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LACMA's loss that isn't

Though the Broads are only loaning their artworks, the museum stands to gain.

January 14, 2008|Thomas Hoving | Thomas Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. He is the author of many books on art and the head of the museum consulting firm Hoving Associates.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Eli Broad,

Congratulations to you both for your dynamic, imaginative, innovative decision not to donate outright your marvelous modern and contemporary art collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and others, but to make great loans in perpetuity!

I love your brave decision for a lot of reasons -- if only because it is the refreshing opposite of a will-dangling donor playing one museum off against another for the best deal. Now, hundreds of worthy institutions and dozens of diverse audiences can enjoy your unarguable treasures for years to come.

Don't be dismayed or daunted by those who knock your plan. (I was especially taken by the profound guy who thoughtfully opined "LACMA got screwed.") Any innovation in the stodgy art museum world is bound to be greeted with howls, whimpers, groans and hisses. The more screams you get, the more you know you're doing the right shaking and baking.

In time, even LACMA will cheer the news. Your statement that its needs and desires will be favored means LACMA will have first crack at the best in your collection without having to spend multimillions to acquire it (the usual alternative if art isn't donated outright) or pay scads to maintain it and store it (storage is a lot more expensive than anyone outside the museum world realizes). I mean, it's free access to Ali Baba's art cave without having to clean up and take out the garbage.

You may not know this, but another Californian, Norton Simon, proposed virtually the same scheme with the massive collection of Old Masters, Impressionism, modern and Asian art his shareholders had paid for and wily old Norton had picked up on the sly. When I was running the Metropolitan Museum in the early 1970s, Simon approached me with the stunning idea of paying for a building in one of the Met's light wells that would be a state-of-the-art unit for servicing loans of his masterworks to museums around the globe. Then the mercurial conglomerateur changed his mind and the project collapsed (he took over the Pasadena Museum and reopened it as the Norton Simon Museum in 1975).

I have been waiting decades for someone with the vision and guts to do something like Simon's loan scheme, and here you are.

Let me share with you some of the things Simon and I talked about years ago, things that are crucial if your idea is to live up to its potential:

First, service the "host" museum well -- in Simon's case, that would have been the Met, and in your case, it is the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the new building you paid for that will open at LACMA next month. You don't really need me to tell you this: You have already been a spectacular donor to the Los Angeles museum and your promise that BCAM will have first and best draw is on the record. With BCAM, think of some pieces as indefinite loans, for museums do need permanent collections.

Make a list of museums across America -- and especially those in small communities and at colleges and universities -- where loans of your works will make indelible impressions. Be courageous and include libraries when an art museum does not exist. Do not be shackled by loaning only to institutions approved by the American Assn. of Museums.

Don't simply sit back and wait for requests. Have your staff propose specific works and even exciting theme shows for specific museums. Play to the museum's strengths and weaknesses.

Make some of these loans long term -- I mean four years at least, to increase the impact. Become teachers and evangelists about your art. Most Americans look on both modern and contemporary art with suspicion, fear and even contempt. Educate them that your treasures are equal to anything mankind has created. But do it in straight English and not art-historical jargon, (although a bit of the jargon might be amusing for the public, especially if it is translated).

Consider new ways to loan works. For example, you could work with college and university museums to mount a loan show for a semester that would form the heart of an ambitious art history course.

Have your staff prepare educational materials to go with your loans aimed at audiences that include first-graders to postgraduates. Of course there should be a catalog -- that goes if even one work is loaned. In that catalog, be honest. Give the entire history of a piece, including the story of various restorations. Even tell the public what you paid for the work and what it is worth today. After all, art has become money, like it or not.

Organize lectures and seminars about the loans. Publish what was discussed at the seminars. Make films about the artists in your collection and distribute them on DVDs. Arrange for focus groups and "town hall meetings" about the loans.

Above all, pick up all costs. I mean wall-to-wall expenses, nail-to-nail, including packing, shipping, painting of a gallery wall where the works will go, new lights, insurance, the catalog and other teaching materials, extra guards if needed -- hey, even the costs of an opening gala.

What I think is so compelling about your idea is that, unlike all art museums that have complicated missions, you can focus purely on two basic and surpassingly important tasks: collecting more works that you love, and sharing them freely with the world. That is truly thrilling.

P.S. I have recently become associated with a small but gorgeous museum in Naples, Fla. Would it be OK if I called you? We could use a loan of a few Pop Art goodies.

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