The news this week that billionaire art collector Eli Broad has decided not to give any of his 2,000-piece collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a building bearing his name will open with great fanfare next month, was sort of like hearing that a terminal patient died. You know in your heart it's coming, but expectation does nothing to minimize being nonplused when it does.
Sometimes reality's bluntness does that. Overnight, LACMA became the museum equivalent of Hillary Rodham Clinton. After a buoyant year and a half, the air suddenly went out of the souffle.
Following Iowa's abrupt collapse, Sen. Clinton rebounded somewhat in New Hampshire. Whether LACMA can too is hard to say.
Why? Because the reinvigoration of the long-sluggish museum has been built around advancing a unique idea: LACMA was poised to become the nation's only encyclopedic museum -- with collections ranging through all historical periods in every part of the globe -- that would also have a major commitment to contemporary art. Since Broad, a LACMA trustee who occupies the stratosphere of the world's contemporary collectors, won't himself make the institutional pledge, that scheme has disintegrated.
Furthermore, if Broad, 73, won't give masterpieces to his own favored museum, why should any other private art collector? Especially not when any gift would be to something called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.
When LACMA officials announced several years ago that Broad had pledged $50 million to build BCAM on its Wilshire Boulevard campus, his large collection was in the front of the art world's collective mind. LACMA may be encyclopedic, but its strengths have never been in the modern sweep of 19th and 20th century art. For art after 1950, a Broad gift could make a huge difference.
But the reality is this: The philanthropist has a track record as a hugely successful businessman who exchanges project involvement for near-absolute control. Letting go is the single hardest thing for a controlling personality to do.
Apparently, it's impossible to give away art from his two collections -- one personal, numbering about 400 works, now to be merged with an additional 1,600 held in a foundation, with all the attendant personal tax benefits but no loss of power.
Commitment phobia is irrational, and listening to Broad's explanations for his brusque about-face is a plain illustration. In interviews, he cites two main reasons why he's pulling back, after signaling in recent years that his collections would be divided among several museums. Neither explanation makes much sense.
"We don't want [the collection] to remain in storage," Broad told one reporter. He told The Times, "We were concerned that if we gave our collection to one or several museums, 90% or so would be in storage all the time."
This is not a new worry for collectors. In 1980, Burton and Emily Tremaine sold "Three Flags," an iconic early Jasper Johns painting, to the Whitney Museum for $1 million -- then the highest price paid by a museum for a work by a living artist. They could easily have donated the painting, which they paid $900 for in 1959. But Mrs. Tremaine said she figured that the premium price guaranteed that the museum would keep it out of storage and on view.
A lot has changed in the intervening 28 years -- not least an explosive art market, which in retrospect turned the Whitney's record payment into a bargain.
More important, time has passed. That means history has become clearer. We now have a much better idea about what art of the 1950s and 1960s is on track to be remembered by posterity.
For the quality and stature of an encyclopedic museum, that assessment is crucial. I'd be happy to draw up a list of inarguable masterworks, taken only from those expected to be in BCAM's inaugural exhibition.
Start with Robert Rauschenberg's 1954 red abstraction. Add the two Johns flag paintings (1960 and 1967), his mixed-media "Watchman" (1964) and his pivotal 1975 "hatch" painting.
From L.A., there are John Baldessari's two text paintings from 1967-68, Edward Ruscha's first word painting, "Boss" (1961) and his 1964 picture of Norm's La Cienega Boulevard restaurant on fire.
Toss in another slew of Pop Art classics, including three Roy Lichtenstein comic strip paintings (1962-65) and his 1969 abstraction of a mirror. And for Andy Warhol, begin with the advertising image, "Where's your rupture?," continue through two Marilyn Monroe images, 20 of Jackie Kennedy, an Elvis, a dance diagram, a wanted poster, an electric chair and a Campbell's soup can -- clam chowder, Manhattan style -- all from 1961 to 1967.
To push the chronology forward, go to Jeff Koons. There are the sculptor's fluorescent-lighted vacuum cleaners (1981), floating basketballs and bronze lifeboat (both 1985), stainless-steel bunny rabbit (1986) and life-size porcelain portrait of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee (1988).
Finish with a dozen 1977-80 photographs by Cindy Sherman, in which the artist-chameleon assumes cliched poses echoing movie stills.
With a list like that, I'd be willing to bet my dog's life that a LACMA gift would go straight into museum galleries until the end of time. The bet is as sure as for the great Carter collection of 17th century Dutch painting a few years back or the cream of the recently acquired Lazarof collection of Modern art. The Broad gift would catapult the museum in rank to having the nation's greatest collection of American Pop Art -- a status especially appropriate to Los Angeles, pop culture capital of the known universe.
Since strength draws strength, there's no telling what other related works might then come LACMA's way through other collectors' (and perhaps artists') generosity. That's how great museum collections are built and how the claim of an encyclopedic museum with a commitment to contemporary art becomes more than vacuous sloganeering.
Which brings us to Broad's second nonsensical idea. He thinks museums should collectively share works of art -- an administrative and curatorial nightmare, which makes museum professionals cringe -- and that functioning as a "lending library" of art to institutions is "a new paradigm and a model for other private collectors."
The Broad Art Foundation has been doing that since 1984. Yet the circulating loan concept is clever only for art that has not yet settled into historical certainty about its importance. Ninety percent of the foundation's collection lies in that ambiguous zone, which explains the worry over museum storage. But 25 years from now, that mystery will begin to be solved. Gifts could be made as knowledge evolves. Culturally, that would be an authentic public service.
But now, BCAM just looks like a savvy business deal. The foundation's modest Santa Monica digs have shifted to a prime spot of free real estate on Wilshire Boulevard adjacent to the most important encyclopedic art museum west of Chicago, all for the bargain price of $50 million. That's about twice what Broad paid for one David Smith sculpture two years ago. And LACMA's infrastructure will be picking up the tab to maintain a collection the museum doesn't own.
Of course, if the Broad Foundation next decides to set up shop in new quarters elsewhere in town, giving the best of the collection to LACMA now would have a detrimental effect. It could anchor a private museum and be its primary public draw. Broad says he has no plans for his own museum -- but then, he also said he would give his collection to one or more museums. We know how that plan turned out.
The response to the cruel news has been withering. Most succinct was Time magazine's Richard Lacayo, who wrote on his blog, "LACMA got screwed." Folks at the Getty will tell you that bad behavior by staff members can seriously bruise a museum's reputation. But when a trustee is responsible, the wound is deeper.