“Beyond The Broad: A Better Paradigm Is Possible,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Nov. 2015
NOVEMBER 6, 2015
To their credit, art critics from most major news outlets have roundly criticized the inaugural exhibition at The Broad as uninspired, unfocused, lacking in diversity, and reflective of the self-indulgent tastes of the 1%. Indeed, this newly opened, privately funded, and free to the public vanity museum is nothing new. The New York Times’s Holland Cotter compared The Broad to America’s Gilded Age museums, erected by robber barons and aristocrats like Henry Clay Frick, J. P. Morgan, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. The Wall Street Journal’s Eric Gibson contrasted The Broad’s conventional collecting habits with “great American collectors of modern art, people like Duncan Phillips, Albert C. Barnes, Katherine Dreier and Louise and Walter Arensberg,” who “compel our attention today because each possessed an aesthetic outlook unique unto themselves.” All arguments about “taste” aside, I concede that this kind of analysis provides a helpful history lesson in capitalist patronage. However, I suspect that this comparison excuses and normalizes Eli and Edythe Broad’s behavior. Instead, I propose that we contrast the Broads with another couple, whose collecting, exhibiting, and lending habits provide an alternative and inspiring model for the future of American art patronage: Herb and Dorothy Vogel.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed one of the greatest and most important collections of minimal and conceptual art in America, collecting, often in great quantities, works by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, and Bruce Nauman. In over 30 years, the couple never deaccessioned anything in their collection of over 4,000 artworks. They bought art from artists early in their careers, purchasing from studio visits rather than galleries or auction houses. They did all of this using only the income from Herb’s job as a US Postal Service employee while living off Dorothy’s income as a librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library. They maintained their collection in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, collecting art that could fit in the cab or on the subway. In 1992, the couple chose to donate their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was one of the largest single donations the museum has ever received.
In Megumi Sasaki’s Herb & Dorothy, the award-winning 2008 documentary about their lives, Dorothy notes:
We liked the idea of giving works to the National Gallery [of Art in Washington, DC] because they do not deaccession or sell from their collection — it’s in their charter. Once you give something to them, you know it will be staying with them. We like that they’re free and that anybody can go in there and also because we both worked for the government; I worked for the city and [Herb] worked for the federal government. We’re giving it back to the people of the United States.
This statement encapsulates The Vogel’s faith in American values of democracy, freedom, opportunity, and civic duty.
In 2008, with the help of the National Gallery, the NEA, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Vogels set about dispersing their collection, arranging to have 50 artworks from their bequest sent to one museum in each US state. In Sasaki’s 2013 follow up documentary, Herb & Dorothy 50×50, Lora Urbanelli, director of the Montclair Art Museum, notes that the Vogel’s 50 works for her museum are
an institution changing gift for us. And across the country I guarantee it has made a similar impact […] We are living through a time where the money that we take in in order to stay alive is disappearing, so I don’t think we could have had a show like this without the Vogel gift.
The Vogels didn’t want a building bearing their name to house their collection in perpetuity, and yet with their dispersed donation they have guaranteed their influence will span the entirety of America.
The Vogels acquired art not because it was fashionable, part of social and economic aspirations, or because it could guarantee a return on an investment, but because they thought the work to be truly important. The couple built street cred with the artists in their collection because they were there from the beginning, when every artist needs the most support, financially as well as emotionally. Eventually, being in the Vogels collection became a mark of professional accomplishment. In this way, they were content to create sustained influence while not insisting anyone else bend to their demands or side with their aesthetic proclivities.
Compare the Vogels’ history with the Broads, whose collection is expensive and fashionable, filed with humongous pieces purchased mostly through auction houses, art fairs, and galleries that vet each artwork as suitable for entrance into a market ruled by the mega rich. This means they own some very important works, including some of the greatest Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Sherman pieces in private hands. But its what those private hands do that matters. The Vogels reached out and let go of their collection. The Broads hold on tight, using influence over city politics to build a vault to housing their possessions.
One might think The Broad Museum’s free admission policy an act of benevolent generosity. But in fact Los Angeles gave Broad a substantial gift in 2011 when its City Council hastily agreed to use Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) money to help subsidize the construction of his museum’s garage and outdoor plaza, to the tune of over $52 million. As Tibby Rothman and Jill Stewart of the L.A. Weekly pointed out at the time, the CRA funds allocated to The Broad, money intended to reduce poverty and blight, was more than all the money granted to South LA redevelopment combined. It’s hard to imagine anyone perceiving of The Broad’s Grand Ave. location, with its adjacent multi-million dollar condos and iconic Disney Concert Hall (also funded by Broad money), as a more blighted area than South LA, parts of which still bear scars from the 1992 uprising.
