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Eli Broad offers life lessons in 'The Art of Being Unreasonable'

The billionaire businessman, art collector and philanthropist reveals the unifying principles and strategies that have made it all possible.

May 04, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • The jacket cover of "Eli Broad: The Art of Being Unreasonable"
The jacket cover of "Eli Broad: The Art of Being Unreasonable" (Wiley, Wiley )

For more than half a century, Eli Broad has taken inspiration from a paperweight on his desk, a gift from his wife, Edythe, that has become the cornerstone for a new "how to" book for anyone who might wonder "What would Eli do?"

On it is a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Broad has called his 165-page text, written with former Los Angeles Times staffer Swati Pandey, "The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking." He surveys important episodes in his life, passing along lessons he's drawn from them.

Much of the book focuses on the career as a homebuilder and head of a retirement savings company that made Broad, 79 next month, worth $6 billion (he confirms the figure on his first page). But he doesn't give short shrift to his life in the cultural world — as an art collector, a builder of art museums (both literally and figuratively) and a fundraiser who helped revive the long-stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall project in 1997.

Broad's advice really isn't at all unreasonable. He advocates doing one's homework before embarking on a venture (he did so before asking his father-in-law for the $12,500 loan that launched him as an entrepreneur after being fired from his first job as a certified public accountant), diversifying one's investments, knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em — and getting a good eight hours' sleep each night.

He ends the book, which will be released Tuesday, with a chapter called "Reflections and Second Thoughts," in which he admits that his achievements in civic and business life have come at a cost. As a father to sons Jeffrey and Gary, he writes, "I was serious, focused, demanding, and not much fun. I took the boys with me to tour subdivisions, and now I realize that's not exactly how kids want to spend their weekends. I missed too many moments, and I regret it…. Time with my sons was precious, but unfortunately rare." He says that marrying his wife, to whom the book is dedicated, was "the one brilliant choice that outshines everything else I have done."

"I think I'm very reasonable," Broad said by telephone Wednesday. "It's others who view me as unreasonable because I'm too demanding and tackle things they don't think can be accomplished." Broad doesn't mind — Chapter 18 is titled "It's Better to Be Respected Than Loved."

He says he began working on the book with Pandey last October; by then they'd already commenced a full-length biography that's in its early stages. In the meantime, some of the most entertaining morsels Broad shares in print stem from his art collecting. It is, after all, what he does for fun.

"Edye had wanted to buy a Warhol soup can print in the 1960s for $100 but didn't for fear I would think she was nuts — which I probably would have," he writes. By the time he'd had his light-bulb moment and begun to appreciate the pop art master, the price had gone up a bit — Broad paid $11.7 million at auction for Warhol's "Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot)." When the gavel came down, he reports, "I had bid so discreetly that [Edythe] didn't realize I was the winner….she whispered in my ear, 'What idiot paid that much?'"

Broad writes that his collecting isn't purely about art for art's sake: When he switched to contemporary art after getting started with a Van Gogh drawing, "it was, in part, a homework-based decision" — he'd concluded that "the best collections were generally built at the time the artists were alive.... Your money also goes further. Mostly, though ... it moves me and it makes me think.

"People think it's strange how briskly I move through museums," Broad adds. "Sure, I could stand in front of each piece and stare at it for a good long time. But that's not me. Usually I'm there to learn and apply my knowledge to our collections. As much as I would like to stay, I have to move on."

He writes that he has more patience for watching artists at work in their studios. "They follow their vision no matter how strange it seems according to the conventional wisdom. I can relate to that."

He confesses that his preference for taking care of business briskly led to his resignation from the board of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in the 1980s. "Unfortunately, the boards of art institutions tend to be populated with well-meaning supporters of the arts who often lack any business background or appetite for imposing appropriate discipline. My style didn't seem like a good fit for the board."

"The Art of Being Unreasonable" sheds a bit of light on how MOCA, founded in 1979 and opened in 1983, managed to corral the cornerstone of its impressive collection.

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