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Eli Broad, at home with art

Eli Broad is not known for being effusive, not even when talking about one of his greatest passions: collecting contemporary art. The billionaire philanthropist generally seems more comfortable talking about museum buildings than about the artworks that go inside them.

But earlier this month, Broad opened his Brentwood hilltop home to this writer — and opened up a bit about his personal journey as an art collector, which is expected to culminate in early 2013 with the completion of his new museum downtown. (The 2008 exhibition of his art at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the facility he financed on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus, was eclipsed by the news that he would not donate his artwork there.)

Though far from a gossip — he tends to tell stories in a rather efficient or clipped form — Broad talked about artists he’s gotten to know, and artworks that have made an impression.

There’s the time that Jean-Michel Basquiat visited his house and stole away to smoke pot in the bathroom. There’s the time that President Clinton was guest of honor for a fundraising dinner and recognized a lounging female figure sculpted by George Segal as a woman he used to date in Arkansas.

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There was the night when a “soused” Robert Rauschenberg accepted an award on behalf of Cy Twombly at a New York dinner and would not stop talking. “Five minutes goes by, 10 minutes goes by, 20 minutes, 30 minutes,” says Broad, sitting in view of two Rauschenberg paintings in a gallery-like living room. “I finally got up and asked him to finish. People after that applauded me and said: ‘Thank God you did this.’ But others said: ‘How could you do that to such a great artist?’”

The story suggests something of Broad’s discomfort with sloppy emotional displays. And, yes, he admits that it’s easier for him to analyze the price-per-square-foot of a museum building than to interpret a painting inside. “My first career was in public accounting. I was a young CPA, the youngest in the history of the state [of Michigan], so if I look at a spreadsheet I understand it quickly. Numbers are hard and fast,” says the man who made a fortune in home construction.

“But it’s a very different process looking at a work of art or visiting with an artist,” he says, glancing at a dense Anselm Kiefer painting called “Mesopotamia” that has an enigmatic wire loop (or noose?) embedded in the surface. “It’s hard to explain your emotions when you see a work of art.”

Still, he says he truly enjoys the pursuit that has landed him and his wife, Edythe, on the Artnews top 10 list of collectors worldwide every year for the last 12 years. “Collecting for me isn’t just about buying objects. It’s an educational process, and I think it’s made me a better person. I’d be bored to death if I spent all my time with other businesspeople, bankers and lawyers.”

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One artist he considers a friend is Jeff Koons, who started as a commodities broker on Wall Street. But they don’t talk about the financial markets. “We talk about his work, his family, his children,” says Broad, who even got to know Koons’ first wife, Italian porn star La Cicciolina. (“She was rather unusual,” he says.)

Over the years, the Broads have acquired 33 works by Koons (though, notably, none of the erotic “Made in Heaven” work inspired by La Cicciolina), often by fronting the costs for his expensive productions. Other artists represented in depth in their collection include Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Leon Golub, Chuck Close, Susan Rothenberg and Ed Ruscha.

The Broads also own 120 works by Cindy Sherman, one of roughly a dozen photographers in a collection dominated by paintings. They began buying her prints in the early ‘80s for only $100 to $200 apiece after seeing “Untitled Film Stills” at her New York gallery, Metro Pictures. “It was more than photography,” he says of her role-playing experiments. “It was more like theater.”

A common criticism is that the Broads chase art-world trends more than setting them. Maria Bell, a friend and co-chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art board, disagrees.

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“They have wound up with a lot of trophies, but these works weren’t all trophies when they bought them. They often got in very early,” she says. “Eli is a businessman and approaches things methodically, but there’s more passion and risk-taking in that collection than people realize.”

“I don’t think people understand the depth of the collection, in part because so many works have been loaned out to museums,” Broad says. “When we open the Broad [museum] on Grand Avenue, we will be able to show 150 to 200 works, the best in the collection. But then we are also going to program three different exhibitions a year of the artists we have in great depth.”

Broad credits his wife, Edythe, long drawn to galleries and museums, with being the first collector in the family. But the collection didn’t get serious until he started buying with her in the 1970s. After acquiring some modern masters, they soon began to focus on art of their own time.

By 1984, when their walls at home were covered with art, Broad hit upon the idea of creating a foundation to buy even more — and serve as a lending library of sorts to museums. To date, the foundation has made roughly 7,800 loans.

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Joanne Heyler, the director of the Broad Art Foundation and of the new Grand Avenue museum, says this notion of collecting as a form of philanthropy stemmed from Broad’s work with MOCA. He had helped to found the museum in 1979, long before bailing it out of financial distress with a $30-million pledge decades later.

