Finding the silver lining at LACMA

Times Staff Writer

When you’re director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, talking money from billionaires is part of the job description. But now LACMA Director Michael Govan faces a tougher task: hailing Eli Broad’s generosity and opening LACMA’s new Broad Museum of Contemporary Art while Broad tells the world how he decided not to give the museum his art collection.

“Eli has never changed his story with LACMA,” Govan said on the afternoon after Broad’s decision hit the headlines last week. “He has never promised something he hasn’t delivered. . . . He’s made a huge investment in this place.”

Indeed, Broad footed the $56-million cost of putting up the new building and put up about $10 million more to buy two artworks for the inside. But LACMA’s connection with Broad is “an evolving relationship,” Govan said.

On Feb. 16, LACMA will unveil the building, nicknamed BCAM, with its interiors dominated by 220 pieces borrowed from Broad and his Broad Art Foundation.


Through years of plan-laying and fundraising for LACMA’s expansion, Broad, a LACMA trustee, said that those and about 1,800 other artworks in his control would probably go to one or more museums eventually. But last week he declared a new strategy: Have his foundation keep all the artworks but lend them frequently.

LACMA officials say their agreement with Broad says the museum can borrow and display up to 200 works at a time from Broad and the Broad Art Foundation during Eli Broad’s lifetime.

“I do imagine that many of these works will live at LACMA,” said Govan. “Will they be owned by LACMA? I’m not sure it matters.”

Govan and LACMA contemporary art curator Lynn Zelevansky maintain that Broad’s decision was no surprise to them, but it was to the rest of the art world, which has seen LACMA left in the lurch by would-be donors including Norton Simon (who started his own museum in 1975) and Armand Hammer (who started his own museum in 1990).


Honestly, Govan was asked, who wouldn’t rather have ownership than a long-term loan?

“It’s just not an easy question with a collection this large,” the director insisted, noting the cost of storing and caring for the works, many of which are very large, as their roles in art history grow and shrink. Ultimately, Govan said, “you want the masterpiece on view, for the public, at LACMA.”

In the larger picture, “the museum can’t lose,” said Govan. “We’ve not risked anything.”

He even found a “silver lining” to Broad’s decision to hold on to his art: This “should make it easier” to woo other collectors, who may have felt that LACMA’s new space was Broad’s exclusive playground, Govan said. “The working assumption out there was that this was just for the Broad Collection.”

Still, Govan’s duties in getting BCAM open now include facing pointed questions over what Broad is giving and getting. By the time Govan arrived at LACMA in early 2006 -- in large part because of Broad’s support -- plans for BCAM were well underway. Broad had already pledged $50 million for the new building and $10 million for art to go inside, and he selected architect Renzo Piano. (Although the building cost grew by $6 million, LACMA officials note, Broad has promised to pay the entire cost.)

Govan noted that the unorthodox decision to call Broad’s building a “museum” within a museum was made by predecessor Andrea Rich.

Would Govan have made that decision?

“I don’t know. I’ve gone back and forth on it,” the director said.


The most important part of BCAM’s opening, Govan said, is that Los Angeles is about to have 58,000 square feet of contemporary art exhibition space that it didn’t have before, thanks to Broad. (The museum is also unveiling a new $25-million entrance pavilion bankrolled by energy company BP.)

Broad, 74, amassed his fortune in the housing and financial-services industries and has been a philanthropic force nationwide for more than two decades, channeling money to cultural, education and scientific causes. In business and philanthropy, he has been known as a deal maker who makes the most of his leverage.

In describing his move last week, he said that one option he considered was “to build our own museum as others have done. We chose not to do that. But we were concerned that if we gave our collection to one or several museums, 90% or so would be in storage all the time.”

Pieces borrowed from Broad and his Broad Art Foundation will dominate the new space for the next year, Govan said, but after that, LACMA is free to display whatever it wants to -- not only works from Broad but also special exhibitions such as a planned 2009 show on German art during the Cold War, which is likely to rely heavily on artworks borrowed from institutions worldwide.

Govan envisions that one-third of BCAM’s space will be devoted to items that will largely stay put, another one-third to exhibitions changing every six to 12 months and another one-third to temporary exhibitions lasting roughly three months.

What, apart from massive tax deductions, does Broad get out of this? His name is up on signs all over. His art-capital campaign gets a big boost. His collection’s market value could rise -- but Broad has said the works will not go back on the market, and Govan says he has Broad’s “100% solemn oath” on that subject.

BCAM also gives Broad a chance to show his works in a building by the architect of his choosing, without having to buy real estate. And for the next year that Broad’s pieces are on view at LACMA, the museum will be paying to insure them, at a time when art insurance rates have been soaring. LACMA officials say their art-insurance costs (which fluctuate depending on what’s on loan) were $1.04 million in 2006 and $307,000 in 2007 -- and will be $1.4 million in 2008.

“The future will be different,” said Govan, noting that LACMA and Broad have until February 2009 to make new insurance plans.


Govan estimates that the expansion will add about $3 million yearly to LACMA’s operating expenses, a rise of about 7%. To make ends meet, Govan said, he’s counting on increases in donations, membership and attendance, which was 616,491 for the year that ended June 30.

On Jan. 1, LACMA raised its admission fees for non-member adults from $10 to $12. And it’s boosting parking prices from $5 to $7 for self-parking and $10 for valet parking, and adding 525 self-parking and 750 valet spaces to the current 220 spaces at Wilshire Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue.

Govan wouldn’t say how many more visitors he’s hoping to attract. But he did note that he has his eyes on the numbers at the Museum of Contemporary and Art in Los Angeles (316,000 visitors in 2007) and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (360,000 visitors). . “I’d like to see LACMA double its attendance over the next few years,” he said.

One element that seemed to separate BCAM from LACMA at first was the $10 million Broad offered for acquisitions and the new board that was to oversee those acquisitions. But that first $10 million has now been spent, Govan said, on a Richard Serra sculpture and less costly works by Alighiero Boetti and Chris Burden (a joint acquisition with MOCA), all of which Govan said he was eager to get. Govan said he considers that acquisition board dissolved, with future acquisitions to be decided the same way that they are for other LACMA departments.

Now, apart from BCAM’s title, said LACMA President Melody Kanschat, “nothing makes it different” from the museum’s other buildings “except it’s newer and it doesn’t leak.”

“And,” added Govan, “it’s got great light.”