Is the controversy over Eli Broad’s relationship with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art real, or is it all in the minds of the media? The billionaire LACMA trustee and donor visited the editorial board yesterday with museum director Michael Govan, to discuss views on architecture, L.A.'s position as a cultural capital and the fluid state of the Broad art collection. Some highlights:
Eli Broad: Edy and I had to make a decision, what to do with our collection. One, we could build a museum. We chose not to do that. We believe in public institutions both in education and the arts. So the first thing we had to do was create more gallery space. Two, we said our job is to have our collection be seen by the broadest possible public. And with all due respect to the museums, they will only lend to their peers. LACMA will lend to the Met. They will lend to the Modern, to the Louvre, to the National Gallery. But they will not particularly make a point of lending to Knoxville, Portland, where they can’t get anything in return.
So we thought a lot about this and we said we’re gonna make this a public collection, and we’re going to favor LACMA. Whatever LACMA wants to have on their walls they can have on their walls for as long as they want to have it on their walls. But if they want to put it in the basement, we want to be able to have it shown elsewhere.
That’s quite an undertaking. In order to do that you not only need to have a large collection, you’ve got to pay for storage, which is not inexpensive, for climate-controlled storage. You’ve got to pay for insurance; you’ve got to pay for conservation, and you have about six or seven people doing all that. So our mission was how do we have this collection serve the broadest possible public while favoring Los Angeles. And this is how we can.
Now, people make out like this was some big surprise to Michael. Michael and I had talked for years before this came about.
Jim Newton: Was there a point where you thought you were getting the whole collection and that changed?
Michael Govan: No, let me just speak to that, because a lot of people have asked me that. One of my first questions, because I had lots of questions for Eli was actually the opposite. I asked: Did you build this for your collection or is it an open museum that can play with the community and play with other parts of the collections and other things? He answered in the affirmative. He encouraged it to have access to the Broad collection but to be available for new ideas, available to exhibitions and so on and so forth. So from the very beginning I understood that it was a lending library relationship. We had been discussing as long as a year ago. We need to think about which things we want to showcase at this museum in a permanent way, and then there are things that are going to rotate. Cindy Sherman can only be shown three months out of every two years, on average. Video works. You can’t keep butterflies alive so long, so Damien Hirst you know it’s expensive to store. I thought it was a nice relationship because it could change based on what they acquired, on that level. Then there’s the question of really major works. And the first thing I said to Eli was, will things be there for the long term so people decade after decade can come back to see the equivalent of it’s a stupid phrase but the equivalent of our Mona Lisa. And I think the Jeff Koons bunny stands a good chance of being that for a certain era. So the question is could it stay there, permanently, forever? And the answer is that it could....
Eli Broad: When we lend we’re not looking for a big return. When a museum lends it’s really a matter of what are you going to do for me in return?
Michael Govan: Often, often. We do lend, but I’ll tell you what we don’t have. We don’t have the resources to in any way subsidize it. We do have the resources to have the curators come to see the collection. They have more staff per object than we do.
Susan Brenneman: Do you pay freight when you lend, to Knoxville and smaller museums? Will you get it there and insure it on its way and insure it...
Eli Broad: No, no. They pay for transit and insurance. We’ve been thinking about maybe changing that. It has not been a big problem. You know, other museums that do lend charge lending fees.
Susan Brenneman: Right, but again if you’re at that top level where the lending is going on there’s more money to do that. But my question is, without those works in the permanent collection, a permanent collection has meaning to LACMA beyond just what can be seen on the walls, and not least in the sense of that’s ability to lend: This is our piece, we can lend it, what do we get in return.
Eli Broad: Well I’ve said as recently as Saturday that what LACMA wants to keep on the walls they can keep on the walls.
Michael Govan: And beyond that I think we’ve talked about the fact that if another museums wants to borrow that bunny, they have to talk to me.
Eli Broad: Yeah, LACMA can have the clout of being a lender so they can get things in return.
Anne Marie O’Connor: Could this decision ever change? Could you ever decide to effectively give the works to LACMA and allow them to
Eli Broad: Of course you can, any time. The foundations and trustees can decide to do it.
Jim Newton: Would you like it to change?
Michael Govan: I have to say it’s a fantastically great opportunity. LACMA has anemic acquisition funds. I came into town expecting big community endowments to raise funds. It’s pay as you go; you’ve got to raise every nickel. So it’s kind of fun. I call Eli, he’s in New York. I say go to this gallery, go to that gallery. You know, he brings things back, and next week, two works arrive. It’s kind of fun.
Eli Broad: Let me say several things. One, it has been written that Michael and I have “different visions.” Or something. He might comment on that. Also, it’s been written that Michael would not have chosen Renzo Piano.
Michael Govan: Yeah, as I said in the last meeting I like him so much we’re going to commission him to do a second building.
Eli Broad: And then this whole thing, how did all this happen? The museum wanted me to see Ed Wyatt of The New York Times.
Michael Govan: Yeah, that was pretty nasty...
Eli Broad: So I saw him, and we discussed that, and the story grew
Christopher Hawthorne: But both of you have talked about wanting to clarify the image of LACMA. And doesn’t this muddy that image?
Eli Broad: I don’t think so. I mean, we’re not involved in governance at all. We had nothing to do with the installation, other than helping install it. I said to Michael take whatever you want. They did a pretty good job of stripping everything out of my house.
Michael Govan: I think The New York Times and listen, I come recently from New York New York is actually out to portray L.A. as ungenerous. The level of skepticism and the desire to show L.A. as ungenerous and New York as generous is driving that. You’re not gonna counter that with any one move. It’s working together over time, building resource. One thing I like about the way the press has covered this is that a lot of people feel it’s an open institution. Eli’s a huge character in Los Angeles. To people outside Los Angeles you’re a giant character. We’re on track to have trustees from Mexico City, trustees from New York. I want to reverse the trend. I want collections coming into L.A., not leaving L.A. So frankly, in a sort of perverse way it does help build the sense of opportunity and openness. That said, we’re confident, together, that our relationship is developing to the point that the public will benefit. Masterpieces will be available at LACMA, forever, in perfect Renzo Piano-lit galleries. And then he’s going to continue to give.