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.”

Chicano Artists Need Not Apply

The Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, California, is celebrating its grand reopening with a month long series of events that focus on Latino culture. Agustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the new MOLAA in his article, Latin American Art museum reopens with new look, attitude, but regrettably Gurza’s revealing dialog with MOLAA’s executive director Gregorio Luke, divulges not a new attitude - but the same old one. The Latin American Art museum still maintains a protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists.

Mr. Gurza’s article is peppered with accolades for MOLAA and Luke, who was the former cultural attaché for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Gurza writes: “You could call MOLAA the little museum that could, totally upstaging the massive metropolis to the north. It’s almost a scandal that L.A. has no comparable Latino-themed museum — not yet anyway.” The unnamed institution Gurza refers to is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which has had an abysmal track record when it comes to exhibiting works by Chicano/Latino artists - but to say it’s “almost a scandal” that L.A.’s galleries and museums ignore Chicano/Latino artists is the understatement of the year.

Having long been intimately involved with L.A.’s Chicano art circles, I can personally attest to the hurt, confusion, feelings of dejection, indignation and outright anger expressed by Mexican American artists over MOLAA’s unshakable insistence on exclusively showing only Latino artists from south of the U.S.-Mexican border - as if Latino artists born within the borders of the U.S. were completely invisible and irrelevant. It is one thing to have mainstream cultural institutions in the U.S. ignore the indigenous Chicano arts movement and artists of Latin American heritage - but it is quite another to be totally disregarded by an institution claiming to speak for Latin American artists.

MOLAA’s unjustifiable stance is a slap in the face to the many talented Chicano and Latino artists who for decades have struggled within the United States to maintain and expand a distinctive cultural heritage and set of unique aesthetics. The Chicano school of art for one, is well established and recognized internationally, and it’s high time for MOLAA to acknowledge the movement as having a well deserved place in the wider family of Latin American artists.

In a March 25th, 2007 article for the New York Times titled, The Art’s Here, Where’s the Crowd?, Edward Wyatt examined Los Angeles as “the nation’s second art capital,” and he scrutinized the big players who pull the strings, particularly Eli Broad and his backing of LACMA:

“Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with road) has generated a fair amount of resentment in some corners here for his outsized presence on the art scene. His devotion to the downtown projects have been criticized as ignoring pockets of the city that have less access to the arts, like the largely Hispanic sections of East Los Angeles and the areas south of downtown that have large African-American populations.”

It is no exaggeration to say that Chicano and Latino artists have come to expect being overlooked by the likes of Broad, LACMA - and now MOLAA. But the cultural gulf widened significantly when news spread that the new Museo Alameda Smithsonian (or MAS, “More” in Spanish) officially opened its doors on April 12th, 2007, in San Antonio, Texas. The question arises - If there is a mainstream museum dedicated to Chicano/Latino art in Texas, why is there no similar arts institution in California with its enormous Chicano/Latino population and vibrant Chicano/Latino arts community?

Gurza’s L.A. Times article quotes Gregorio Luke as saying: “I used to think only in terms of Mexico and Mexican culture, but for me, these years at MOLAA have suddenly made me appreciate the art of Peru and Ecuador, the music of Brazil, the pupusas of El Salvador and the mate of Argentina. I think the museum is going to be able to inspire this expanded sense of identity for everybody that comes to it.” But the MOLAA director’s alleged “vision of a pan-Latin American culture that crosses national boundaries” inexplicably stops short of embracing those Latinos who happen to live within the United States. Gregorio Luke takes the deplorable posture of extending consideration to Mexican artists, while absolutely denying any attention to their gifted Mexican American counterparts.

Gurza’s article makes a single oblique remark concerning MOLAA’s graceless and blinkered policy, “One important element is missing from the artistic mission of MOLAA - the art made in its own backyard.” As long as that observation remains true, the Museum of Latin American Art will remain a stunted and unfulfilled institution in contention with America’s Latino population.

UPDATE: The Museo Alameda Smithsonian closed its doors in Sept. of 2012 due to financial difficulties.

Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New

On February 1st, 2007, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art CEO Michael Govan and postmodernist “King of Kitsch” Jeff Koons, were featured speakers at a LACMA public event billed as a conversation on “the role of artists in shaping the museum of the future.” At the event the duo publicly announced plans to erect Koons’ Train, an enormous structure made of an actual 70-foot fabricated steam locomotive hanging from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane.

