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LOS ANGELES — The wait is over. After a 15-month delay, ballooning costs, and lawsuits, the Broad Museum is finally set to open this Sunday in downtown Los Angeles. The new 120,000 square foot institution houses the postwar and contemporary art collection of Eli and Edythe Broad. For the past four decades, the couple has had an outsized influence on the cultural life of LA. Eli Broad was a founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 1979; he lent his financial support to the Hammer Museum in the 1990s; he was responsible for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the 2000s; and bailed out MOCA when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2008. Some of these relationships eventually soured, ending in controversy, such as his decision to simply loan his works to LACMA, not donate them, as was widely assumed. It was not a huge surprise then, when he announced in 2008 that he would be building his own museum, one where he presumably wouldn’t have to deal with competing institutional interests.
Yesterday’s press event was packed with arts writers, TV crews, and radio personalities, all waiting to get our first glimpse inside of the building, finally filled with art. We’ve been watching the progress of the building — adventurously designed by architecture firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro — for the past few years, but only a few select critics had seen the collection installed. The street in front of the museum was shut down for the event. Free of cars — a rarity in LA — Grand Avenue had an odd post-apocalyptic feel. We gathered under the beaming LA sun, in front of the building’s porous white façade — the “veil” as it’s called — to hear opening remarks from philanthropists Eli and Edythe, the Broad Founding Director Joanne Heyler, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, and architect Elizabeth Diller.
Garcetti hailed the Broad as further proof that LA had arrived as a major art capital on the level of — or even surpassing — New York. Diller spoke about the museum’s design, and the challenges inherent in working in the shadow of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just across the street. “We realized that we couldn’t compete, so we opted for a relationship of contrast to our neighbor: porous and matte next to smooth and shiny. We brought our exuberant curves inside the building.” She joked about Broad’s notoriously controlling manner. “Thank for you participating so closely in the process, Eli. Maybe too closely. We were duly warned.” Then, after a series of photo ops, we were mercifully allowed out of the sun and into the cool, grey, undulating interior of the Broad’s lobby, like kids in an art candy store.
Until now, most of the attention has been on the building’s design. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “vault and the veil” concept puts the Broad’s entire 2,000 piece collection (minus Charles Ray’s “Firetruck”) into a 21,000 square foot storage facility in the building’s core. Around this “vault” on the second floor, there are 50,000 square feet of exhibition space on the first and third floor. Impressive engineering allows the top floor exhibition space to be virtually unencumbered by support beams or walls. Two windows in the stairwell allow visitors to peer into the vault giving the impression of transparency. There is something to be said for the thrill of being able to glimpse behind the curtain, but it’s unclear if this will translate to a greater institutional transparency or if it’s just a cool gimmick.
The museum’s exterior, the “veil,” is a honeycombed, perforated shell that wraps around the building, allowing natural light to filter into the exhibition spaces, and reinforcing a connection to the street outside. This was one of the costliest and most problematic elements of construction, and it has also been the butt of jokes likening the building to a cheese grater among other things.
A break in the façade, dubbed the oculus, behind which sits a conference room, have inspired comparisons to the Death Star with Broad sitting in as the Emperor. It’s an intriguing design overall, but $140 million seems like a steep price tag for intrigue.
But what about the art? The Broad Collection has received some criticism for lacking a consistent vision, or for being dated, or for being too trendy. It is after all, a subjective collection reflecting the tastes of only two individuals. It would be surprising if it wasn’t uneven. After reading more than a few articles about Broad’s passion for Koons (he owns 34), I expected to see mostly flashy, blockbuster artworks — perfect for our current moment of inflation and speculation — and while there are quite a few of those, that’s not the whole story.
After riding the long escalator from the dim lobby, and emerging in the sun-drenched third floor galleries, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by stunning works by Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, and El Anatsui, giving a prominent place to works by female artists, queer artists, and artists of color. Sure, Koons and Christopher Wool held down the opposite side of the room as if to say, “Not so fast!” but it was at least a step in the right direction. The rest of the collection swayed between these two poles: the strain of glossy, slick Pop of which Koons is the current reigning champ, and more socially-oriented work, often created by groups traditionally under-represented in the art world, like women and people of color. The Broad’s director Joanne Heyler said as much when she told me: “I like the idea that a museum in the complex world that we live in is filled with many types of art. One important part is artists who still feel strongly that painful, difficult things in our social condition today need to be addressed.”
The spacious top floor is the historic basis of the collection, featuring work from the past sixty years. It is not a comprehensive overview, but tells a specific story based on the Broad’s interest. Canonical artists like Warhol, Twombly, Johns ,and Rauschenberg are well represented. Significantly, so are LA artists like Mike Kelley, John Baldessari, Charles Ray, Chris Burden, and Ed Ruscha. There are crowd pleasers like Damien Hirst, but also Kara Walker cut-outs and in-your-face Barbara Kruger works.
German artists Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys have a room, as do Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and John Ahearn — New York artists who epitomized an earlier boom time. Something almost all of the works have in common is their formidable size, which was surely a major consideration when designing the building. Smaller works would most certainly be dwarfed by the architecture.
The first floor is dedicated to works from the past fifteen years, and will hold thematic exhibitions. This section is more uneven, though the possibility of shows with a curatorial intent other that highlighting the collection is promising. The Takashi Murakami room here resembles a garish theme park, whereas Ragnar Kjartansson’s 9-screen video piece “The Visitors” provides a pensive and touching alternative. Combining the blockbuster with the meditative is Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room,” which can fill even the most jaded art goers with awe.
The Broad isn’t the one museum that’s going to save LA, or make the world respect us as an art capital. It reflects the tastes of two collectors, which as Holland Cotter noted in the New York Times, is actually a throwback to the previous century’s great museums founded by the likes of Morgan and Frick. Admission to the Broad will be free, allowing a larger section of the population the ability to experience contemporary art, something that many more ostensibly “democratic” museums do not offer. It is true that the collection may be uneven, but perhaps it makes sense to think of the Broad, as William Poundstone suggests, as simply one more part of the messy and diffuse cultural landscape that is LA.
The Broad Museum offers free but timed tickets, which are available on their website. The Museum officially opens to the public on Saturday, September 19, 2015.