At nearly all museums, the treasures on public display are but a small fraction of the riches within. Gallery space being limited, priceless paintings and rare sculptures are consigned to basements or off-site storage much of the time.
But the soon-to-open Broad museum next to Walt Disney Concert Hall will offer visitors a peek behind the institutional curtain, a concept that is central to the new building's design. Past the elevator, over a stainless steel railing and through a steep stairwell, a patch of glass offers a peek into the museum's storage area, "the vault."
In an era when museum design can rival the importance of the collection itself, the ability to view the vault is considered a distinctive feature that will help set the Broad apart when it opens to the public next month.
"It's a glimpse into what really goes on here," Broad Founding Director Joanne Heyler says on a walk-through. "You're getting a view of the full spectrum of what happens in a museum, not just what's been pre-curated for viewing."
Other museums have visible storage. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have storage-area displays, but they're curated, largely static exhibits, notes architect Elizabeth Diller of New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed the Broad.
In the Broad's vault, workers will be carrying on as usual, carting objects in and out as needed — a pioneering change in the art museum world, she says.
It's already a hub of activity as workers prepare for the museum's debut. Staffers wheel a dolly carrying a seminal work by Keith Haring, still in its crate. "Red Room," a masterwork from late in the artist's career, is being transferred to its new home from an L.A. storage facility. The piece, which references art history and grew out of 1980s street culture, is taking its rightful place inside the city's newest major institution for contemporary art.
With 21,000 square feet of collection storage space, the vault was conceived as the heart of the $140-million museum. It allows the Broad to store or exhibit 99% of its nearly 2,000-object collection on-site, where it's all surprisingly accessible to the staff. That's a game-changer logistically for the museum, as planning exhibits and lending works to other institutions will be far easier, giving the collection more international play.
But for the typical museum-goer, the value of the vault is pure visual intrigue. Two stairwell landings look out onto where curatorial staffers buzz around artworks hanging on enormous rolling stainless-steel racks. Some of these Erector set-like contraptions are nearly flush against the plate glass windows, so stored paintings — a swirly Albert Oehlen canvas here, a bold George Condo work there — function almost as semi-curated mini exhibits.
This type of transparency is woven throughout the building's design, which includes 318 skylights, as well as slivered views of the downtown streetscape from some galleries and glassed-in staff offices visible to museum-goers en route to the restrooms. The behind-the-scenes action of the vault provides the most dynamic example of the concept, also giving the collection added exposure.
Necessity preceded invention, Diller says. Museum founder Eli Broad has in the past expressed concern about his collection of postwar and contemporary art being hidden away in storage — one of the reasons prompting him and his wife, Edythe, to build their own space.
Diller says she found the requirement to create such unusually large and accessible storage a particular challenge, one her team flipped around to become not just a practical asset but also the building's central design component.
"We took what we felt was a big back-of-house space, which in most museums is off-site or out of sight, and made it the architectural protagonist," she says of the vault. "Now, whether you're under it, on top of it, shooting through it, looking into it, it's always very much a player in the museum experience."
Indeed, the gray structure, made of 36 million pounds of concrete, sits in the middle of the building, nested into the lattice-like "veil" encasing the museum. The vault cantilevers over the ground-floor lobby, providing a ceiling to the entranceway, and it functions as the floor of the third-level gallery. The dimly lighted escalator ride from the lobby to the sunlit third floor shoots directly through the vault — a slow procession infused with a Stanley Kubrick-like level of anticipation.
"No matter where you are in the building," Heyler adds, "you are in one sense or another in a relationship physically with it."
Two-dimensional artworks such as paintings and works on paper will be stored in the vault's main screen room, a vast, fluorescent-lighted space with 111 two-sided, rolling steel racks onto which canvases can be fastened. Works are organized by size, not by artist — either one big canvas or several smaller works per screen side — and the room is never more than a museum-standard 72 degrees.
Photography, including the Broad's collection of 124 Cindy Sherman works, as well as time-based media works such as Shirin Neshat's 1999 piece "Rapture," a 16-millimeter film transferred to video, will be stored in the Cool Room. The room looks like an enormous refrigerator from the outside and is kept at a crisp 60 degrees and 40% relative humidity, optimal for photography.
Sculptures and other three-dimensional works, broken down into their parts, will be stored in two high-density areas. One features custom steel shelving and cabinets for smaller framed pieces and 3-D works. The other has deeper, rolling shelving for large, heavy works and crated objects (imagine a dentist office's rolling file storage). And there's room for growth, the museum says.
Only especially large objects, such as Charles Ray's 47-foot-long replica of a toy fire truck, will be stored off-site, as may the museum's 9-foot-8-inch-high Robert Therrien chairs.
"It totally changes how we do our job," says Vicki Gambill, director of collections management.
In the past, the museum's collection was stored in five or six warehouses in and around L.A. When another institution wanted to view an item for possible loan, Gambill says she would have to drive as much as an hour to a warehouse, pay for additional staff and spend hours searching for, unpacking and repacking crates.
Artworks were typically stored in protective travel frames that were in turn stored in enormous hard-shell crates; simply prying them open and tabling the giant canvases could take 10 staffers an hour, she says. If, after viewing the work, the institution decided to proceed with the loan, the entire process would have to be repeated later.
"Now, let's just say someone wants to see this Basquiat," Gambill says, slamming her foot on a rubber stopper to unlock one of the wire racks in the vault. She slides it open, as if fetching a tie from a custom walk-in closet, and reveals the painting. "Or say you're a researcher or scholar and want to see two Basquiats. Or all the Basquiats in the collection. Well, here they are."
That easy viewing access, Gambill says, will encourage borrowing of the collection, and the vault's adjacency to staff offices will help Heyler plan exhibitions, as the museum director and chief curator can now simply walk over and peruse paintings hanging on screens. The open storage area, Gambill adds, will also allow for better care and preservation of the collection. If an artwork were physically deteriorating, Gambill says, you wouldn't necessarily know it if it were packed in a crate off-site.
Over the last 31 years, the Broad Art Foundation has been actively lending works from its collection — more than 8,000 loans to 500-plus institutions worldwide. Now, the vision is twofold: to continue to lend and to exhibit the collection locally.
Which could present an inherent paradox. The new building and regular exhibitions will draw visitors and generate more interest in loans and possibly in co-organized traveling exhibitions, Heyler says. But less of the collection may be available for borrowing.
"We're always interested in lending as much as possible," Heyler says. "But we now have an obligation to our own public audience for the first time. We have 50,000 square feet of gallery space and, like any museum, requests for works that are on view in the galleries we'll have to consider on a case-by-case basis."
For those visiting the Broad, however, the chance to glimpse some behind-the-scenes museum life further fosters a connection between the museum and art-goers.
"It's important to the Broads that the collection be accessible and that you share it with the world," Gambill says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"