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Here’s why the Broad museum’s generous lending program may not work out

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Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Seven years ago, L.A. super-collectors Eli and Edythe Broad abruptly reversed course and decided not to give their coveted contemporary art collection to one or more museums, as they had long publicly planned.

Instead they would build, endow and open their own. The new museum, stalled a bit by construction glitches and dubbed simply “the Broad,” is set to open downtown at Grand Avenue and 2nd Street on Sept. 20.

In 2008 the burning question was “Why the sudden change of heart?” Theories multiplied like rabbits.

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FULL COVERAGE: Broad Museum

Now that the $400-million enterprise has arrived, the question is different. When is an art museum not an art museum?

The Broad looks like one on the surface. But scratch a bit and something uncommon emerges. And that’s the way the benefactors want it.

The Broad is a hybrid. It is one part art museum, with an as-yet undefined program of changing exhibitions and a sizable permanent collection (roughly 2,000 works made during the last 60 years). It’s also one part lending library, with a mandate to circulate its holdings far and wide in the U.S. and abroad.

The lending library half of the equation often gets lost in the telling. But it’s integral to the concept that animates the place.

Most museums lend works of art from their collections to institutions elsewhere, responding to reasonable requests. But collegial lending is a professional courtesy, not an obligation. Few museums have loans as a mandate for their existence.

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The Broad does. “Operating a lending program to art museums and galleries worldwide” is in the first line of its mission statement.

That’s unusual. You won’t find anything like it at, say, the Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Broad’s neighbor across Grand Avenue. It doesn’t come up in the mission statements of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

All of them lend, but none has it as a mission.

And some lend a lot. In the last fiscal year, LACMA lent 593 works from its permanent collection to other institutions, according to a spokesman. That’s more than twice the annual average of the Broad, which launched its foundation’s lending program in 1984.

Back then, when the collection was small and didn’t have a public exhibition space, a loan program had another practical value. It saved money. Works out on loan were being cared for by other museums rather than incurring storage expenses at home.

Loans were (and still are) also a way to avoid California “use taxes,” which can be incurred when an out-of-state purchase is shipped home. The Broad is in L.A., but the majority of its purchasing is done in New York. Sending a new acquisition first to Phoenix or Portland, Ore., for a few months can benefit the out-of-town museum and its audience while saving tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

FULL COVERAGE: Fall arts guide 2015

The Broad reports that, since the program’s launch, it has lent about 8,000 times to roughly 500 institutions, almost entirely in North America and Europe. (A few also went to Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Doha, Qatar.) That’s about one loan made every day, year-round, during a five-day workweek.

Simplifying loans is even baked into the building design. Few museums can store all their art on site, but here the entire second floor is a beautifully outfitted storage facility for almost all the collection, plus room for growth. Navigation is easy, access quick.

Storage is so central to the concept that it’s even featured in the museum display. Stairs leading down from the third-floor galleries to the lobby include two landings with picture windows overlooking the storage vaults. A visitor can’t really see much art, but the idea of its potential circulation in a globalized world is unveiled.

Accredited institutions are invited, even encouraged, to borrow, say, a simple Christopher Wool word painting or a monumentally complex tapestry of woven metal bits by El Anatsui. Or an abstract-erotic revel in luxurious slathers of oil paint by Cecily Brown, or maybe the grim imagining of mercenary torturers that Leon Golub scraped into the weave of a canvas skin.

There are costs. The borrowing institution picks up the tab for packing, transporting, handling and insuring artworks in transit. But there are no rental or other fees.

Not charging fees used to be the industry norm, but many museums now tack on supplemental charges to produce income. The practice is controversial — museums are nonprofit — and frankly ought to be discouraged. In this, the Broad has the right approach.

But as the hybrid museum-cum-library makes its debut, a second and more provocative question is: Will the concept become a model for future museums? Or is the Broad a one-off, an anomaly born of the unique circumstances of its creation?

The question arises because of a second Gilded Age phenomenon: Since the 1980s, huge private wealth has generated huge private art collections, many of them already museum-sized. Most are focused on a relatively narrow, even homogenized range of several hundred blue-chip contemporary artists. What will become of them?

A variety of solutions is emerging.

Doris and the late Donald Fisher, founders of clothing retailer Gap, took an unconventional turn after abandoning their plan to build a private museum. Rather than an outright gift, 1,100 works were loaned to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for 99 years. The loan status retains at least some control for the Fishers’ foundation.