To be located at LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance” on Wilshire Boulevard, the suspended train will spin its wheels, whistle and blow-out steam three times a day; and according to Govan, “The beautiful thing is that we would see it from the 10 freeway and from downtown” - which to those not familiar with L.A. means the structure will be visible from most points in the sprawling metropolis. New York Arts Magazine reported that Govan compared the project to the Eiffel Tower, “expressing hope that the piece would become a landmark for Los Angeles.”

Train - by Koons

[ Train - Model by Jeff Koons Production / Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane, is to be placed in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." ]

If Train reminds you of the works created by the Dadaists or Surrealists, or perhaps the readymades constructed by Marcel Duchamp - think again. The aforementioned were outsiders who used art to blow-up the traditions and power centers of the elite art world. Koons on the other hand is an insider who is wedded to privilege, as is evident from the $1 million given to LACMA by the Annenberg Foundation, funds to be used in conducting engineering studies on the feasibility of Koons’ proposed construction. Train also has the backing of billionaire and LACMA trustee Eli Broad, who has donated $60 million to LACMA for the construction of The Broad Contemporary Art Museum - which by the way will house Broad’s collection of twenty Jeff Koons originals.

Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, “A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.” There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think! However, there is great irony in Train - though certainly Koons, Govan, Broad, and their supporters are hopelessly unaware of this. The U.S. passenger train and light-rail industry was effectively destroyed through the combined rise of private automobiles, diesel buses, the development of an Interstate Highway System, and the use of trucks and planes for freight transport. Naturally, oil companies and their supporting industries benefited enormously from this shift. The irony is that in order to see Koons’ ludicrous steam locomotive one must first pass through the “BP Grand Entrance” - LACMA’s paean to the power and glory of big oil. Though unintentional, Koons’ Train gives us a representation of the U.S. passenger train industry crucified by the might of the petroleum empire.

More than 25 years ago, art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. The series was revised by Hughes in 2004 to reflect current realities, and broadcast on the BBC that same year as, The New Shock of the New. Here’s what Hughes had to say about Koons:

“We decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush’s America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan’s. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton’s on the topography of Hell: “And in the lowest depth, a lower depth”) but for the moment they aren’t apparent, which isn’t to say that they won’t crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton’s lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.”

Condemnation of Koons abounds, but one of the finest critiques made of him and what he represents, can be find in D.S. Baker’s February 1993 article, Jeff Koons And The Paradox Of A Superstar’s Phenomenon, a must read for anyone interested contemporary art:

“As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons’ series Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society - pure surface. Rather than making art from some as-yet-unincorporated enclave, Koons is making art from within the structures of institutional art, as part and parcel of the culture industry.”

The above excerpt from Baker’s article mentioned the series, Made in Heaven, which in my opinion is the best introduction to a vapid artist steeped in narcissism and shallowness. In 1991 Koons married Italian porn-star turned politician, Ilona Staller. Being a shameless self-publicist, Koons had himself photographed naked with his wife engaged in uninhibited sex - the stills becoming the basis for the artist’s Made in Heaven suite of paintings and sculptures. Koons’ had the photos printed in oil based inks on canvas, and insists these abominations are “paintings.” No doubt Billionaire tycoons Eli Broad and François Pinault - who have made the works of Koons a cornerstone of their collections - would agree (You can see the Made in Heaven series here - but be careful, adults only!) In a 1986 interview conducted with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Koons was asked what he thought of advertising, since his works are largely based upon corporate media images, Koons responded:

“It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: ‘Here’s to good friends!’ It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media (…) I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it.”

