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Finding the silver lining at LACMA

The director says it might not have title to Broad's collection, but it still has more space.

January 15, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

When you're director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, talking money from billionaires is part of the job description. But now LACMA Director Michael Govan faces a tougher task: hailing Eli Broad's generosity and opening LACMA's new Broad Museum of Contemporary Art while Broad tells the world how he decided not to give the museum his art collection.

"Eli has never changed his story with LACMA," Govan said on the afternoon after Broad's decision hit the headlines last week. "He has never promised something he hasn't delivered. . . . He's made a huge investment in this place."

Indeed, Broad footed the $56-million cost of putting up the new building and put up about $10 million more to buy two artworks for the inside. But LACMA's connection with Broad is "an evolving relationship," Govan said.

On Feb. 16, LACMA will unveil the building, nicknamed BCAM, with its interiors dominated by 220 pieces borrowed from Broad and his Broad Art Foundation.

Through years of plan-laying and fundraising for LACMA's expansion, Broad, a LACMA trustee, said that those and about 1,800 other artworks in his control would probably go to one or more museums eventually. But last week he declared a new strategy: Have his foundation keep all the artworks but lend them frequently.

LACMA officials say their agreement with Broad says the museum can borrow and display up to 200 works at a time from Broad and the Broad Art Foundation during Eli Broad's lifetime.

"I do imagine that many of these works will live at LACMA," said Govan. "Will they be owned by LACMA? I'm not sure it matters."

Govan and LACMA contemporary art curator Lynn Zelevansky maintain that Broad's decision was no surprise to them, but it was to the rest of the art world, which has seen LACMA left in the lurch by would-be donors including Norton Simon (who started his own museum in 1975) and Armand Hammer (who started his own museum in 1990).

Honestly, Govan was asked, who wouldn't rather have ownership than a long-term loan?

"It's just not an easy question with a collection this large," the director insisted, noting the cost of storing and caring for the works, many of which are very large, as their roles in art history grow and shrink. Ultimately, Govan said, "you want the masterpiece on view, for the public, at LACMA."

In the larger picture, "the museum can't lose," said Govan. "We've not risked anything."

He even found a "silver lining" to Broad's decision to hold on to his art: This "should make it easier" to woo other collectors, who may have felt that LACMA's new space was Broad's exclusive playground, Govan said. "The working assumption out there was that this was just for the Broad Collection."

Still, Govan's duties in getting BCAM open now include facing pointed questions over what Broad is giving and getting. By the time Govan arrived at LACMA in early 2006 -- in large part because of Broad's support -- plans for BCAM were well underway. Broad had already pledged $50 million for the new building and $10 million for art to go inside, and he selected architect Renzo Piano. (Although the building cost grew by $6 million, LACMA officials note, Broad has promised to pay the entire cost.)

Govan noted that the unorthodox decision to call Broad's building a "museum" within a museum was made by predecessor Andrea Rich.

Would Govan have made that decision?

"I don't know. I've gone back and forth on it," the director said.

The most important part of BCAM's opening, Govan said, is that Los Angeles is about to have 58,000 square feet of contemporary art exhibition space that it didn't have before, thanks to Broad. (The museum is also unveiling a new $25-million entrance pavilion bankrolled by energy company BP.)

Broad, 74, amassed his fortune in the housing and financial-services industries and has been a philanthropic force nationwide for more than two decades, channeling money to cultural, education and scientific causes. In business and philanthropy, he has been known as a deal maker who makes the most of his leverage.

In describing his move last week, he said that one option he considered was "to build our own museum as others have done. We chose not to do that. But we were concerned that if we gave our collection to one or several museums, 90% or so would be in storage all the time."

Pieces borrowed from Broad and his Broad Art Foundation will dominate the new space for the next year, Govan said, but after that, LACMA is free to display whatever it wants to -- not only works from Broad but also special exhibitions such as a planned 2009 show on German art during the Cold War, which is likely to rely heavily on artworks borrowed from institutions worldwide.

Govan envisions that one-third of BCAM's space will be devoted to items that will largely stay put, another one-third to exhibitions changing every six to 12 months and another one-third to temporary exhibitions lasting roughly three months.

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