New York art publishing and paper manufacturing magnate Peter Brant, a MOCA trustee, has built a private suburban museum for his sizable trove. So has science and technology industrialist Mitchell P. Rales, a trustee at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Conn., with well over 1,000 works, is open only weekdays by appointment, and Rales’ Glenstone in Potomac, Md., with around 800, is open Wednesday through Saturday, also by appointment. Visitors are intentionally limited to preserve a contemplative atmosphere and accommodate residential neighborhoods.

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FOR THE RECORD

Sept. 10, 3:53 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that Glenstone is open weekdays by appointment. It is open Wednesday through Saturday by appointment.

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Last month, former Guggenheim Museum Director Thomas Krens floated plans for something called the Global Contemporary Collection and Museum in North Adams, Mass., a summer tourist destination. Despite the museum name, the warehouse space will be privately owned by for-profit investors.

Details are sketchy, but presumably collector-investors could temporarily park their art in a space open to the public, until such time as the paintings and sculptures would be offloaded back into the market.

Other mega-collectors have other mega-plans. Existing museums are getting lost in the shuffle. The Broad’s lending library means to help alleviate that by becoming a productive model for how to spread the wealth.

Can it? I’m doubtful.

Will the Broad really want to part — even temporarily — with the greatest or most popular works in its own galleries, which is what would appeal most to potential borrowers? Pity the visitor who comes to see the museum’s celebrated holdings in 1960s Pop art, for example, only to discover that the best of them are on the road.

Perhaps a slightly earlier plan for an art lending library sheds light on the new museum’s loan prospects. It didn’t pan out.

When the Broads took their first tentative steps into art collecting in the early 1970s, they had a powerful local example to follow. The single greatest art collector working from scratch in the second half of the 20th century lived in Los Angeles.

Norton Simon, a mercurial industrialist and marketing whiz who died in 1993, turned the fortune he made from Hunt Foods Inc. into a stellar collection of Old Master, early Modern and classical Indian and Southeast Asian art. His initial plan was to make the collection a lending library.

In part, the lending plan reflected the city’s now-obsolete reputation as a desert for great museum art. The Getty and the Huntington were the spotty suburban house-museums of rich men, living and dead. LACMA, launched in only 1965, had barely gotten off the ground. The Pasadena Museum of Art was struggling, and MOCA and the Hammer did not exist.

L.A. was like most cities and small towns across the country, where art was inconsequential or a civic afterthought. The temporary loan of a Raphael, Rembrandt or Van Gogh could instantly fill a yawning gap while generating considerable publicity for Simon’s national business brand.

And in part the Simon plan was a model for the same fiscal pragmatism that the Broad Foundation would follow in its early years. To skirt the California use tax, he parked new acquisitions out of town so often that the state law came to be known as “the Simon rule.”

Simon’s lending-library plan didn’t last long. A year after taking control of the financially ailing Pasadena Museum in a move resembling his hard-nosed successes with merger-and-acquisition business deals, he opened the extraordinary Norton Simon Museum.

Not only did the lending library concept quickly end, it did a backflip: The Simon Museum is today notorious for its parsimony with loans.

Collection sharing is nice in theory. It looks good on paper, especially at a time when the cost of art can be astronomical, pricing out smaller institutions. An expensive work here or there might be jointly acquired by more than one museum, but on a large scale the practice is not so simple.

The ultimate problem is this: The hybrid concept is at cross-purposes with itself. Museums cherish permanence, while lending libraries value transience.

We live in an age of hybridization, from vehicles that run on gas and electricity to artistic genres that blur once-distinct boundaries between media, or else cross-breed art with other disciplines, including technology, philosophy, science and political action.

But some hybrids are oil and water. They don’t mix.

Museums are notoriously hard to define. Except for those that don’t collect at all, however, the most important activity they undertake is exhibiting a permanent collection. The display defines the place, giving a distinctive public profile to an otherwise faceless institution.

The shape evolves slowly, brick by brick, acquisition by acquisition over time. The Broads, even blessed with their considerable resources, built their collection over more than 40 years.

Until now it hasn’t had a constant public display space. But structurally, its permanence and stability are at odds with the transience and flux that energize a lending library.

Given life’s revved-up pace, art sometimes seems to travel at the speed of the Internet. But museums don’t. The slow-cooked quality of an art museum displaying its collection is easily overlooked.

The Simon discovered that sitting with the art is essential. The Broad might too.

Twitter: @KnightLAT


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