Eli Broad, today's Norton Simon

Usually, Eli Broad's trajectory as an art collector is traced to mentoring by the late Taft Schreiber. Broad himself has talked admiringly of what he learned about art from the MCA Inc. executive (and Ronald Reagan's former Hollywood agent), whose small but extraordinary trove of works by Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti and 10 others was a magnanimous 1989 gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art from the estate of Schreiber's widow, Rita.

Still, another, even more celebrated name in the annals of Los Angeles art collecting ought not to be discounted, even if the influence was perhaps more indirect.

The recent unveiling of the Broad Art Foundation's new building design happens to coincide with the publication of an engrossing new book from Yale University Press. "Collector Without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best" ($65) at times reads like a primer for understanding Broad's vigorous acquisitions, contentious relationships with area museums, philosophy of creating an art-lending library and more.

The similarities between Broad and Simon — both self-made men of vast wealth, savvy business acumen, genuine art passion and an often-remarked penchant for aggressive and controlling dealings — are as vivid as the differences.

On Oct. 25, 1972, Broad bought his first important art, paying $95,000 at a Sotheby's auction for an 1888 Van Gogh drawing. Rhythmic lines and staccato flecks of brown ink show two peasant houses in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a seaside village in the Rhône Delta of Provence, the region where he spent his final years.

Today, the personal art collection assembled by Broad and his wife, Edythe — who first sparked her husband's art interest — looks very different from that Post-Impressionist origin. Ditto their foundation's vast collection. The roughly 2,000 works form a diverse compendium of contemporary art dating from 1960 and after, with a clear — and artistically strong — Pop art tilt.

Three weeks before the Sotheby's hammer fell, sending the drawing off to the Broads' L.A. living room while launching them on their nearly four-decade collecting adventure, Norton Simon was acting on an ambitious plan. Simon, quoted in a Museum of Fine Arts Houston press release for a large exhibition drawn from his personal and foundation collections, explained his concept of a museum without walls. Rather than construct a building to display his art, he expressed his intention to start an art-lending library.

"We hope," he said, "to fill a real gap in the cultural life of this country."

Masterpieces from his collection would be available for long-term museum loans, maximizing their educational potential. As the Houston show was being announced, another Simon show was at the Princeton University Art Museum, complete with a catalog whose cover featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother.

Simon certainly had the wherewithal to establish an art-lending library. He bought his first paintings in late 1954 — two undistinguished works picked up at an art gallery in the old Ambassador Hotel, not far from his Hancock Park home. But soon he was off and running.

By 1962-63 he spent the equivalent in today's currency of more than $22 million on 67 works. The following year he stunned the art world by buying the entire inventory of Duveen Bros., the legendary purveyor of Old Masters to America's first generation of robber-baron art collectors. By the time he was done in 1989, he had made nearly 2,000 acquisitions.

Even many of the works he considered and didn't buy, plus ones he bought and later sold, would together rank as an outstanding collection. Many now reside in important museums, including the Getty and the Hammer in L.A., the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the national galleries in Washington, D.C., and Canberra, Australia.

Simon's holdings blossomed into the greatest art collection assembled from scratch in the post- World War II era. His closest rival for the title was Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss steel magnate whose collection went to Spain, adjacent to the Prado. (It includes some former Simon works.) And Thyssen, who inherited his father's art collection, had a head start.

At 494 pages, "Collector Without Walls" is a thorough, unfailingly fascinating history of Simon's collecting activity, written with great insight by his longtime associate, Sara Campbell, now senior curator at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum. Together with 1998's biography "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture" by former Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic, we now have an exceptional resource for understanding events central to Los Angeles' emergence as a global cultural powerhouse.

Coincidentally, we also gain insight into Broad, a generation younger than Simon, who began to collect art when the nation's most famous and prodigious art collector lived just across town. One obvious connection is the lending library concept.

Andre Malraux, France's first minister of cultural affairs, had surmised that the world of art reproductions forms a "museum without walls." For centuries, engravings of masterpiece paintings and plaster casts of famous sculptures expanded the restricted reach of the originals. Malraux proposed in1947's "The Imaginary Museum" that the proliferation of photographic reproductions now accelerated the process.

Simon, who knew the power of advertising techniques from the Hunt Foods conglomerate that made him rich, understood. He surmised that the authenticity of direct art encounters could be restored by making the virtual "museum without walls" into an actual one. A consortium of existing museums could borrow from his great collection.

At the end of 1973 Simon had 100 works in his personal collection, plus about 500 in two foundations. By 1975, sizable loans were made to museums in Houston, Princeton, San Francisco, New Orleans, Pasadena and a dozen other cities, plus the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — where Simon had been a trustee, but from which he had noisily resigned in the belief that it was poorly managed.

Campbell oversaw the lending library concept. In addition to acknowledging its generosity, she is candid in pointing out the program's more pragmatic aspects.

Sizable costs for care and art insurance were not Simon's alone. His foundations, as charitable assets held for public benefit, had legal requirements to make their art available for public display. California tax benefits accrued to art purchases "parked" for three months at out-of-state museums, prior to arriving in L.A.

"We loan works to museums and make them available to scholars, along with an archive on the collection." That was Broad, not Simon, speaking in 1988 about the opening of his then-new Santa Monica art-storage and lending facility.

The same philanthropic and pragmatic mix applies to his lending library concept as it did to Simon's. So do Simon's flirtations with giving the collection away (at least seven institutions); distrust of traditional museum management; engineering of a bailout of an artistically adventuresome but financially faltering institution (the old Pasadena Museum for Simon, MOCA for Broad); later deciding to open his own museum, and more.

In fact, a 1970s shift in Simon's collecting activity also anticipates Broad's. Simon started with 19th and early 20th century French art. Eventually, he added European Old Masters, partially because they were far less expensive.

But after his 1972 marriage to actress Jennifer Jones, the collection's character changed: Simon became an outstanding collector of Indian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan art. In the next two years, he paid $6.6 million for 138 objects, many superlative — less than a third of what he paid during the same period for 123 fine examples of European art.

Broad, unlikely to establish a major collection of early Modern art, switched to contemporary. By the 1980s he was one of the field's most active players. The Van Gogh drawing, sold to help pay for the purchase of a rare, 1954 red abstraction by Robert Rauschenberg, is now in the collection of New York's Morgan Library.

Simon had scant interest in contemporary art. Sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were about as close as he got. In 1968 he did pay $65,000 for "Cubi XXVIII" by the late American sculptor David Smith.

He sold the masterpiece in 1982 for $1.1 million — a not-uncommon practice in which Simon, acting like a dealer, took a big profit to subsidize other endeavors. Twenty-three years later, Smith's sculpture went under the hammer at Sotheby's. Its staggering sale price of $23.8 million set a new benchmark as the most expensive contemporary work then sold at auction. The buyer was Eli Broad.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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