Eli Broad inspires both admiration and fear in the L.A. art scene.
Despite the enormous sprawl and diversity of Los Angeles, it still has the power dynamics of a small town. When people refer to “Eli,” everyone knows whom they mean.
Broad, a multibillionaire who made his money in the decidedly unglamorous businesses of tract housing and insurance, is the Lorenzo de’ Medici of Los Angeles—the city’s singular patron, especially of the arts – a man who can close his eyes and see the future.
After creating shareholder wealth by providing vital homebuilding and retirement savings services through the two Fortune 500 companies he created – KB Home and SunAmerica, Inc. – Eli Broad and Edythe, his wife of 57 years, are now devoting their time, energy and resources to philanthropy.
Although Broad is the subject of constant conversation, few people are willing to criticize him openly. He often declares that Los Angeles should not be a “one-philanthropist town,” but the lack of competition has worked to his advantage.
Los Angeles ranks forty-first in charitable giving among American cities, behind Minneapolis and Detroit. Still, Broad envisages L.A. as comparable to New York in its prominence and its cultural reach, and, in the past decade or so, it has indeed joined the world’s great art centers, with a thriving artists’ community, art schools, museums, and a rapidly increasing number of galleries and collectors.
In the sixties, when Broad started building his fortune in Los Angeles, the city had no serious opera, ballet, or theatre. It had a flourishing group of artists—Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, John Baldessari, Ken Price, Larry Bell, Edward Kienholz, and others—but they relied on New York galleries to show their work. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) didn’t open as an independent institution until 1965, nearly a hundred years after the Metropolitan Museum; it was built not with old money, like such institutions as the Whitney and the Frick, but, in part, with funds from an entertainment-business committee headed by Tony Curtis and Billy Wilder. The local attitude toward contemporary art was often unwelcoming. In 1966, LACMA showed Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” which depicted a couple having sex in a car, and it provoked such an outcry that the county threatened to withdraw funding.
Broad apparently found a lot of contemporary art ridiculous. In the beginning, he thought Roy Lichtenstein was a joke; now he has a major collection of Lichtenstein. He would ask everybody who was informed what their opinion was and put together his world view based on that. That’s what a good C.E.O. does.
For more than half a century, Broad has taken inspiration from a paperweight on his desk. On it is a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The Broads’ first major purchases were a van Gogh, a Miró, a Matisse, and a Modigliani. Broad saw that art brought entrée into a different kind of social life—one in which, travelling to any city in the world, he could have connections to artists, collectors, and dealers. “When you’ve got the big house, and you’re driving a Jaguar, what differentiates you from every asshole dentist in the Valley?” Shelley De Angelus, who worked for Broad as his curator in the eighties and nineties, said. “Art was a way for Eli to distinguish himself.”
Now the Broad’s are the philanthropists behind a new contemporary art museum being built on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles named appropriately, The BROAD.
The Broad has suffered some significant delays in opening, but on September 20th, when the doors do finally swing open, Angelenos can expect to find an entirely columnless, sky-lit gallery designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. And then all the impatience will surely be forgotten. The museum will house and continually exhibit Eli and Edythe (aka Edye) Broad’s collection of contemporary art, which is one of the largest and most significant worldwide. Plus, they’ve got great taste and have amassed large collections of works by artists like Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, and Christopher Wool. The fact that restaurateur Bill Chait of Bestia and Republique fame and Tim Hollingsworth of The French Laundry are teaming up on the restaurant next door should provide LA residents with even more incentive to head downtown.
Source: (for the Billionaire) condensed from a large article How Eli Broad took over Los Angeles by Connie Bruck for NewYorker.com