Koons supposedly represents the “best and brightest” from the national cultural scene - a sad “fact” I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’” In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano

[ An architectural drawing showing Koons‘ Train in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is on the left, with the LACMA Ahmanson on the right. Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano. ]

Another troubling aspect to Koons being placed front and center at the new LACMA is the effect Train will have on the overall look of the museum, giving it the aura of a commercial entertainment theme park like Hollywood’s Universal Citywalk, confirming the clichés people have about culture in a place like Los Angeles. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was initially selected to redesign the museum, but when his plans proved too costly, he was fired and replaced by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. As Piano drew up plans for the renovated museum, LACMA’s director Michael Govan began to interject his own ideas for the look and feel of the revamped institution - bringing the wretched Koons into the picture. L.A. Times staff writer Christopher Hawthorne correctly but politely referred to this as “pulling focus” from Piano’s graceful designs. Hawthorne wrote that Koons’ Train carries:

“…heavy symbolic weight and a sensibility that couldn’t be more different from Piano’s work. The architect’s recent projects stress rationality, the careful manipulation of light and a seamless, elegant marriage of technology and design. The train, which hangs perpendicular to the ground, seems to be hurtling straight at the pavement, ready to smash all those ideas to bits. In part - and there is really no getting around this fact - the new elements also serve to camouflage Piano’s architecture.”

Koons is deficient in his capacity to draw, paint, or sculpt - and like many other postmodernists, he contracts others to actually create his artworks. The manufacture of his objects is handled by a small army of studio assistants at his outfit, Jeff Koons Productions. In the previously mentioned Journal of Contemporary Art interview, he admitted that “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities.” Apologists for this type of art production say that its no different than the medieval or renaissance art workshops where apprentices labored under the direction of a master artist; but while the masters of old delegated certain tasks to other artists or assistants, they were more than mere directors, they were intimately involved in the actual work. That could even be said for a modern like Andy Warhol and his factory. The lowliest paint mixer in a renaissance workshop would have been a better draftsman than Koons - but these days, not having the “necessary abilities” is no impediment to becoming an art star with a lucrative career. Nevertheless, Koons is no master artist, and it is an embarrassment that LACMA actively promotes him.

LACMA: Director Govan & BP Oil

Interesting revelations concerning energy giant BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were made in a March 6th, 2007, article by the Los Angeles Times. The paper revealed that sometime in 2006 the chairman and president of BP America, Bob Malone, asked billionaire Eli Broad - who is heavily financing LACMA’s reconstruction - to recommend causes in L.A. where the oil company “could make a difference.” It was Mr. Broad who first suggested LACMA as a recipient of funds from BP. From then on, Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, enthusiastically cozied up to BP’s top executive officers in London. One can only imagine the exchanges that went on behind those closed doors - but the result was a $25 million “gift” from BP to LACMA and Govan’s pledge to name the museum’s new entry way, “The BP Grand Entrance.” The Times quoted Govan as saying “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy…. We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Mr. Govan is undeniably a sophisticated fellow who appreciates the mechanisms of wealth and power in our globalized society, but it is entirely out of the question that he is ignorant of the controversies surrounding BP - one of the world’s most rapacious oil companies. Even the briefest exploration of BP’s dismal record will turn up enough facts so as to throw serious doubt upon Govan’s sincerity and credibility - yet he persists in singing the praises of BP, the “sustainable energy” giant. Here we must consider the likelihood that a high-powered PR firm is coaching Govan’s public statements. In the meantime, read what some critics have to say about BP - Mr. Govan’s new found friends in the oil industry.

LACMA - BP logo

[ LACMA - BP logo. Published in an official March 6, 2007, LACMA press release announcing the oil giant’s "gift" to the museum. ]


Green Logo, but BP Is Old Oil. - By Joe Nocera. August 12, 2006. (New York Times) “Yet at its core, BP remains an oil company, and no matter how much it says it wants to create more environmentally sensitive sources of energy, its basic task is still to stick holes in the ground in search of hydrocarbons.”

Behind the spin, the oil giants are more dangerous than ever. - By George Monbiot. Tuesday June 13, 2006. (The Guardian) “The green rebranding of Shell and BP is a fraud. Far from switching to biofuels, it’s drilling and devastation as usual (…) BP’s rebranding, like Shell’s, has been so effective that you could be forgiven for believing that it had become an environmental pressure group. These companies have used the vast profits from their petroleum business to create the impression that they are abandoning it.”

Oil Slicks: BP’s new eco-friendly ad campaign makes no sense. - By Daniel Gross. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002. (slate.com) “If our kids should be so fortunate as to live in a world beyond petroleum, one in which cars, factories, and electricity plants are powered by an alternative power source-hydrogen, fuel cells, electric batteries, ethanol, fission, or fairy dust-it’s a virtual certainty BP won’t be the one to get us there.”

