The Broad Museum opens this week in Los Angeles and it is a spectacular undertaking not without its backstory and questions that inevitably arise about the sociology of opening a 20th century art collection in the 21st century. This major cultural event is the culmination of the drive of a man and his wife that began 60 years ago with him selling retirement insurance and building tract homes in Detroit and then Southern California. All of this would allow him to amass a fortune that permitted him to become one the most significant civic philanthropists in modern Californian history. It is a journey and complex story, and it is unique. Broad’s passion for collecting contemporary art came late, but typically he dove in checkbook in hand, bought heavily and deep, and has been primarily focused on high-end work from the New York School or New York market. The collections has its beginnings in the 50’s and 60’s, and trends towards an obsession with Jeff Koon’s and Takashi Murakami that closes out with the way artists brand themselves in the waning years of the 20th century. There are 200 artists and 2000 works, part of this a smaller group of Los Angeles artists coming into the collection more recently, all gold chip and seemingly vetted by favorite gallery owners, museum directors and curators. If there is a clubbiness about the whole inclusion/exclusion side of things, well this is Broad’s collection, and a reflection of his wealth, power, and certainty about what he thinks is important based on his tastes and inner circle of curators and advisers. Will this collection be seen as one of the most important of our time in 100 years, or the inadvertent product of a bloated U.S. post war culture that controlled most of the world’s wealth? Time will tell if these two extreme positions allow the answers to fall somewhere in-between.
In a way, the collection mimics a diverse blue chip stock portfolio; you’ve seen examples of these artists in most major contemporary museums, some with better pieces, some not. But rarely do they get to be displayed in such inside such a beautiful building. The interior of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro museum is wonderful, allowing for great installations, beautiful natural lighting, modular wall placement, and it all seems effortless. The exterior has its detractors; the waffle shapes doesn’t win everyone over, resembling modernist poured concrete parking structures from Kennedy Airport in the 60’s.
All of Los Angeles is going to want to come see this museum, and they should. It is a national event. I will be going back, to check my assumptions, to just enjoy some brilliant art-making, to partake of their programming, and to ponder if what was made in the past 75 years with a Eurocentric bias bears much relevance to the social and political forces approaching our shores as the rest of the restive world challenges our sense of entitlement and well being. Artists from Los Angeles, maybe not those in the Broad museum, have been telling us for a while a shift in the demographics of power and prestige is happening and it will be big. I didn’t see much evidence of that urgency in the displayed collection with a few exceptions from artists who seemed modestly engaged with what is going on around them. Rather, the art displayed resided comfortably within irony, pop culture, art history or the artists private aesthetic pursuits.
According to the Pew Research Center, in four decades the United States will not have a majority ethnic group, yet the Broad museum lacks a diversity not just in ethnicity but in cultural and social interest. Contemporary art as taught in the Euro-centric academies of our time does not reflect the cultural interests of much of the worlds vibrant cultural centers. Broad’s choices are a reflection of his tastes operating in the upper echelons of a market based economy at a special moment in time when the American art market shifted from modernism to post modernism, from the Cedar Tavern to the Mary Boone Gallery, from the sale of Rosenquist’s F-111 for $30,000 to the Skull’s to the sale of Koon’s “Tulips” to Eli Broad for millions. And all of this seemingly at the speed of light, in one generation, without hesitation, perhaps without any real reflection or evaluation. Make no mistake, this level of the art community wields enormous influence, power, and money. It excludes and includes, it allows an artist to advance their work or not. An artist can go from 0 to 100 and become a mega rich superstar commodity on the strength of the Broad validating their work. At the same time, another artist, simply rejected by the Broad group can vanish into nothingness when word gets out. It is cold, brutal, but it is how all markets work and taste makers operate. Why would the arts be different? Taste makers and gatekeepers operate this way within Foundations where they privilege to whom they give grants, whom they give artist residencies to, which artists get the Fellowships, and so on. There are winners and losers. And within the power structures of the elitist art world designed for the “1%”, even if meant benevolently, will the Broad Collection and Museum be vital and matter in 40 years when the population is not bound to Euro-centric tradition or knowledge? Will the carriers of the Broad legacy change with the rapidly changing face of America, or be fulfilling the conventions Mr. Broad is setting in place? Witness the Getty, bound by its founder’s by-laws, and trying to work around them where they can, which they have done with their photography collection and with their Foundation grants with projects like the Pacific Standard Time. But otherwise, the museum is strictly the vision of its founder.
None of these questions belittles the art at the Broad. Each artist is making what they feel they must, and some of the work is brilliant. They did not make their work for the Broad Museum, he simply bought it and brought it here, and assembled something he liked, what he thinks is the best of the best and that is always debatable. This commentary is about the institution, and whether it as currently envisioned is sustainable headed towards a quickening future, especially in Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Broad and his Director Joanne Heyler respond to the criticisms they have fielded about the collections lack of diversity (and they have to some extent) but whether their successors can cut loose from the white cube, conventional art collecting of the 20th century that has become the stuff of art fairs and see a broader worldview that artists undoubtedly already are seeing.