The Broad Rises

Poised to forever alter Los Angeles' art landscape, Eli Broad's museum opens September 20

by Julio Guadalquivir


From atop the white veil of his honeycombed compound — days before it opens to the public — Los Angeles’ cultural caliph Eli Broad looks out across his empire as the sun begins to sink towards the Pacific.

It’s his Gotham; he has rescued its arts reputation from crumbling irrelevancy, kept its museums safe from bankruptcy and reimagined its public arts education system. Inaugurating his personally stocked and financed museum will be the latest and most self-aggrandizing step in solidifying Downtown as Los Angeles’ art center.

But it’s the places in the periphery of Broad’s view that made him a billionaire. He can barely make out the sprawling grid of the Inland Eyesore, blurred by distance and haze. He turns northwest, gazing toward the hills of Valencia and Santa Clarita, the wind whipping his red necktie. Maybe on a clearer day he could see Simi Valley, way out there. These suburbs are where his company KB Homes capitalized on the early ‘80s American obsession with McMansions, denuding the city center. 

Closer, following the lights of Wilshire, he can see LACMA. Where would LACMA be without the $60-million museum-within-a-museum he donated? County tax dollars couldn’t have yielded a Renzo Piano. Who else could have given them the chance to amass the Giuseppe Panza di Biumo collection? 

Scanning the sky closer to his perch, he sees the LAUSD headquarters and the unmistakable towering steel spiral of the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. He encouraged LAUSD to build the school as a flagship for specialized arts education, donating $250,000 and making demands about its direction. 

He’s been criticized for the strings (or “ropes that could moor an ocean liner,” as the New York Times called them) that are always attached to his money. But why should that matter? His brand of billionaire philanthro-vigilantism — making huge donations to traditionally publicly-funded institutions to make his visions realities — might seem overly controlling, but it has allowed for the creation and sustainment of many of Los Angeles’ great cultural landmarks.

Peering down now at the rest of Bunker Hill, he sees his new neighbors on a Grand Avenue he helped concoct. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, MOCA, Grand Park — all icons of culture in Los Angeles bankrolled or negotiated by Broad. Would MOCA still exist had it not been for his $30 million bailout in 2003? 

He is the Los Angeles art world’s most prolific and least anonymous donor, the city’s patrón de arte y cultura. As the last pinkish hues disappear from the sky, he descends into his museum.

Pacing through the darkened third-floor gallery, he inspects freshly installed works by Jeff Koons and Richard Serra, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. He wanders to a room of Warhols, and the smallest print in the room brings a grin to his face. His wife Edythe had wanted to buy that print of a soup can in the 1960s for $100 but passed up the opportunity. In 2006, he bought it for her at auction for $11.8 million.

He takes the central spiral staircase down one floor and pauses near the building’s oculus, the eyelike window in the exterior pattern. Here, he stands in the museum’s brain, the level where his team has been working to reinvent how a museum operates.  He knows it will only be a matter of time before other museums begin to emulate the clever desk-free concierge system where employees use only mobile devices.

Broad continues his descent, which lands him in the vault, lauded as the museum’s most innovative feature beneath the veil. It’s where 99 percent of Broad’s collection will live, protected by 36 million pounds of concrete — the opposite of the decentralized string of anonymous warehouses across LA where he used to keep his treasures. If the Big One ever comes, he, Edythe and his collection will be safe inside this art bunker.

Visitors can view the vault through glass inside the museum, but only serious buyers and select museum staff will have the privilege of entering his subterranean lair. Deep below Grand Avenue, it is the core of his fortress; the practically impenetrable yet highly visible crux of his art world prominence.

Sitting deep within his high-security cave, he marvels at his collection — now large enough to rival that of any contemporary art museum. Who’s to scrutinize the source of his money if he funnels it back into the arts and the center of the city? All his hard work has paid off; he has spent decades amassing these great works and now he’s inviting the world to Downtown Los Angeles to enjoy them for free. Los Angeles’ thriving cultural landscape undeniably has him to thank.

Leaving now, he turns off the lights and locks the door to the vault while pondering the future. With the Broad opening September 20, what will he save next? Perhaps he’ll invest in Skid Row, building housing for the homeless. Maybe he’ll donate to the understaffed Los Angeles Public Library so it can properly archive and display its rare book collection. Will he fund research on ways to curb California’s historic drought? Whatever it is, Broad will dutifully continue to watch over his city, to shape his ideal Los Angeles.