Category: Eli Broad

The Broad Boondoggle

Artist's conception of The Broad courtesy of Diller Scofidio+Renfro.

Artist's conception of The Broad courtesy of Diller Scofidio+Renfro.

On January 6, 2011, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad unveiled the architectural plans for his new downtown L.A. art museum - which will of course be named, “The Broad.”

The $130 million, three-story, 114,000-square-foot museum will be located on L.A.’s historic Bunker Hill, across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On its list of the 400 richest Americans Forbes magazine places Eli Broad at number 44, calculating his net worth for 2010 at $5.8 billion. The Broad museum is being constructed to house Mr. Broad’s private collection of postmodern art by the likes of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Joseph Beuys. According to Forbes, Broad’s collection is valued at more than $1 billion.

Eli Broad is on the Board of Regents at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a lifetime trustee for both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). In December of 2008 he bailed out a financially insolvent MOCA to the tune of $30 million. That same year the “Broad Contemporary Art Museum” (BCAM) opened on the LACMA campus, a building Broad had financed with a $56 million donation; however, the tycoon shocked LACMA by announcing he would not donate his vaunted collection to LACMA, but instead would loan it out to museums around the world through his “Broad Art Foundation.” Broad’s entire collection will now be housed at the forthcoming Broad in downtown L.A. It should not be forgotten that Broad helped arrange the $25 million donation that British Petroleum (BP) made to LACMA, which resulted in that museum constructing its odious “BP Grand Entrance.”

Artinfo reported on the unveiling of the Broad museum architectural plans with the headline, Is L.A.’s Broad Museum Already Losing Its Edge? The mildly critical article bluntly stated that the museum’s design by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro “has been edited by the museum’s billionaire founder,” while also asking whether the architectural plans for the upcoming museum are “in the process of being lobotomized.” Kevin Ferguson of Southern California Public Radio (89.3 KPCC), made a tongue in cheek critique of the building’s “cutting edge” architecture when he wrote, “I can’t stop thinking of cow innards when I see it.” Indeed, the edifice Mr. Broad intends to build to himself does bear a striking resemblance to a gigantic mound of tripe, and it is amusing to contemplate what The Broad will look like after vast flocks of pigeons take up residence in the museum’s porous honeycomb outer walls. But these are trifling concerns when stacked up against the economic realities behind the new museum.

In August 2010, writer Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece for Reason Magazine titled, Why Is Eli Broad Renting a Full Block of Downtown L.A. for $6,481.48 a Month? Cavanaugh opened his article with the following bombshell:

“Eli Broad’s new agreement to build a downtown Los Angeles art museum gives the capricious billionaire and medieval patron of the arts what may be the sweetest rental deal of the century: a 99-year lease of a large parcel in downtown L.A. for a mere $7.7 million.

If that figure is accurate, this means one of the 100 richest people on the planet is leasing a full block on Grand Avenue for $6,481.48 a month. The owner of the land (in this case, L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency) could have gotten more than that with four rental units.”

Cavanaugh contends that in a conversation with a staffer in the office of L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, he was told that Broad is leasing the entire downtown city block of public land for one dollar a year - the going rate for cultural institutions. Apparently $7.7 million is not the lease price for the property, but what Broad agreed to pay the city for donations towards affordable housing under a 2004 Disposition and Development Agreement. Cavanaugh was able to reach William T. Fujioka, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the County of Los Angeles, who confirmed these details, though Cavanaugh alleges Mr. Fujioka stated the agreed upon $7.7 million price was the result of tough negotiations with the city. Nonetheless, it is difficult to justify a multi-billionaire paying only $7.7 million for an entire city block of downtown L.A. property when individual condo units in that area sell for as high as $4 million. But then, being a venerated member of the ruling class does have its privileges.

The lease price controversy deepened when the Los Angeles Times published Mike Boehm’s article, Some fine print in the Broad museum deal. Boehm’s article details how “The Broad Collection museum eventually would receive millions of public dollars as a kind of rebate on its construction cost.” Boehm’s exposé is the knock-out punch. Contrary to reports that Broad will finance his museum with his own monies, it is L.A.’s tax-payers, already overburdened by the state and national economic crisis, that will end up footing the bill. Well, at least we know where the funds to clean up after all of those reprobate pigeons will come from.

