The nearly completed Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles resembles a giant, milky honeycomb, so it was appropriate that on Sunday the place buzzed with activity.
Curious artists, journalists and art world figures streamed through the airy, light-filled space for a one-day sneak peek inside the museum, which is not scheduled to open until Sept. 20. A freight elevator, still lined with plywood, deposited arrivals onto the museum's top floor, a 35,000-square-foot space not yet broken up by partition walls.
A sound installation by Swedish artist BJ Nilsen hummed and hissed, echoing under the soaring ceiling as shards of light leaked through 318 skylights, glimmering against bare concrete and unfinished wood.
Eli Broad, the museum's founder and namesake, sat in the center of the room, king bee ensconced in a cacophony of snaps and pops from circling photographers.
"This is just a dream come true," he said in a soft voice while scanning the crowd, itself still scanning the architecture. "We've been at this five years, a bit longer than I'd have liked, but the result is fantastic. It's a very complicated building; I consider this a triumph."
Almost 3,000 people were expected for the event, titled "Sky-lit: Volume, Light, and Sound." They viewed the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed space as well as temporary installations by Nilsen and L.A. artist Yann Novak. Civic figures and art stars, including Catherine Opie, Sterling Ruby and Mark Bradford — all of whom have works in the Broad's collection — were on hand, as were Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street, and Santa Monica Museum of Art Director Elsa Longhauser. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, British actor Michael York and L.A. gallerist Shaun Regen made appearances too.
"It's really spectacular, I like the light," Vergne said of the architecture. "The ceilings are 23 feet high, but it doesn't feel authoritative." Then in reference to nearby Walt Disney Concert Hall and his own museum, he added, "I like the contrast of it against the Gehry building. And, of course, the great view from this building of MOCA."
Said Riordan of the Broad's Grand Avenue location: "This whole avenue, it's going to become the contemporary arts center of the world."
The Broad's third floor — about a full acre — was bookended by Nilsen's and Novak's installations. The museum commissioned Nilsen's "DTLA" sound piece for the one-day event. Composed of a single row of speakers spanning the length of the floor, the audioscape was a collage of distorted street noise.
"Downtown L.A., Echo Park, Chinatown, we went all over," Nilsen said. "The idea was to bring the sounds of the city inside, to complement the light."
Novak's light and sound projection, "Stillness," debuted in 2010 in London and was reworked for the Broad event. The 20-minute film loop, made from digitally altered photography and set to a score of radio static, spanned the west wall of the gallery, nearly 200 feet wide. It began after the gallery's copious daylight had faded.
The imagery of "Stillness" resembled two glowing watercolor paintings, side by side, that morphed so slowly, changes were almost imperceptible. To the left was a warm, orangy palette of abstract photo snippets of downtown L.A. sunsets. To the right was a hazy, gray-green blend of shots taken from moving cars at dusk in Seattle.
"It relates a lot to the architecture of the Broad — the filtered light in the space, how the light kind of moves through the skylights. You can't escape the climate when you're in this space," Novak said. "And I'm exploring two climates that share a somewhat static nature in a similar way."
Together, the works were meant to highlight the intersection between the Broad's new building and its immediate environs, said Joanne Heyler, the Broad Foundation's director and chief curator.
"They're very specifically keyed to this brief, transitory moment in the museum's construction," she said. "This building is very much about perception — the way it's cloaked in the veil, the mystery of the [art storage] vault. It's about revealing and concealing. So to have these two pieces also playing with your perception — at this moment — seemed particularly apt."
Eli and Edythe Broad have endowed their museum with "north of $200 million," Broad said. Admission will be free, and the museum will have nearly 2,000 works of postwar and contemporary art from the Broads' personal collection as well as from the Broad Art Foundation, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg works from the '50s, Pop works from the early '60s by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and a deep representation of '80s works by Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Keith Haring, among others. The museum's inaugural exhibition in September will be a chronological look at its permanent collection, which will take over the building.
The museum, Heyler said, will continue the Unprivate Collection, its program of conversations with artists, and it will have three special exhibitions a year starting in 2016. It also plans outdoor film screenings in the warmer months on the adjacent plaza.
Architect and partner-in-charge from DS+R, Elizabeth Diller, said there's quite a bit left to do on the first and second floors of the museum, including finishing installation of the oculus (also called "the dimple" and "the fold"), which looks out over Grand Avenue. But after early delays, construction is in the homestretch, she said.
The "Sky-lit" event, held before interior walls go in, was "a celebration of light," she said.
The sentiment seemed to resonate widely.
Artist Opie took a moment to take in the scene just before heading out.
"The light, the light," she stammered, taking one last look over her shoulder. "It's just — beautiful." She shook her head, as if pleasantly dumbfounded, then scurried down the stairs and out onto the street.