The Maneuvers of Billionaire Collector Eli Broad Have Museum Directors in a Tizzy

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In his Lives of the Painters the Italian architect, painter and writer Giorgio Vasari relates an hilarious encounter between Michelangelo and Piero Soderini, the head of the Florentine government. They met around the master's unfinished David, where Soderini found fault with the sculpture's nose, remarking that it was "too thick." Looking to satisfy the powerful patron, Michelangelo climbed up on the scaffolding, grabbing a chisel and a handful of marble dust on his way. Tapping lightly, he let the dust fall little by little without actually altering anything. When he was finished, he looked down at Soderini and instructed him:

"Now look at it."

"Ah, that's much better," the patron replied. "Now you've really brought it to life."

Besides providing valuable information about Michelangelo, this anecdote has survived because it speaks volumes about what is still a mostly hidden, private concern: the A-list, major-league art collector. Referred to as "major collectors," patrons like the Renaissance Soderini today are mostly captains of industry, men and women (men mostly) who collect art for?among other, less exalted reasons, like personal vanity and huge tax writeoffs?largely philanthropic purposes. Today's entrepreneur Medicis and Soderinis are archly recognized by society journalists and climbing art world insiders, and achieve public recognition the old-fashioned way: by trading in financial support or prize collections for a plaque on a museum wing or, better yet, their very own arts institution.

The politics involved in such maneuvers can seem as Florentine and inner-circle as the papal succession. There are anonymous and self-perpetuating museum boards to consider, packed with wealthy businesspeople and politicians and therefore teeming with conflicts of interest; ambitious directors ready to pounce and haggle over profitable minutiae for their institutions; and last but not least, city and state governments perennially hungry for new sources of revenue. Add to this the fact that the most important subsidies received by art museums in America remain charitable contributions and gifts of property and you have a situation in which?the public function of the nation's museums notwithstanding?the private collector is king.

Enter the collection of billionaire Eli Broad, now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Possibly the richest man in Los Angeles and one of California's heavyweight power brokers (he brought the 2000 Democratic National Convention to glitter city), Broad has purchased more than a thousand works of art since 1972, either personally or through his eponymous foundation. Broad's the largest single charitable donor in the U.S. after Bill Gates, and gave away some $137 million last year. Determined to keep folks guessing, Broad's less than orthodox decision to display his private collection at several museums?LACMA (where he is, of course, a trustee), the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston?before donating it to any of these institutions has set off a tizzy of nail-biting among museum directors.

The exhibition, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections," is one of the major art-world events in the U.S. this fall, partly because it involves considerable stakes, but also because it offers insight into a largely secretive, confidential sphere: the mind of a heavy-hitting collector of contemporary art. Here's Broad on art collecting as a compulsive/obsessive disorder: "Collecting becomes a compulsion and an addiction? It wasn't just the objects. It was meeting the people, the curators, the directors, the dealers and the artists." And again on what drove him and his wife to spend several fortunes on objects that others buy and trade like corn futures: "We clearly don't collect art as an investment. It's something we want to learn from, live with, and be inspired by."

"I had a theory that the great collections of the world were made when the art was contemporary," Broad tells Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelevansky, the show's curators, in an interview published in their excellent exhibition catalog?"you can't go back and create a great Impressionist or Post-impressionist collection today." And so it is with Eli Broad's collection. Largely an 80s affair, the collection clearly mirrors the period when Broad and his wife were most actively visiting galleries and artists' studios to shop for art. The Broads' zeal for discriminating collecting also shows up in the inclusion of some great work by artists from other decades, like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Charles Ray.

About Warhol, Broad admits to some reluctance to his art until a 1989 retrospective at MOMA. Credit this initial reticence, then, for a basic insight Broad demonstrated in purchasing only the best of this artist's early work while avoiding the later stinkers. Among the Warhols on view are a blue serial painting of Jackie Kennedy after her husband's assassination, an edgy black-and-white painting of Thomas Francis C. (once the number 6 man on the FBI's Most Wanted list) and Big Electric Chair, an eerie blue-green number that ambivalently illustrates mechanized death while reminding us that the lame, obsequious Warhol of Interview and the rich ladies' portraits at one time really did have something to say.

"My understanding of Warhol's work came when I saw it all at one time," Broad has said. The same is clearly not true, though, about the work of Cindy Sherman, of which the Broads have apparently bought multiple storerooms. Fresher and less weighed down with simplistic Lacanian nonsense about identity formation, Sherman's first body of work, the Untitled Film Stills of 1977-80, cycles together pseudo-documentary self-portraiture and the black-and-white look of classic Hollywood films to still genuinely disturbing, narcissistic effect. One wishes the same could be said about the work of Julian Schnabel or David Salle. Two careers' worth of overblown guff are represented in this exhibition by canvases so dreary that they would make even the most inept and self-satisfied art student blush, had they been painted at any other time than the helium-swallowing 80s.

But no matter, the work selected for exhibition from the vast resource that is the Broad collection, as its subtitle indicates, spans three other decades of art and thus largely escapes the lapidary stone laid at the feet of collectors by writer William H. Gass: "When money tries to buy beauty it tends to purchase a kind of courteous kitsch." Filled to the brim with wonderful paintings and sculpture by Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Anselm Kiefer and many others, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons" is a rewarding exhibition, especially if one takes the trouble to parse out the appreciative development of the owners' art-buying compulsion. "My current plan is to leave [the collection] to one of several institutions," Broad foxily told The New York Times last week. The statement is not likely to make interested museum folks sleep any easier.

"Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections," through Jan. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 323-857-6512.

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