L.A.’s MOCA in Meltdown

Los Angeles’ flagship museum dedicated to modern art of the last fifty years may cease to exist. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), has been incapacitated by a crushing financial crisis of its own making. On November 19, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The museum has burned through $20 million in unrestricted funds and borrowed $7.5 million from other accounts. Cash from donors is being sought. A merger has not been ruled out.”

It appears that MOCA Director Jeremy Strick and the museum trustees are guilty of a total failure of leadership - not to mention the gross mismanagement of the world famous museum. As a nonprofit institution, MOCA collects little government funding and instead relies on donors for some 80% of its expenses. By checking the GuideStar website, which keeps track of nonprofits and their donors, it has come to light that Strick has a salary of $500,000. Readers should be reminded that the annual compensation of the president of the United States is $400,000. Strick also pays at least five higher-ranking MOCA employees six figure salaries. Furthermore, the Board of MOCA loaned Strick over $500,000 for the purchase of a house - all at a time when the museum is tottering on total financial collapse.

In his Open letter to MOCA’s board of trustees, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight puts the blame for MOCA’s crisis squarely upon Director Jeremy Strick as well as the museum’s trustees; “As trustees your first responsibility is fiduciary, and in that you have been a flop”. Knight went on to disparage the supposed “rescue plans” being considered to save the museum as “shameful”. The irate art critic made the following comments about the proposed rescue strategies:

“One would rent your incomparable painting and sculpture collection to a local foundation - controlled by one of your own trustees! - in exchange for some sort of multimillion-dollar annuity. The other would be a flat-out sale of it to another museum, so that you might shift the fundraising burden elsewhere, take the revenue and continue as an exhibition-only venue.

Yes, we live in a market economy, where art is bought and sold; but one of the glories of an art museum is that it provides refuge from the crude commercial world. When art enters a museum’s permanent collection, it leaves the marketplace behind. That your first instinct is apparently scheming to monetize your extraordinary collection shows that you are not trustees, you are art dealers in disguise.

The third plan I’ve been told about is even worse - total Armageddon. A merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the collection and selected staff would move to the Mid-Wilshire campus and the downtown facilities would close, would mean MOCA would cease to exist. You seem to be willing to allow your own institution, one whose remarkable program and astounding collection are the envy of cities around the world, to simply disappear. Dumbfounding.”

Apparently the Armageddon option has been selected. On the Los Angeles Times arts blog, Knight stated; “(….) here is what I’m told the board is now prepared to do: formally approach the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about a merger, which will effectively mean a transfer of MOCA’s extraordinary collection to the Mid-Wilshire complex.”

To be honest, I have never been enamored of MOCA. True enough, it houses notable works from the likes of Arshile Gorky, Robert Rauscheberg, Jackson Pollock, and others; and in 2003 it did present a wonderful retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud. But as of late MOCA has advanced pointless and vacuous works that tell us nothing about the human condition, witness the loathsome Takashi Murakami. To survive as a viable institution, which seems doubtful at this point, MOCA’s continued existence depends on more than just massive infusions of capital - it requires a new vision. That being said, I take no particular delight in seeing one of the major art museums of my city going to ruin.

MOCA’s dilemma is indicative of the crisis now rippling through the world of elite art institutions, a disaster that will only intensify as late capitalism careens into worldwide depression. But the problem is much more than just financial, it is one of art and culture having reached an aesthetic and political impasse. Breaking through that dead-end to reach the transformative and liberating will be necessary if the crisis in contemporary art is to be resolved.

UPDATES:
Dec. 23, 2008. In its article, MOCA accepts Broad’s lifeline, the Los Angeles Times reports that MOCA has voted to accept a $30-million bailout offered by billionaire Eli Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”). Additionally, MOCA’s director Jeremy Strick has resigned and the ailing museum has appointed UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Charles E. Young as its CEO. Acceptance of the Broad offer ends speculation that MOCA might merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Bloomberg.com reports that in a Dec. 23 joint statement made by MOCA and the Broad foundation, Mr. Broad said; “It is in the best interest of the city for MOCA to remain independent.” There is more irony to be found in that remark than in all of the postmodern art found in MOCA’s collection. In 2007 Broad was ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans - with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion. He is also the founding chairman of MOCA, and his bailout of the institution should be seen in that context. Broad is also chair of the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority, which plans a $1.8 billion “improvement” of the downtown area where MOCA is located.

