A peek at Eli Broad’s L.A. cache

Times Staff Writer

ELI BROAD’S got a secret.

The billionaire philanthropist and businessman may be the most public of America’s private art collectors. He sits up front at auctions and makes no secret of his purchases. A major exhibition from his contemporary art collections, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, went on the road from 2001 to 2003. Hundreds of other Broad-owned works pop up every year at museums and university galleries across the country.

But what goes on at the Broad Art Foundation’s headquarters in Santa Monica happens behind closed doors. The building, a renovated 1927 telephone switching station, is an anonymous fortress that all but disappears into the beachside landscape. Conceived as a “lending library,” the foundation presents rotating exhibitions from its ever-expanding collection of about 1,400 pieces by 130 artists. But the galleries are open by appointment only to art professionals, scholars and small groups of university or museum affiliates.

Every year or so, the volume of visitors skyrockets for a special invitational affair, when a new installation goes up and the doors open to droves of curators, collectors, artists, dealers, critics, community leaders and friends of Broad and his wife, Edythe. The exclusivity of such events always makes them hot tickets. But interest is especially high this year because, for the first time, all the exhibition space is devoted to works by L.A.-based artists -- an aspect of the collection that’s less well known than Broad’s extensive holdings of New York figures, such as sculptor Jeff Koons, photographer Cindy Sherman and painters Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

On a recent Sunday, about 800 people turn out to see the new show, beginning with a huge gallery of paintings and drawings by Ed Ruscha.

“We thought it was time,” Broad says of the L.A. focus. His foundation began collecting works by Ruscha, painter Charles Garabedian, conceptualist John Baldessari, sculptor Robert Therrien and performance/installation artist Mike Kelley many years ago, subsequently adding pieces by other Los Angeles artists, including painters Amy Adler, Toba Khedoori and Mark Bradford and photographer Sharon Lockhart.

Walking through four floors of high-ceilinged galleries and an additional exhibition space in the basement, Broad points out familiar favorites, such as Therrien’s “Under the Table,” a vastly over-scaled table and chairs that fills an entire gallery and dwarfs people who walk under it.

He’s also proud of spectacular recent acquisitions, including Chris Burden’s “Bateau de Guerre,” a huge battleship suspended from the ceiling on the third floor. Composed of gas cans, plastic toys, a miniature castle and blazing electric lamps, it’s a scary/funny thought-provoker about war games. Doug Aitken’s video installation, “New Skin,” in a room of its own on the second floor, muses about the plight of a woman who collects images as she loses her eyesight.

Broad recalls buying two Ruscha paintings from the last Venice Biennale and another from the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. He grabbed a Khedoori painting in her studio, before it was shown at Regen Projects in West Hollywood. Keeping up with the scene, with the foundation’s director, Joanne Heyler, is part of the fun.

Does he ever fall out of love with the art he buys? “The love lasts longer for some than for others,” he says. But he’s still crazy about Baldessari’s 1985 “Buildings=Guns=People: Desire,” a composition of greatly enlarged color photographs that measures about 15 1/2 feet high and 37 feet wide. And he believes that Lari Pittman’s immense 1995 painting, “Like You,” is a masterpiece.

“We collect these things because they are great artworks from a great city,” says Broad, in the news lately for his joint offer to buy the Tribune Co., which owns The Times. “When we collect art from other places, we think about what we want to bring to Los Angeles.” And that leads into his mantra.

“I think Los Angeles is going to be the contemporary art capital of the world,” he says, ticking off the region’s top art schools and other assets. “When the Broad Contemporary Art Museum opens at LACMA, Los Angeles will have more gallery space for contemporary art than any other city in the world.” The Broad-funded, $60-million structure, designed by architect Renzo Piano, will be finished in about a year, he says. The opening date hasn’t been set, but he says it’s likely to happen in February 2008.

So which works from his collections will be lent to BCAM or given to the museum?

“Ask Michael Govan,” Broad says, referring to the new director of LACMA. Though he is well known as a force who dominates every project he becomes involved with, Broad is leaving plans for the opening show to Govan, LACMA curators and Heyler. Broad notes that the museum already has purchased a signature map-like tapestry by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti through the $10-million acquisition fund he established.

“LACMA has more energy than ever. With Michael Govan, more has been done in seven months than in the last decade,” he says. “With his energy and his comprehensive understanding of art and the art world, I’m sitting back and saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”


The Broad collection

To view more artworks from the current exhibition at the Broad Art Foundation, go to www.calendarlive.com/broadart.