His way to give back to L.A.

Times Staff Writers

In the 2 1/2 years since he stepped down as top executive of the financial services company SunAmerica and turned to full-time philanthropy, Eli Broad has given away hundreds of millions of dollars. Most has gone to the arts, medical science and, above all, to improve the leadership in schools from kindergarten through 12th grade -- a cause to which he and his wife, Edythe, have donated more than $400 million.

Last week, Broad sat down for a question-and-answer session in his offices, which fill the 12th floor of SunAmerica’s Westwood headquarters. This is a literal comedown from his former digs as chief executive above the 35th floor, Broad notes in jest, but the room he chooses to talk in is a step up from the average workplace: Through the window, there’s a view north to the Santa Monica Mountains. On one wall hangs a series of Jasper Johns artworks; nearby leans a 3-by-6-foot artist’s projection, now outdated, of Disney Hall with a stone exterior instead of the more affordable stainless steel cladding now nearing completion downtown. Excerpts follow.

Broad: People ask me, “Why are you doing all this?” And let me give you a broad answer. One, here I am a kid of Lithuanian immigrants, and I’ve really lived the American dream. I came to Los Angeles 40 years ago and have been accepted. It’s a meritocracy, unlike a lot of other cities in America and other places in the world.

Q: How did you get interested in education?


A: We went from an industrial economy to an information economy and society. That meant you had two types of workers: knowledge workers in high demand or service workers in low demand, with knowledge workers earning maybe four times as much. Which meant that the gap between the poor and the middle class keeps widening. So [my wife and I] became interested in education, because the only way to solve these problems is to give all children the opportunity to become knowledge workers.

Q: And your interest in downtown?

A: I love this city, and I believe every city needs a vital center. And it’s happening downtown. You’ve got Staples, which has been a big contributor. You’ve got the cathedral. We’re going to have Disney Hall. There is a plan for Grand Avenue that will include a civic center park, or a mall, or a common, whatever you want to call it, from the Department of Water and Power all the way down to City Hall. That’s in the process of happening.

Q: One of the reasons that Los Angeles has not had a vital core has been the suburban sprawl. And your home-building company is partly responsible for that. If you could do it over again, would you build in the same way?


A: I think I would. This is not penance. I started in Michigan a home-building company with Donald Kaufman, who was 10 years my senior. And we built entry-level housing -- in other words, for people who were living in essentially garden apartments who had one child going on two. And we created low-cost homes that they could buy at monthly payments not different from what they were paying and get the tax advantage. And I always felt good about that. And we found land in suburbia. And we did it in many cities, and I feel good about it. Now, having said that, I think a lot more could have been done in the last five decades in land planning to avoid some of that sprawl.

I think you need one place where people from all communities will come together. And there’s only one place to do it. Downtown. And I think the Music Center and other public institutions are becoming far more aware of their responsibilities to cater to a much broader audience, a younger audience. Right now, you get, all too often, a graying, Caucasian audience. And I think they’re beginning to realize that they’ve got to do things to attract a younger audience and a different ethnic mix.

Q: How do you go about balancing your local interests with broader national interests, like the research grant just made to Massachusetts?

A: Well, let me answer it this way: Los Angeles and Southern California win all ties. Let’s start there. What have I done out of state? My alma mater [Michigan State University], we endowed it, they named the business school after me, that’s fine. In New York City, where we have an apartment, where I was born, we haven’t done much other than, you know, make some contributions that were not very significant to art institutions there. I think what we’re doing in Cambridge is unique. I would have preferred to do it here, between Caltech, USC and UCLA, but you got down to an issue of what’s more important, the geography or the science.

Q: Have you ever run for any office?

A: No.

Q: College? High school?

A: No.


Q: Elementary school?

A: No.

Q: How come?

A: I don’t know how come.

Q: You must have been approached at one time or another by someone saying, “Look, you’re passionate about these things. Why not enter this arena?”

A: One, I don’t think I’d be a very popular candidate for anything, compared with others. Two, maybe I’m too determined, and I don’t believe in simply getting along by going along. I’ve been offered ambassadorships, and I’ve been suggested to run for something, but I think with the resources our family has, and my interest in these things, I can do more good not being in public office.

Q: The last few school board candidates who you backed ended up not prevailing.

A: That’s correct.


Q: Do you take any lessons from that, or draw any conclusions from it?

A: I don’t think there was anything common [in the three losses], other than there was an agenda on the part of [teachers unions] to get control of the school board, and they succeeded in doing that. But hopefully, the new members will have a broader vision and not just follow instructions of the teachers unions.

Q: Can you quantify the hours per week that you’re putting into philanthropy?

A: A typical day is like today. I’ll get up at 6. Today I happened to have a trainer for an hour. I get into the office by 8. Have a number of appointments here and throughout the city. Try to get home in time for the network news. Always take work home.

Q: Do you watch much TV besides the news?

A: No. Sunday nights, I’ll watch “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City.” I like “West Wing” if I’m around. On occasion, sporting events. But the number of hours I spend looking at the tube is, uh, substandard.

Q: The art you’ve chosen to focus on -- from since about 1960 -- is a very specific part of the universe of possibilities. How did you decide that was the area in which you wanted to focus?

A: Well, one, we didn’t start there. The first important work we bought was a Van Gogh drawing. Then the next thing was a Matisse drawing from the ‘20s. And we still have, like, a 1933 large Miro painting. We’ve got a 1937 Picasso. But we kept moving forward in time. And it was a progression, a learning experience. And you have to get over the shock of the new.

Q: What do you get from the visual arts? What moves you?

A: I like contemporary art, not simply because you can acquire objects. I like visiting Jasper Johns’ studio. I mean, this guy is exceptionally bright; he has a different view of life and the world than I do, as do all the other artists. What do I get out of it? I’m not sure I’ve got a good word. One, I think it’s broadening. Two, it’s an educational experience.

Q: Has the pace of acquisition by the foundation and personal collections changed? Or is it a work a week, two works a week or something like that?

A: No. At one time that was true. I don’t have the exact number. I can tell you what we bought recently, for example. At the last Christie’s auction, we bought Andy Warhol’s “Dance Steps.” We bought a Sam Francis that I’d followed for 30 years called “Big Orange,” that I first saw in the Essen Museum in Germany, that I thought was a great work. We just bought at the Basel Art Fair a new work by Andreas Gursky -- photography, huge photography. We bought recently a new work by Cy Twombly, from a show he had in New York.

Q: You’ve given money so far to the 2004 presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. You only get one nominee. Whom do you want to see nominated?

A: I don’t have any thoughts or conclusions on that. I gave it. They’re both friends, and I’ve known them for many years. I go to John Kerry’s Christmas parties in Aspen. I’ve been to their home at Martha’s Vineyard. And I’ve known Joe Lieberman, and they’re both centrist Democrats. I’m less interested in politics today than I used to be.

Q: Why?

A: I don’ t know, maybe I’ve become jaded. Plus, in our educational activities, I don’t want to be viewed as a Democratic foundation. It doesn’t help for me to be overly political.