The Art of Giving In to a Giver

Times Staff Writer

When billionaire Eli Broad gave $50 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a new building and threw in $10 million more for artwork, he kick-started the Wilshire Boulevard institution's long-stalled expansion plan. But there was a catch: In return for his donation, he got to choose the architect and set up an independent board to oversee construction and the acquisition fund.

"People ask how I could turn over such power to Eli," says Andrea Rich, LACMA's president and director. "But I ask myself, is there a member of our board who has more experience in building or working with international architects, or who has more money and viability in terms of carrying this off, or has better taste in art and architecture, or has higher standards?"

Rich is grappling with a familiar problem. How much power should be granted to donors whose support is essential to America's art museums?

In New York, Guggenheim Museum trustee Peter B. Lewis threatened to withhold his money and fire Director Thomas Krens if he didn't cut the budget; the late Walter Annenberg's gift of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art arrived with the stipulation that they be displayed in their own galleries. In Philadelphia, the fate of the Barnes Foundation is in the hands of a judge, who will decide whether the late Alfred C. Barnes' art collection will remain in the stately suburban house he built for it or move downtown, in accordance with the wishes of potential benefactors.

Relations between museums and donors get especially dicey during building campaigns, when dreams of grandeur call for creative fundraising and arm-twisting. But in a philanthropic culture that prides itself on snagging big money without ceding control, the L.A. museum's plan is a special case. The effort to transform LACMA's melange of buildings into an elegant unity strikes a precarious balance of power with the major donor.

"I think Los Angeles can and should be the contemporary art capital of the world," says Broad, who sees change at LACMA as a key to that ambition. "This place is more important than Disney Hall. Many people can't afford to go there, but they can go to LACMA. It can do for Los Angeles what the Beaubourg did for Paris," he says, referring to that city's popular arts complex.

It's no coincidence that the architect Broad selected was Italian Renzo Piano, who, with Richard Rogers, designed the Beaubourg, officially known as the Georges Pompidou Center.

In accordance with a memorandum of understanding hammered out a year ago, Broad's $50-million gift will finance the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, an 80,000-square-foot structure with 65,000 square feet of gallery space. The $10 million will be used to purchase contemporary artworks for LACMA. The agreement provides for loans -- but no gifts -- from Broad's 750-piece collection.

"Frankly, it's easiest to build your own museum, not get involved with others," Broad says. "I believe in public institutions. I'm a product of public schools. I went to a public land-grant university [Michigan State]. I try to improve public education. So I don't want to have an elitist, vanity museum."

But the deal has raised pointed questions: Is this a scheme by an egocentric donor to create a private fiefdom at the museum while holding on to his collection? Or is it a smartly conceived alternative to the museum's radical tear-down-and-rebuild plan, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and scrapped nearly two years ago?

Either way, the challenge for LACMA is to give Broad what he wants without alienating other supporters of a project that is expected to cost about $250 million. Almost all of the funds will be raised from private sources. The county, which currently pays 42% of the museum's $41-million annual operating budget, will kick in $10 million for underground parking.

If the plan is realized, it may be a model for other museums. At the very least, it's an experiment worth watching amid a slew of building projects.

From the Museum of Modern Art's massive expansion in New York, slated to open in November, to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum's building in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, scheduled for completion in 2005, the urge to grow is pervasive -- and complicated. New York's Museum of Arts & Design had to compete with 30 organizations and win support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to get its new home at 2 Columbus Circle, scheduled to open in 2007. The Seattle Art Museum's long-range plan to triple its exhibition space involves a partnership with Washington Mutual Inc.

Broad, 71, came to LACMA's negotiating table holding a strong hand. His fortune, amassed through an international home-building firm and an insurance conglomerate, is estimated at $5.26 billion. His collection of contemporary paintings, sculptures and photographs, assembled over 30 years, is considered one of the nation's best. His philanthropy is well-organized through his foundations, which give millions to education, science and the arts.

"Eli has the money, the objects, the skill and the experience," says Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, who has known Broad for many years and served on the boards of Broad's two Fortune 500 companies, SunAmerica Inc. and KB Home. "And his driving force is civic transformation. As important as art and culture is to him, it's a vehicle to transform Los Angeles."

A few former affiliates of LACMA and staff members of other museums privately chastised the museum for giving Broad too much power without getting his collection. They declined to express their concerns publicly because they didn't want to undercut LACMA's plans or they hoped to win Broad's support for other projects.

Some of the critics say the deal expresses a profound lack of trust in Broad's fellow trustees. But that does not appear to be the reaction on LACMA's board.

"I think it's great," says longtime trustee Robert Ahmanson, who heads one of LACMA's most stalwart supporters, the Ahmanson Foundation. "If Eli wants to put up the money, that's fine."

The target is $130 million to $180 million for construction and $100 million for the endowment. With Broad's lead gift, the sale of a $120-million tax-exempt private bond and yet-to-be- announced multimillion-dollar commitments from other donors, the campaign appears to be well on its way.

Not all Broad-backed projects work out smoothly. He rescued Walt Disney Concert Hall from a fundraising crisis, but architect Frank Gehry threatened to walk off the job amid a conflict over the building's design and budget. When Broad persuaded Los Angeles school officials to drop plans for an ordinary high school and build an architecturally distinguished school for the performing arts downtown at a higher cost, Robert Garcia, chairman of the district's School Construction Bond Citizens Oversight Committee, contended that Broad had exercised inordinate influence over a taxpayer-funded project.

