Published in Apollo, November 2015
In Los Angeles, cultural institutions are carved from dry earth by billionaire scions. With the opening of his $160 million museum this month, real estate mogul-turned-philanthropist Eli Broad became the latest addition to a list that includes Armand Hammer, J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Gene Autry, and Frederick Weisman. Known simply as “The Broad,” the museum houses 2,000 works acquired over five decades behind a sparkling new façade on Grand Avenue, designed by Elizabeth Diller of star firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It is the latest addition to the architectural pastiche of downtown’s Bunker Hill, a formerly dense Victorian neighborhood razed in the 1960s to make way for a civic acropolis. Diller’s design, a jewel-box cased in concrete, is an apt metonym for the institution’s treasure-chest philosophy, marking both its strengths and limitations.
Diller describes this approach as “the veil and the vault.” A porous, alabaster-white curtain of angular incisions—slanted panels of cast glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC)— lifts seamlessly at two entrances. The panels filter diffuse yet surprisingly natural light into an expansive third floor gallery. The cavernous, womblike lobby marries organic fluidity with the obdurate modernist material of polished concrete. Cool yet subdued, it offers respite from the sun that bakes the downtown asphalt. Curving walls and ceilings give the impression of a cresting wave, the building’s monumental mass almost ready to come crashing down. Unusually for an art museum, the entire collection is housed onsite in a vault visible through two picture windows in a central stairwell. A pedagogically popular conceit in new museum design, the windows offer viewers a glimpse of the real-time storage and lending programs that will define The Broad, like a physical declaration of the institutional transparency to which the museum, at least in theory, aspires. It’s an appreciated but voyeuristic touch, like a glass-paned diorama in the queue for a space-age Disneyland ride.
The conditions of The Broad’s unveiling are as fraught as any in recent memory. The collection’s highlights were formerly displayed in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a Renzo Piano-designed addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art financed personally by Broad, who retracted his tentative offer to donate them just before opening day as a rumored snub to LACMA Director Michael Govan. Its new location on Bunker Hill lies across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, where in 2008, as founding board chairman, Broad catastrophically installed New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch as Director. Broad’s unsurpassed generosity has always come with strings attached. Veils can drop and vaults can lock; opacity is never far away.
On the whole, the collection is a grab bag of the bluest chips. Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, curated its inaugural exhibition with commercial flair. Prior to her takeover of the Broad Art Foundation, Heyler was the Broads’ art advisor for nearly thirty years. Her debut looks like it was arranged by an art advisor, showcasing cost before quality. After a short escalator ride to the third floor gallery, visitors are first greeted by the glossy welcome mat of Koons’s Tulips (1995-98) and Christopher Wool’s Untitled text paintings (all 1990), a pairing more photogenic than informative. Most rooms are dedicated to a single artist: there is a Hirst room, a Warhol room, an Artschwager room. Heyler seems to have forgotten that conversation is impossible when only one person is talking. This is a Billboard Top 40 marathon of greatest hits, revealing less about context than market tastes.
In galleries that Broad’s collection couldn’t fill with the work of a single artist, corresponding temporal logic produces baffling results. David Wonjarowicz, whose queer, abrasive art assailed the selfsame institutions of capitalism and heteronormativity, would be presumably miffed to see his work hanging next to the overvalued paintings of his masculinist contemporaries Julian Schnabel and David Salle. The only parting message is that some people painted in New York in the 1980s. If decadism is a sanitizing curatorial sin, The Broad is surely hellbound.
The few women whose works the Broads collected are sidelined. Kara Walker’s silhouettes appear in a far corner past rooms filled with materially and conceptually unrelated works by male artists. Any visitor who finds Jenny Holzer’s 10 Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) deserves a prize: tucked on the backside of a wall pressed up against an exterior window, the powerful political piece is installed as if someone wished it hidden.
Several gems are worth the price of free admission. Bateau de Guerre (2001), Chris Burden’s whizzing battleship of children’s toys, is a charming surprise suspended in a ground floor gallery. Nearby, a room of Thomas Struth’s Audience (Galleria dell’Accademia) photographs (all 2004) amuse with their Brechtian candor, turning the eye to art-gazing audiences in Florence’s legendary museum. One hopes The Broad will actively encourage the self-reflection that Struth achieves with only a camera and photo paper; at least Diller’s building solicits as many curious gazes as that Florentine palazzo.
Running an art museum is politically challenging business. Internal operations can be subject to the scrutiny of institutional criticism, and it’s clear from its opening show that The Broad lacks self-awareness. Across the street, in MOCA’s newly hung permanent collection, Andrea Fraser dry-humps the “sensuously curved” lobby wall of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim in Little Frank and His Carp (2001), making a mockery of placeless, private art museums. Such spaces, as Fraser demonstrates, are showrooms rather than classrooms, designed to awe instead of educate. Heyler now must prove the Broad collection needed its own institution by doing what the museums it lends to couldn’t. Helming a hefty $200 million endowment, will she gobble up new works by younger artists like a private European art foundation, or focus on progressive public programming, like the Hammer? Will The Broad become a space for rigorous academic research, like the Getty? Will it continue to lend work widely, or shut its vault and keep fan favorites on the wall? Without an adequate answer to these questions, L.A.’s newest contemporary exhibition space will gleam only with an old-fashioned luster, like the palace of a faded monarch. It will have nothing new to offer.