Nov. 21, 2008. A spokeswoman for MOCA released the following statement: “MOCA has received a letter from the California attorney general’s office. The California attorney general has broad jurisdiction and oversight over California nonprofits, including MOCA. The letter requested information and documents related to the museum’s finances. MOCA is fully cooperating with the attorney general.” So far the office of the attorney general has not commented on its investigation of the museum.

Armed Guards at LACMA

Armed guards carrying clubs and loaded guns now patrol the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the latest addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No less than three armed guards have been seen patrolling the BCAM, with one security officer assigned to watch over Damien Hirst’s installation Away from the Flock - a dead lamb pickled in formaldehyde that Eli Broad purchased in 2006 for $3.38 million.

The armed guards do not patrol any of LACMA’s other galleries, where the museum’s invaluable collection of masterworks by artists from around the world and throughout time are housed; only the pricey postmodern collection of billionaire Eli Broad amassed under the BCAM rooftop are afforded protection by uniformed, gun-toting private security men. Is this part of the supposed “visionary leadership” provided by LACMA Director, Michael Govan?

The open presence of uniformed armed men in a major art museum is abhorrant and contradictory to the very spirit of art - there are certainly wiser and more effective ways of protecting museum collections than the filling of galleries with gun wielding sentries.

LACMA hired the armed guards from Inter-Con Security Systems, Inc., which in its own words is a “leading U.S. security company, providing a full range of physical security services to commercial and industrial customers on four continents. (…) Inter-Con has achieved a position of international leadership in the field of diplomatic security provided to the U.S. and foreign governments.” Once can only imagine what this means, since Inter-Con does not provide a list of its clients. I am not the only one to be annoyed by this development. In his article, Under the gun is no way to view art, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight writes;

“It’s hard to imagine almost any scenario in which an art museum guard might shoot someone, but that bizarre thought keeps bumping around in your brain at BCAM. Needless to say, it has a less than salutary effect on the art experience. As a rule, art museums don’t discuss their security precautions. For obvious reasons, they prefer them to be as unobtrusive as possible. That institutional reticence is what makes this glaring aberration so weird. Visual intimidation by gun- and baton-toting guards shouts that security is a pressing issue — and that BCAM requires more than any museum in town.”

Having set the precedent of introducing uniformed armed security personnel into the galleries of LACMA, perhaps in the near future Mr. Govan will hire Blackwater Worldwide to provide protection for the museum’s so-called “BP Grand Entrance“.

Federal Agents Raid California Museums

On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Agents also conducted a raid on the Silk Roads Gallery of L.A. Looking for stolen antiquities smuggled out of China, Thailand, Myanmar, and pilfered from Native American sites, dozens of Federal agents blocked entry to the museums, serving warrants to museum officials that authorized searches of museum computer archives and records, as well as offices, storage spaces and galleries.

The raids were part of an ongoing, five-year long, Federal undercover investigation into an alleged smuggling ring that sought to profit from stolen artifacts. The Feds contend that a smuggler supplied the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery with looted antiquities, the gallery owners would then sell the works to clients who knew the objects were stolen - providing the dishonest buyers with exaggerated appraisals of worth. The payback came when the gallery owners arranged to have the purchased artworks donated to museums - with the thieves enjoying the inflated tax deductions made for the “gifts.” Unbeknownst to the gallery owners, a “client” they were selling stolen objects to was an undercover Federal agent.

The New York Times called the raids and the investigation they sprang from, “a startling development”, and the Los Angeles Times reported the raids “suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than recent high-profile scandals have indicated.” The paper also mentioned “the warrants served Thursday show prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes.”

LACMA director Michael Govan, held a news conference after the raids to affirm the museum’s complete cooperation with the Federal authorities. Govan admitted LACMA had “about 60 objects” in its collection that are related to the ongoing investigation, but according to the New York Times, “he also defended the museum’s process for reviewing potential donations.” Seems that process is in need of a slight tune up. It looks like a season of calamity has descended upon Mr. Govan. The Federal investigation, combined with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad deciding to keep his massive modern art collection instead of bequeathing it to LACMA, is most likely not the “Happy New Year” the museum director was looking forward to.

Meanwhile, the Federal investigation of the smuggling ring has expanded. In a Jan. 29th article titled “Federal probe of stolen art goes national”, Los Angeles Times staff reporters Jason Felch and Mike Boehm wrote that, “the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.”