But the museum's inner circle is confident.

"This is a go," says LACMA board Chairman Wally Weisman. "It's not speculation."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky calls the project "a done deal" but expresses disappointment that the Koolhaas design wasn't realized. "This new plan recognizes that the former one was not going to make it and something had to be done to bring LACMA into the 21st century."

The first phase of the project, scheduled for completion in June 2007, encompasses the Broad building, to be erected east of LACMA West (the former May Co. building); a 20,000-square-foot entry pavilion on what is now Ogden Drive; a new power plant; an underground parking facility; a grand concourse to connect all the buildings; and a series of translucent screens along Wilshire Boulevard to unify the museum's facade. Later phases will renovate and reconfigure existing buildings and develop parkland.

Broad, who was recently elected to the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, can take his money and collection almost anywhere. And he has given a lot of thought to where they should go.

"Los Angeles has been very good to the Broad family," he says. "I love the city, and I'd like the collection to be here. So, when you get to that point, what are your options?"

His choice boiled down to the city's two biggest collectors and exhibitors of contemporary art. One was the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was the founding chairman and was recently elected a life trustee. The other was LACMA, where Rich brought him onto the board in 1995, a few months after she took charge.

"I went with LACMA, although I'm still a supporter of MOCA," Broad says. "Without any promises of gifts, LACMA said, 'We want to do an exhibition of your collection.' I don't know what would have happened if MOCA had proposed that, but LACMA did a pretty good job. Obviously, that had some influence on my thinking."

The 109-work show, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections," debuted at LACMA in 2001 and traveled to Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

But what sealed the LACMA deal was Broad's relationship with Rich.

"It's a question of who you have confidence in," he says. "If you asked me if I would have done this nine or 10 years ago, the answer is no. Andrea Rich has done a magnificent job with something that was in disarray."

A Broad building at LACMA has been under discussion since the late 1990s, when Rich conceived of adding a building for contemporary art that would link disparate parts of the campus, increase exhibition space and, she says, "move the center of gravity to the west and provide a central orientation place, like the pyramid at the Louvre."

Broad liked the idea. But in 2001, when the museum received a $10-million planning grant from the county and launched an architectural competition, it became much more complicated. The winner, Koolhaas, advocated demolishing four of the six existing buildings and replacing them with a single, tent-topped structure.

Broad was prepared to give $50 million to the project, estimated to cost $300 million. But no other major donors stepped forward. The last-ditch effort was a $250-million county bond issue in November 2002 that would have provided $98 million in public money for LACMA, to be matched by $112.5 million in private funds.

When the bond measure failed, Rich made a proposal to Broad.

"We have one of the best pieces of property in Los Angeles to build a fabulous contemporary art center," she recalls telling him. "We will designate that for the Broad building. We only need 20,000 square feet for our collection and some restrooms. Other than that, the building is totally up to you.

"You can be in complete control of the architectural selection, the building process. I will protect you from board intervention and defer to you on all matters pertaining to the building. In return, you will pay for the whole building and all overages, and you will stay out of all the rest of the museum's planning."

Broad agreed and picked Piano, who is currently working on expansions of the Art Institute of Chicago, the High Museum in Atlanta and the Whitney Museum and Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Piano accepted the offer, but only if he could do the whole project. He began working on a comprehensive plan in October 2003 and won trustee approval in April.

The choice of Piano has been widely hailed. But the same can't be said about other aspects of Broad's deal with LACMA. The separate board for his building has raised the specter of the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Robert Lehman, an investment banker and Met trustee who died in 1969, left a fabulous collection to the museum but set up a private board to oversee the gift, required the Met to install the collection in a new wing that reproduced rooms from his home and placed tight restrictions on the display of the art.

Broad dismisses any intimation that he is walking in Lehman's footsteps. His board is merely a temporary means of getting the building built and spending the acquisitions fund efficiently, he says, emphasizing that it has nothing to do with museum operations.

"The process of museums acquiring works of art is very cumbersome," Broad says. "The grand old days when a curator could see something and reserve it for three months are over. You've got to act."

The five-member board is composed of Broad; his wife, Edythe; Joanne Heyler, director-chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation; and two LACMA representatives, Rich and board Chairman Weisman. Broad expects the panel to be absorbed into the museum's board of trustees in 10 years or so.

Another point of contention is Broad's collection. He says that he wouldn't be building at LACMA if he didn't intend to donate part of his collection -- eventually. In the meantime, he will keep at least 200 pieces on loan to the museum at all times.

"The agreement," Rich says, "ensures that LACMA, in the end, is the sole proprietor. Donors shouldn't be given control of museum operations, personnel and policy. And anything that would inhibit the institution's long-term control of a gift is not a good thing. But I figure if Eli wants to have fun with this for 10 years, if he wants to buy art, build a building and know, when it's all said and done, his contribution is part of something forever, what's wrong with that?"

That remains to be seen as the expansion gets underway.

"The only thing certain about building projects is that there will be surprises," says the Getty's Munitz.

"I think the building blocks are in place, the concept is terrific. There is every reason to believe that this will be one more miracle for Los Angeles. But it is going to be very interesting to watch it play out."

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