Mr and Mrs Broad welcome you to LA...

How one couple came to make a city’s art scene, and what happens when they open their own space

By Vincent Bevins

The Broad, Los Angeles, exterior view. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy the Broad, Los Angeles, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York The Broad’s lobby. Photo: Hufton + Crow. Courtesy the Broad, Los Angeles, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), 1989, photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 284 × 284 cm. © the artist The Broad’s third-floor galleries, with installation of works by Christopher Wool and Je—ff Koons. Photo: Bruce Damonte. Courtesy the Broad, Los Angeles, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York

The most remarkable thing about the new Broad museum in Los Angeles may not be the building itself, the exterior of which resembles an engagingly organic and extraterrestrial version of the packing material that comes wrapped around soft fruit. Nor may it be the fact that, after the escalator delivers you into the beast, you are confronted with a veritable who’s who of twentieth-century artists and once-subversive works that have since gained widespread market and popular acceptance. Basquiat? Check. Warhol? Check. The Barbara Kruger work that inspired those Supreme T-shirts? Check. A new T-shirt based on the original? Check. Huge Lichtenstein? Check. Koons overload? Check. Part of one room dominated by large Beuys works? Check.

No, the most remarkable thing about the new Broad (which rhymes with lode), especially to those inexperienced in the ways of the LA artworld, is that it is right across the street from MOCA – cofounded by Broad, and where he fought to have his name on the building. Of course, Los Angeles has other museums. There’s the excellent LACMA – whose contemporary art sits in a building named after Broad and prominently featuring a photo of him and his wife, Edythe – and the Hammer at UCLA – where Broad sat on the board, then left, then returned to re-embrace as he made more donations (including, most recently, his archives, among them home videos and personal photographs, to UCLA’s library).

In such a Broad-dominated art city, the guy builds a huge private museum across the street and slaps his name on it? Doesn’t that feel a bit less Medici and more Donald Trump?

But that’s unkind. The generosity of the eighty-two-year-old insurance and real estate billionaire has propped up the top level of the LA art scene for decades. Those remarkable works at the Broad, which he is offering entirely free to the public, will likely inspire some of the young (or many, many poor: when the cost of living is considered, 27 percent of LA County’s population at one recent count) to get excited about art and dive in deeper.

And Broad himself, in brief conversation with ArtReview, was happy to concede that the situation is not ideal. He smiles sheepishly when told there is likely no other city whose art scene is dominated to such an extent by one couple. When asked whether it would be better if somebody else, like the government or other rich people, stepped in and did more, he answered, “We hope to inspire others,” before Edythe, who is rumoured to like art a bit more than he, chimed in: “We aren’t going to be around forever.” They of course agree that the government should do more to support the arts at all levels. But it seems unlikely the funds to do so will be found here, where the county has been unable to care for its 44,000 homeless inhabitants (including 4,000 veterans).

And as almost everybody will tell you in LA’s topsy-turvy, quasi-hippie, no-rules-and-no-shame artworld, ’twas ever thus. Everywhere else, it may feel like we are moving away from the era of the public museum to a private, ego-dominated landscape. But in Southern California, that era of public ownership and civic engagement never existed, not even in some collectively imagined, idealised version of the past.

Here, nothing really ever has been public. LA was built around real estate speculation, oligarchic control of development and the land, and life spent entirely in those private spaces or in private cars. The city is so big and sprawling that people living just blocks from each other may not only never see each other, they may not ever even see the same things, as they take their pods to different parts of the metropolis.

It’s ironic then that the new Broad sits just next to the famous Walt Disney Concert Hall – which Broad also helped construct, of course – the structure widely believed to have started the rejuvenation of downtown. Because though the cost of living has been pushed up radically around it, there’s still never actually anyone on this street. Being a pedestrian around here just doesn’t make sense.

In short, this is a private museum in a private town. The level of civic engagement here is so low that it’s extremely easy to meet educated Angelenos who don’t know who the mayor is. The only major newspaper, once owned by a wealthy local family, is now controlled by a corporation in Chicago.

A note on that paper (my main employer): just before the public unveiling of the Broad, Eli made an offer to purchase the Los Angeles Times, but was rebuffed. It’s rumoured he will try again, and his influence is such that LA County’s board of supervisors sent a letter to Chicago supporting ‘local ownership’ of the Times.

In local media as well as art circles, everyone wants to talk about Broad, but no one wants him to know what has been said. Artists and gallerists will mumble at length about his unique power, or about how he uses art to accumulate cultural capital and influence in the city. But very rarely on the record.

At the same time, the extent of his power is sometimes not fully known here. At a recent joint dinner between the François Ghebaly and Night galleries – two of the city’s many genuinely exciting enterprises, both of which exist in the relative wilderness of the industrial district, way over on the other side of downtown – many people didn’t know just how powerful Broad is (something he likely hopes to change with the new Broad).

But everyone will also tell you, quite credibly, that what has made Los Angeles such an attractive destination for artists is not just that space is much cheaper than in New York. It’s also that there is a freedom to do things that would be endlessly tut-tutted in cities with a more established public art culture. Where there’s precious little tradition, people can break all kinds of rules. Some of what comes out of this may not be so good or interesting, but others tinker away in the relatively hidden spaces of their homes, or in forgotten urban spaces, or in the desert, and create things that are truly new.

“With exhibitions in LA, people feel that they have a bit more wiggle room,” says Rachel LaBine, director at the Night Gallery and recent transplant from New York. “And the artist-run spaces here are great, they have a unique energy. In New York, if you started an artist-run space, there is the feeling that that space starts its life already [partway up] the New York art ladder.” In LA, by contrast, there is the freedom that comes with existing off the grid.

When she first got here, she says, she wondered, “How does anybody know what's going on?”, but then found that, of course, the connections existed, though not under such a microscope as could be found elsewhere. And “there are less rules. On the East Coast there is a respect for pedigree and etiquette that is antithetical to what the West Coast is about.”

Such sentiments are echoed, in a new Californian-English accent, by young artist Nevine Mahmoud, who came here from London a few years ago and runs an exhibition space, Diana, in her garage.

“People's intentions and attitudes in the Los Angeles artworld feel much more about passion than social status. Of course the latter exists, and the former can be feigned, but the climate of the city (cultural, social and physical) generates a space where as an artist you can enjoy making work, share and participate in an intimate community, and worry less about treading all over people's backs,” she said. Since the world of fine arts is so far from what larger LA cares about, people are unlikely to be in it for the wrong reasons. “The people involved know, perhaps subconsciously, that we are operating ‘off the radar’ of the Hollywood/film ‘mainstream’”.

If Eli Broad has expanded the size of an art city that is thoroughly private, the nature of that city is also such that much goes on here, rumbling underneath his influence and safely ignoring him. That is, until the artists or their galleries ever want to get sufficiently high on LA’s own art ladder (of course there is one) to get near the city’s museums.

Of the new Broad, LaBine says that “it will be nice to have another institution downtown – already this week we've had a number of people to Night Gallery who are in town for the Broad”.

So Broad has undoubtedly made the art scene larger here, again, with his new museum . But is the museum leading the city to a deeper understanding of art, or something different entirely? To answer that question, I’ll turn to a quotation the museum’s curators bafflingly thought worthy to prominently affix to a wall on the first floor of the museum:

‘I like the fact that art reflects what’s happening in the world, how artists see the world.’ – Eli Broad

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue.