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Eli Broad, at home with art

The billionaire philanthropist talks about how he built his collection and the artists he's known along the way.

March 20, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Eli and Edythe Broad are photographed in their Los Angeles home with an original Jasper Johns "Flag" painting.
Eli and Edythe Broad are photographed in their Los Angeles home with an original… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Eli Broad is not known for being effusive, not even when talking about one of his greatest passions: collecting contemporary art. The billionaire philanthropist generally seems more comfortable talking about museum buildings than about the artworks that go inside them.

But earlier this month, Broad opened his Brentwood hilltop home to this writer — and opened up a bit about his personal journey as an art collector, which is expected to culminate in early 2013 with the completion of his new museum downtown. (The 2008 exhibition of his art at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the facility he financed on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus, was eclipsed by the news that he would not donate his artwork there.)

Though far from a gossip — he tends to tell stories in a rather efficient or clipped form — Broad talked about artists he's gotten to know, and artworks that have made an impression.

There's the time that Jean-Michel Basquiat visited his house and stole away to smoke pot in the bathroom. There's the time that President Clinton was guest of honor for a fundraising dinner and recognized a lounging female figure sculpted by George Segal as a woman he used to date in Arkansas.

There was the night when a "soused" Robert Rauschenberg accepted an award on behalf of Cy Twombly at a New York dinner and would not stop talking. "Five minutes goes by, 10 minutes goes by, 20 minutes, 30 minutes," says Broad, sitting in view of two Rauschenberg paintings in a gallery-like living room. "I finally got up and asked him to finish. People after that applauded me and said: 'Thank God you did this.' But others said: 'How could you do that to such a great artist?'"

The story suggests something of Broad's discomfort with sloppy emotional displays. And, yes, he admits that it's easier for him to analyze the price-per-square-foot of a museum building than to interpret a painting inside. "My first career was in public accounting. I was a young CPA, the youngest in the history of the state [of Michigan], so if I look at a spreadsheet I understand it quickly. Numbers are hard and fast," says the man who made a fortune in home construction.

"But it's a very different process looking at a work of art or visiting with an artist," he says, glancing at a dense Anselm Kiefer painting called "Mesopotamia" that has an enigmatic wire loop (or noose?) embedded in the surface. "It's hard to explain your emotions when you see a work of art."

Still, he says he truly enjoys the pursuit that has landed him and his wife, Edythe, on the Artnews top 10 list of collectors worldwide every year for the last 12 years. "Collecting for me isn't just about buying objects. It's an educational process, and I think it's made me a better person. I'd be bored to death if I spent all my time with other businesspeople, bankers and lawyers."

One artist he considers a friend is Jeff Koons, who started as a commodities broker on Wall Street. But they don't talk about the financial markets. "We talk about his work, his family, his children," says Broad, who even got to know Koons' first wife, Italian porn star La Cicciolina. ("She was rather unusual," he says.)

Over the years, the Broads have acquired 33 works by Koons (though, notably, none of the erotic "Made in Heaven" work inspired by La Cicciolina), often by fronting the costs for his expensive productions. Other artists represented in depth in their collection include Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Leon Golub, Chuck Close, Susan Rothenberg and Ed Ruscha.

The Broads also own 120 works by Cindy Sherman, one of roughly a dozen photographers in a collection dominated by paintings. They began buying her prints in the early '80s for only $100 to $200 apiece after seeing "Untitled Film Stills" at her New York gallery, Metro Pictures. "It was more than photography," he says of her role-playing experiments. "It was more like theater."

A common criticism is that the Broads chase art-world trends more than setting them. Maria Bell, a friend and co-chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art board, disagrees.

"They have wound up with a lot of trophies, but these works weren't all trophies when they bought them. They often got in very early," she says. "Eli is a businessman and approaches things methodically, but there's more passion and risk-taking in that collection than people realize."

"I don't think people understand the depth of the collection, in part because so many works have been loaned out to museums," Broad says. "When we open the Broad [museum] on Grand Avenue, we will be able to show 150 to 200 works, the best in the collection. But then we are also going to program three different exhibitions a year of the artists we have in great depth."

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