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May 7, 2010

Eli Broad and the Public Good

The Los Angeles Times ran two prominent stories last week, including one on the front page of the April 30 edition, about billionaire Eli Broad's plans to build a museum for his contemporary art collection either in the city of Santa Monica or in downtown L.A. Broad, who is often described as a tough negotiator, appears to be pitting the two cities against each other, hoping to get the best deal before he commits to a site.

There aren't many people in Los Angeles with as much money as Broad, so when he agrees to donate money for a new building or a cause, institutions are quick to cave to his terms. In this case, one or two officials in each city are balking at Broad's demands for virtually rent-free land, questioning whether it's in the public interest to lease Broad valuable plots of real estate for a total of $1 a year, so he can build a place to show off his art. They would most likely get an arresting architectural edifice, with his name prominently displayed on it. Broad, who made his first fortune building homes for average folk before making his second fortune selling insurance policies, expressed dismay at the chutzpah of these ungrateful officials.

Broad told the Times, "It just burns me that people are saying they're giving me, a billionaire, $1 a year for nothing without looking at the public benefit that's being created, without thinking of all these children that are going to go there free of charge and all the other benefits."

All of a sudden, Broad sounded a lot like the parade of Goldman Sachs executives who told a Senate panel that they couldn't understand why the public was being so hard on them. After all, without Goldman Sachs, there wouldn't be the private financing necessary to help entrepreneurial companies grow or the public financing to help governments build low-income housing. They made it sound like their primary motivation is to do charitable deeds, rather than make billions of dollars for themselves and their wealthy clients. The connection here is that while Eli Broad likes to boast about all the times he's done a public good by lending his art to exhibitions at institutions around the world, every time he's done so, it's raised the value of those works.

As for Broad's planned museum, what is the public benefit that he's talking about? Los Angeles already has many fine institutions showing contemporary art. Foremost among them is the Museum of Contemporary Art, which recently hired über-dealer Jeffrey Deitch to run its institution. It also happens to be located just down the street from the parking lot that Broad wants to demolish so he can build his museum. In neither Times story did anyone ask why Los Angeles needs two contemporary art museums on the same block.

Plus, Los Angeles already has the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, filled with pieces from Broad's collection. BCAM opened in February 2008, and a lot of people thought that this Renzo Piano-designed building would be the final resting place for Broad's collection. Why else would Broad give $50 million to build the thing? But then it turned out that all he planned to do was loan LACMA work on a rotating basis.

Apparently, Broad isn't satisfied having one museum with his name on it in Los Angeles. He's got to have two monuments. So city officials are bending over backwards to make Eli happy, even at a time when there's a major budget crisis, and they're threatening to shut down or privatize city-owned community arts centers that serve kids in inner-city neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, I haven't read anything about Broad donating money to keep open any of those centers, or locating his museum in any of those neighborhoods. That's something the public might actually appreciate.

Guest blogger Mike Rogers, an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of an illustrated novel about the art world, "The Third Eye," published by Edicions 30/kms of Barcelona. He has been a reporter for Fortune magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, among other publications.

May 7, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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