Report slams BP, cites organization, safety deficiencies. - By Edward Iwata. Tue, March 20th, 2007. (USA TODAY) “A federal report Tuesday blasted energy giant BP for sweeping ‘organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels’ that led to the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 and injured 180. In its largest investigation ever, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found in a 335-page report that 25% budget cuts at BP’s plants, including Texas City, ‘left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe.’ (….) ‘After the 2005 disaster, OSHA fined BP $21 million - its largest penalty in history - for 300 safety violations.

BP chief fields barrage of questions on ethics. - By Andrew Clark. Friday April 20, 2001. (The Guardian) “5% of investors voted for BP to withdraw from its shareholding in Beijing-controlled PetroChina (….) PetroChina is planning to build an oil pipeline through Tibet. Opponents, including the Dalai Lama, say this threatens local culture and will lead to large-scale population transfer (….) The International Campaign for Tibet, suggested BP’s new slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’ should be changed to ‘Beijing’s Partners’or ‘Backing Persecution’. He said BP was ‘utilizing every arcane and legalistic tool to stifle debate on the matter.’”

LACMA: Broad, Beuys, & BP

Eli Broad is ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion dollars. Touted as a philanthropist interested in raising the cultural profile of Los Angeles, Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”), has been busy putting his stamp on L.A. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is currently a powerful trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where his $60 million “gift” will build The Broad Contemporary Art Museum to house his massive collection of modern art.

The Broad Art Foundation has made known its unparalleled acquisition of 570 artworks by German artist, Joseph Beuys (pronounced “boyz”). The huge collection was procured for an undisclosed sum, and comprises the most complete body of work by the deceased artist now held in the United States. Eli Broad said of his purchase, “We consider this an opportunity to make a real difference in Los Angeles’ emergence as a world capital for contemporary art. An artist as significant as Beuys should be strongly represented here.” LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, has promised that the works of Beuys will be placed on exhibit when the museum unveils its new multi-million dollar facilities in early February, 2008. Govan said “Beuys is one of the most important artists of the post-war era,” and “therefore ideal to present at the opening of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.”

I must admit that I’m not a devotee of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He is credited by enthusiasts of postmodernism as one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, but to me his performances or “actions” as he called them, were obscurantist affairs at best - and his installation works were equally baffling. For example, in his infamous 1965 performance/action, How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Beuys covered his head in honey and gold leaf and moped before a live audience while carrying a dead hare through an exhibit of pictures - all the while talking to the lifeless animal. However, unlike many of today’s conceptualists, Beuys believed in art as a catalyst for revolutionary change. This dedication to a transformative social art was a primary force behind the artist’s performances and artistic activities. In his 1973 statement, Art into Society, Society into Art, Beuys wrote;

“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art, to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A Social Organism as a work of art’… every human being is an artist, who - from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions of the total art work of the future social order.”

In 1979 his intense interest in radical democracy led Beuys to found the Green Party along with Petra Kelly and Heinrich Böll. That same year Beuys ran for election as a Green Party European Parliament candidate - an election that the left-wing environmentalist party failed to win. In 1980 Beuys was the leading candidate for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia, but again the party failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. Those setbacks notwithstanding, Beuys continued to support the Green Party and the vision of a “free democratic socialism.” In 1982 Beuys began his 7000 Oaks project for the Documenta 7 international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The endeavor involved the planting of seven thousand trees across the city of Kassel, a deed aimed at implementing social and environmental change. Beuys fervently believed in art as the key to creating a better world, and he viewed society itself as a constantly evolving work of art where everyone played a creative role - hence his famous statement, “Everyone is an artist.”

Green Party election poster designed by Joseph Beuys

[ Election Poster for the Green Party - Designed by Joseph Beuys, 1979-1980. The legend reads: "With this choice, the Green Party." ]


You just have to marvel over the contradiction of an elite art institution flaunting the artworks of an anti-capitalist, radical environmentalist artist. Beuys once said, “We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism.” Once the new LACMA opens in 2008, in order to see the Beuys collection in The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, you’ll have to walk through that damned “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion - constructed with the $25 million the oil company gave LACMA. It’s not difficult to imagine what the former Green Party candidate would think of this folly - and what he might do if still alive today. In 1985, just a year before his death, Beuys wrote the words that should be emblazoned on the walls of the BP pavilion;

“Art that can not shape society and therefore also can not penetrate the heart questions of society - and in the end influence the question of capital - is no art.”

