use Govan's words, "largely Eli's idea."

Eli Broad, founding chairman and a life trustee of MOCA, is also arguably LACMA's most influential trustee. He has given LACMA $60 million for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a new facility that is central to the institution's massive expansion plan, and acquisitions.

And when MOCA approached his Broad Art Foundation for the money to purchase the Burden work, Broad offered a counterproposal.

"MOCA came to us for the money, right, and I said: 'I'll tell you what, maybe it would make sense for you people to share it,' " Broad said.

"I've always believed that museums ought to share works of art rather than duplicate one another's collections; about 80% of a museum's collection is usually in storage," added Broad, whose foundation owns Burden's 2001 "Bateau de Guerre," a 400-pound battleship made of metal gasoline cans, plastic toys and other items; the work suspends from the ceiling in the Broad Foundation museum. "I thought I'd try to set an example by buying an important work of art by Chris Burden."

Broad said that his foundation provided $150,000 apiece to the two museums to purchase the work from McEnroe for $300,000. Although declining to speculate on the market price of "Hell Gate," Broad said that McEnroe's selling price was below market, making the work a partial gift from the athlete, who had owned it for about six years and was keeping the huge bridge in his New York loft apartment.

Exhibition plans for "Hell Gate" have yet to be arranged. Govan said his museum hoped to show the work "in the first year, if not at the opening" of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. An official date has not been set, but the building is predicted to open in February 2008.

Govan said the shared ownership "makes sense from about 10 different angles. Both museums have excellent collections of related works and other works by the artist."

In addition, Govan said, "the price of art has forced museums to consider co-acquisitions, but that is not the case here. The unusual thing is that both museums are in L.A. It makes sense with a work like this, because it takes a lot of energy to put it up. This way, it can be shown more often, because it can be shown at either place -- and you are sharing storage costs."

Strick called the shared gift "a great idea," but unlike Govan said that money indeed played a motivating role in accepting Broad's terms. "We have a number of works by Burden, and regard him as a crucially important artist that has been influential for many generations of artists," Strick said. "He's one of the artists we'd like to continue collecting in depth, but he is artist whose work is obviously not inexpensive to acquire."

MOCA co-owns two other artworks: Eija-Liisa Ahtila's 2002 video installation "Talo/The House," which it shares with the Art Institute of Chicago, and Marlene Dumas' 2001 oil-on-canvas painting "The Woman of Algiers," co-owned by Duke University's Nasher Museum. But Strick noted that transportation issues would make it impractical to share a work as large as "Hell Gate" with an institute outside the Los Angeles area.

The 1998 "Hell Gate" -- which according to the artist is made up of more than 100,000 pieces from Meccano and Erector sets -- is the first of a series of bridges he has fashioned as part of a lifelong fascination with building.

Burden said he enlisted the aid of Joel Perlin, a specialist in Meccano parts, to scour the country for materials.

"There was this one part that a normal Meccano set has maybe two of, these perforated plates, and we needed 760 of them," said Burden, who is infamous for his 1971 performance art piece "Shoot" in which he had a friend, at his request, shoot him in the arm.

The artist said he liked the idea of "Hell Gate" building a bridge, so to speak, between Los Angeles museums.

MOCA's chief curator, Paul Schimmel, who oversaw a Burden retrospective during his tenure in the same post at the Orange County Museum of Art (then called the Newport Harbor Art Museum) in Newport Beach in the late 1980s, said the work's unwieldy nature was one of the probable reasons McEnroe decided to part with it.

MOCA announced the "Hell Gate" gift as part of a larger announcement of its 2006 acquisitions. The list also includes Fred Tomaselli's 2005 painting "Hangover," which incorporates pills and was part of the popular "Ecstasy" show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in 2005, as well as copperplate etchings by Jennifer Bornstein, a video installation by Christian Marclay, an installation by Roxy Paine and 15 paper works by Francis Alys.


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