The contrast between the Broads and Vogels becomes even starker when considering Eli Broad’s contentious history with Los Angeles arts museums. In 1979 Broad became founding chairman of the city-funded Museum of Contemporary Art, pitching in $1 million of the $13 million that kickstarted its endowment. But after controversy surrounding his negotiation of the museum’s acquisition of the famous Panza Collection of abstract expressionist and pop art, and a thwarted attempt to have the museum’s building officially named after him and his wife, Broad stepped down as chair in 1984. In 1994, Eli Broad joined the board of the Hammer Museum, where he helped negotiate the auction of the museum’s Da Vinci manuscript to Bill Gates for over $30 million, resulting in a sustainable endowment. Just four years later, Broad departed the board after attempting to dip into money from the Da Vinci sale to fund an art center at UCLA to be named after him and his wife. His next stop was LACMA, where he offered a $50 million investment to build (but not endow) a new wing to exhibit his collection of contemporary art, otherwise housed in a building with semi-public access in Santa Monica. Not only did he want the building to be named the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, he demanded it be treated as a museum separate from LACMA. After a contentious reshuffling of the board, which led to the hiring of a new museum director, Broad got his building, though its control remained in the hands of LACMA’s administration — something that perhaps irked the billionaire, because in 2008, on the eve of the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), Broad surprised everyone by saying he had no intention of bequeathing his collection to LACMA. He soon resigned from the board and set to planning a museum over which he and his wife would have complete control.
Similarly, the Vogels had total control over their collection, — until they gave it away, of course — but their notion of the relationship between art and audience is as different from the Broads as is their collecting philosophy. They collected small, sometimes tiny, difficult art, like Richard Tuttle’s 3rd Rope Piece (1974), consisting of a three-inch piece of household rope nailed to the wall, a poetic evocation of uselessness. Their donation to the National Gallery symbolically articulates a trust in the intelligence of those who encounter their collection; they didn’t care about their art’s ability to draw a crowd. Their collection isn’t concerned with what you think as long as you think; you’re given respect for and control over your reaction to the work. The Broads, on the other hand, seem to want viewers to be dazzled by the objects they own. And Broad, who calls himself a “venture philanthropist,” has said he wants “return on his investment,” which, in this case, translates to massive museum attendance. While there’s nothing wrong with bringing in new audiences, if a museum has to sacrifice educational programming and scholarly independence from corporate interests to achieve this goal, the results can be disastrous.
This is clearly seen in Broad’s philanthropic takeover of the Los Angeles MOCA after the 2008 global financial collapse. After discovering that the museum had burned through most of its endowment, Broad “saved” MOCA with a $15 million donation, but insisted on severe austerity measures, accompanied by the departure of the museum’s director. Broad then saw to it that his friend Jeffrey Deitch was installed as the new director. Deitch, a well-known commercial gallery director from New York, had carved out a reputation with the art parades and parties his gallery produced — and the crowds these drew. In Deitch, Broad had what he wanted: a gallerist and showman, not a scholar, someone who would create exhibitions that prioritized attendance and social buzz over rigorous research and robust education programs. This was encapsulated by Deitch’s Art in the Streets exhibition, which drew crowds as well as critical yawns and ended up generating outrage when the museum censored a mural by the artist Blu. After this, Deitch gave James Franco a show, turned the museum over to Mercedes Benz for a free art/party program, and planned a future show on disco culture. This shift towards dumbed-down shows and letting commercial interests influence the museum’s exhibitions, coupled with the forced resignation of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel, eventually caused every artist on MOCA’s board to resign. Deitch’s departure from MOCA was announced in 2013 and, while the market- and crowd-driven programming has decreased since he took his leave, we can look to this saga as just one example of Broad’s conception of the museum as a theme park, a place where entertainment is more important than education.
The Broad will probably continue this legacy and it has every right to do so because it’s a private museum controlled by one family. We can only hope The Broad’s future will be more transgressive than its past. But considering the Broad approach to art collecting side-by-side with the Vogel’s, I can’t help but think that artists and audiences deserve better.