LACMA: The Oil Museum

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), after receiving $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company BP (British Petroleum), plans to dedicate a new entry gate and pavilion to the energy Goliath. To be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”, the construction is nothing more than an edifice to big oil and the clearest example yet of the increasing corporatization of the arts in America.

Historically, the largesse of wealthy benefactors has always played a role in the arts, with the names of well-heeled patrons gracing museum wings and collections. But there is something unseemly about naming part of an art museum after a transnational oil conglomerate - especially when considering the increasingly toxic role of oil companies in today’s world. President of BP America, Bob Malone, said the donation represents the energy giant’s “commitment to the arts” - but scrutiny of the oil-smeared endowment reveals a public relations campaign designed to erase public memory of BP’s dirty doings.

Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop

[ Aerial view of the model for a proposed new LACMA. Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop. Red dot: LACMA West - the former May Company building at Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. Yellow dot: Location for the so-called "BP Grand Entrance" - a massive entry pavilion devoted to the power and glory of big oil. Blue dot: Japanese Pavillion. Green dot: La Brea Tar Pits. In between the yellow and blue dots, current museum facilities are to be completely renovated. ]

BP’s contribution will go towards a costly three-part expansion and renovation of LACMA’s facilities. The oil leviathan’s cash has swollen the money available for the first phase construction to $191 million. Italian architect Renzo Piano has won the commission to redesign and unify LACMA’s expansive site. Billionaire Eli Broad and his wife Edythe gave $60 million to the overhaul project. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to be built just west of the “BP Grand Entrance”, will connect to LACMA’s existing main wing and will house Eli Broad’s collection of modern art. The new LACMA and its edifice to the petroleum industry, is scheduled to open February of 2008.

In a March 6th article on the oil company’s “gift” to LACMA, the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Putting an oil company’s name on LACMA’s doorway brings an unusually high potential for controversy.” Indeed - and here comes the controversy! Despite the endless and well-financed public relations spin concerning BP’s alleged “commitment to sustainable energy”, the fact of the matter is that BP is part of the “OILigarchy” - the rapacious fossil fuel industry responsible for global warming and massive environmental destruction. BP reported profits of $22 billion in 2006, and the company currently has an ongoing commitment to increase its oil production by 5% - a policy that must be linked to the very real crisis of fossil fuel-induced climate change.

Photo by Gary Leonard

[ The "BP Grand Entrance" under construction. Photo by Gary Leonard. ]

BP invests less than 1% of its annual budget in solar and other renewable energy sources - a smaller amount than it spends yearly on public relations and advertising. That fact must be kept in mind, as the “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion will be topped by solar panels allegedly there to help fill LACMA’s energy needs. However, the real task of the solar panels is a propagandistic one. BP wishes to pawn itself off as a green energy company, and LACMA - for a price - is only too happy to collude.

As the L.A. Times noted in its March 6th article, BP has paid more than $125 million in legal settlements in the State of California since 2002. Quoting the L.A. Times article, “BP paid the state $45.8 million to settle a suit over pollution from leaking gasoline storage tanks. Later, air quality regulators sued over leakage of smog-forming chemicals at BP’s Carson refinery. BP settled for $81 million.”

In 2005, BP’s Texas City Refinery exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. U.S. government agencies investigating the blast found that BP’s excessive safety and budget cuts had led to the tragedy. More than 1,700 lawsuits have been filed by injured workers, with some 1,200 claims being settled out of court by BP in order to avoid bad publicity. The oil company has set aside $1.6 billion dollars to settle cases out of court. In the wake of the explosion in Texas, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), opened investigations into two of BP’s Midwestern refineries, finding the oil giant guilty of violating 39 safety regulations. OSHA issued penalty citations totaling $2.4 million dollars - BP hopes to settle out of court.

