Huntington, Getty, Simon, Hammer, Crocker, Menil, Wadsworth, Phillips, Frick, Morgan, Whitney, Guggenheim, etc. — the list of super-rich Americans who, since the mid-19th century, have established museums or galleries to house their personal art collections is as familiar as the institutions that still carry their names. Their motives have been wide-ranging: altruism, self-aggrandizement, fun, social engineering, commitment, reputation laundering and more, including various combinations thereof.
Which is to say, the news is unsurprising that Eli and Edythe Broad will indeed erect a self-funded building with endowment (price tag: upward of $300 million), featuring 50,000-square-feet of exhibition galleries to display rotating installations selected from their 2,000-piece contemporary art collection. But the plan is not the portent of major shifts in American cultural history that some seem determined to make it.
A recent Forbes magazine article breathlessly burbled about "the rise of the billionaire ego-seum." But the Broad museum is more accurately described with the modest adjective, "next." It's next in a long line of such U.S. institutions.
The first was an undertaking by Daniel Wadsworth — son of one of the richest men in Connecticut, a seaman who made his first fortune in the West India trade and his second from supplying goods (socks, pork, tin kettles) to the Continental Army. In Hartford in 1842, the Wadsworth heir opened America's first art museum to show his collection.
Wadsworth's huge wealth was partly accumulated by the toil of tiny fingers. The same year his art museum opened, child labor laws went radical: Kids younger than 12 were limited to10-hour workdays. As with most single-collector museums ever since, virtually every American "billionaire ego-seum" cited by Forbes — Broad, Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art now being built in Arkansas, the Fisher Collection soon to be attached to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — follows in the wake of a ravenous period in which a larger social philosophy of "greed is good" takes hold.
Hollywood culturally framed that sentiment in the 1987 movie "Wall Street." The 1981 Reagan tax cuts launched today's private museum developments, expanded by the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. ("Wall Street" gets its Bush-era sequel, "Money Never Sleeps," in September.) The fuel for private museums is almost always skyrocketing wealth mixed with favorable tax policy.
That's why few private art museums were established during the huge expansion in the American economy that occurred between 1950 and 1970. Then, the gross domestic product was growing around 3.4% annually, but the top marginal income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans ranged between 91% and 70%.
By 2009, growth in the GDP had slowed to one-quarter of 1% while the top tax rate had plummeted to 35%. Regardless of philanthropic motive, the Broad Collection — like the Huntington, the Frick and most of the other great private art institutions before it — is also Gilded Age residue.
The bigger question now is: What will the Broad Collection do? Certainly it will continue to function as a lending source for other museums, as it has done from its small, private Santa Monica facility since 1984. But now that it's going public, I have two more suggestions — one likely, the other perhaps less so.
The likely option is vigorous collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, located diagonally across Grand Avenue from the new facility's planned site and already heavily influenced by Eli Broad. (His perceptive curator, Joanne Heyler, also got her start there as an intern.) The Broad Collection will have twice MOCA's exhibition space, and aspects of their two collections fit together well.
Take American Pop art. Its full arc from the 1950s to about 1973 could be told through an astounding installation of work by its primary artists: Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Edward Ruscha. Together the two collections hold almost 90 of their paintings, sculptures and photographs — many of them major — plus a large number of prints and drawings.
Add excellent works by secondary figures, and the most complete, powerful American Pop art presentation in any public venue could be on view. Given its '60s emphasis, it would also correspond to L.A.'s first blush as an international center for new art.
The second suggestion? As a model for the new Broad, look to Houston's Menil Collection.
The Menil may be the nation's most universally admired single-collector art museum. Partly that's because of a great collection. Mostly, though, the sensibility of the place is distinctive, beautifully embodying the humanist principles of its founders.
As the late John de Menil explained it, "Art: Take it off its marble pedestal and show it as a daily companion, refreshing, human and rich: witness of its time and prophet of times to come."
A daily companion. The Menil, purposely built in a residential neighborhood, deftly merges a public edifice with a domestic environment. Arrive at the entrance and neither bombast nor institutional indifference nor hustle-and-bustle greets you.
Admission is free. A woman behind the front desk smiles and says hello. You can linger in naturally lighted rooms, many with a garden atrium and seating. The gracious atmosphere is serious but relaxed.
Can "art as a daily companion" function in a downtown L.A. environment? Frank Gehry, architect of Disney Concert Hall next door to the planned Broad Collection site, wanted his magnificent building to be "a living room for the city" — his words for a daily companion. Design changes prevented that, but there's no reason it can't happen next door, if that's what the clients and their architects set out to achieve.
Ironically, the Menil was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect whose recent Broad Contemporary building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a disappointment. At the Menil he found forms to embody the collectors' philosophy (unhappy thought: maybe that's also what happened at LACMA). New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro are now on a fast-track to unveil Grand Avenue designs for the Broad Collection in the fall. Let's hope they and their new client spend a lot of time in Houston between now and then.