In 2006 BP was forced to shut down half of its oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, when the company’s worn-out, corroded pipelines began to leak - dumping an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude oil onto Alaskan tundra. On March 6th, 2007, Reuters reported that “Oil major BP’s failure to maintain pipelines properly at its giant Prudhoe Bay field was a major factor behind Alaska’s worst-ever onshore crude spill last year.” In that same report Reuters interviewed Thomas Barret, the head of the U.S. Department of Transport (one of the U.S. government agencies investigating the spill), who said; “What was most unusual was to have an operator like BP not maintaining these pipelines to the standards we typically see in the industry.”

BP is behind the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline - the second longest pipeline in the world - transporting crude oil from fields in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline runs across the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, all of which are conflict zones with notorious human rights records. BP has signed “production-sharing agreements” with the three host governments, neo-colonial contracts that bypass respective national environmental and social laws and place the overwhelming majority of profits in the hands of BP and its partners.

And speaking of oil pipelines in conflict zones, in 2006 BP secretively paid out a multi-million dollar settlement to Columbian farmers who were terrorized by right-wing death squads “protecting” BP’s 500-mile long Ocensa oil pipeline. A thousand poor Columbian farmers filed a human rights challenge in the High Court of London, charging BP with benefiting from the bullying and persecution meted out by the rightist militias. A Columbian lawyer attempting to assist the farmers discovered she was on a paramilitary death list, and fled to Britain where she was granted political asylum. While the total compensation paid to the farmers is unknown, it is believed to have totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. Part of the settlement stipulated BP would bear “no admission of liability” for the beatings, death threats, and property damage suffered by the farmers.

Of course BP has a long history in the Middle East, where seventy percent of the world’s oil reserves are found. Western powers thirsty for petroleum and a need to control the region’s black gold have historically resorted to colonialism, the backing of dictatorships, the proliferation of weapons, and as we see today in Iraq - outright war and occupation.

During the first week of March, 2007, the Anglo-American backed government of Iraq, approved a draft law that will essentially turn over Iraq’s oil wealth to American and British companies. The Iraqi oil legislation bill promotes a “production-sharing agreement” that would guarantee foreign companies up to 70 percent of the revenues obtained from exploiting Iraqi oil, giving U.S. and British oil companies the unrestricted right to take oil profits out of the country, rather than reinvesting them in Iraq. The lion’s share of Iraq oil profits will therefore go to Shell, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and yes - BP. The draft law still needs final Iraqi government approval before it can be enacted, but with U.S. and British military might keeping the Iraqi government in power - passage is sure to be a “done deal.”

The roots of BP’s meddling in the Middle East go back to 1909. In that year, through an agreement with the Shah of Iran, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) began to exploit the oil resources of Persia, obtaining petroleum that fed the British war machine during World War 1. In 1936 Persia was renamed Iran, and APOC became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In 1951 the Iranian parliament passed a bill that nationalized the oil industry, effectively barring British exploitation of Iranian petroleum and causing the Shah - and AIOC - to flee the country. The British then colluded with the U.S. and the C.I.A. to organize the infamous coup that overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and his democratically elected government. On August 19th, 1953, Mossadeq was driven from power, the pro-Western Shah was restored, and in 1954 AIOC became known as The British Petroleum Company (BP) - which of course immediately resumed pumping oil out of Iran.

Credited with such a laundry list of misdeeds, it is not surprising that others have taken notice of BP’s destructive schemes, and have called for resistance to big oil’s sponsorship of the arts. The National Portrait Gallery of London, England, was established in 1856, and it’s the repository for some of that nation’s greatest historic portraits. The gallery holds an annual portrait competition that has launched the careers of several portrait artists. Since 2004 the celebrated competition has been sponsored by none other than BP, and the competition is now known as the “BP Portrait Award.”

In response, English artists and environmental activists started a group called, Art Not Oil, which seeks to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts. The group’s mission statement encourages “artists to create work that explores the damage that companies like BP and Shell are doing to the planet, and the role art can play in counteracting that damage.” The misconduct of BP and other oil companies is continually and determinedly exposed through the art exhibits, educational forums and public protests mounted by the artist activists of Art Not Oil. It is unquestionably time to establish a similar organization in Los Angeles - either that or get used to calling LACMA - The Oil Museum.

[ UPDATE: Art critic Walter Robinson at artnet.com picked up the LACMA/BP story in a March 16th, 2007, Artnet News article titled Stink over BP deal with LACMA.]