“Eli realized that art institutions often did not have a line item in their budgets — or else [had] a minuscule one — for acquisitions. The idea was to build a repository of contemporary art that institutions could essentially share,” she says. “It’s a public collection put together with the speed and lack of bureaucracy you’d find in a private collection.”

Taking their foundation and personal collections together, which must be housed separately for tax purposes until the couple’s deaths (at which point the personal material goes to the foundation), the Broads now have roughly 2,000 works.

What has he spent on all of the art? “I don’t know the exact number, whether it’s $200 or $400 million,” Broad says, “but it’s probably closer to the latter. If you ask me what it’s worth, I’ve heard numbers that approach $2 billion, which blows my mind because I’m seeing all that happens then is that our insurance costs go up.”

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In the rare case when he wishes to deaccession a work, such as a Van Gogh drawing that couldn’t be exposed to the light for long, he tends not to sell but to arrange trades. In a recent New Yorker profile, writer Connie Bruck described complicated tax-free, four-way trades facilitated by dealers like Larry Gagosian. In the case of the Van Gogh, an early purchase, New York dealer William Acquavella helped Broad swap it for a 1954 Rauschenberg now in the Brentwood living room.

Heyler and Broad follow a few other principles when buying. They try to see the artworks themselves. (“My only regrets are when I’ve bought something from a transparency or image,” Broad says.) They are known for bargain-hunting. “Eli is very value-oriented. I would call him very disciplined,” Heyler says.

And Broad has the final say on purchases, though he occasionally cedes to Heyler’s judgment. For instance, he mentions Tom Friedman’s sculpture of a zombie made out of newspaper and wheat paste as “something Joanne wanted — it isn’t something I wanted, although I recognize he’s an important artist.”

“I have a more practical view of what it takes to maintain and conserve the works,” he explains, mentioning a mixed media (think bamboo, wire and glass for starters) assemblage by Elliott Hundley as another challenge. “Some of this stuff is a conservator’s nightmare. So I ask Joanne: How are you going to store it? How are you going to conserve it? How do you lend a Tom Friedman?”

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Heyler sums up his approach: “If Eli were a scientist, he wouldn’t be a theoretical physicist. As a businessman and philanthropist both, he’s engaged in the world in a really boots-on-ground kind of way.”

While the Friedman and Hundley pieces appear in a “recent acquisitions” show at the foundation headquarters in Santa Monica, the works that the Broads buy for their home tend to be more historical, and also valuable. Several will be shown publicly in L.A. for the first time when the museum opens in 2013.

The Brentwood house, which was famously originated but not completed by Frank Gehry (today, both architect and patron say they are “good friends”), looks like it was designed for displaying large paintings as well as framing some expansive canyon views. Their bedroom has two vast canvases by Cy Twombly that feel remarkably intimate — because of the pencil work in one and faint streaks of colors in another.

“Twombly, frankly, was an acquired taste,” Broad says. “I was not in love with Twombly the first time I saw one of his paintings. Until you see a whole body of work and get accustomed to it, maybe it’s the shock of the new that Robert Hughes wrote about. I didn’t understand Andy Warhol until he had that great exhibition at [New York’s Museum of Modern Art] that showed it all in context.”

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Edythe’s study has the earliest works: a vintage Calder mobile, a 1939 Dora Maar portrait by Picasso and a colorful 1933 dreamscape by Joan Miró. The Miró once belonged to Nelson Rockefeller, Broad points out. “When he ran for president, he had to raise money by selling works of art.”

(The Broad foundation also owns several portraits of Rockefeller by Golub as well as Golub’s paintings of dictators. “I like art with social content,” Broad says, also mentioning recent acquisitions by Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas.)

Then there’s the living room, with the Rauschenbergs, the Kiefer, a Warhol image of Marilyn Monroe and a Jasper Johns “Flag” painting from 1967. Broad bought the “Flag” in 1999 through Gagosian. “We were lucky to get this,” he says. “It once belonged to Ronald Lauder.”

He admits, though, that he missed out on some of Johns’ best work. “If I had to do it over again, I would buy some of the great work that I saw people like David Geffen buy several years ago for what I thought was an awful lot of money — like the Johns ‘Target’ he had. I was too disciplined then. I didn’t have the money.”

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There was a painting that Eli Broad couldn’t afford? “Well, I had the money, but I wasn’t prepared to spend $10 million for a great painting.”

These days, he says, he makes exceptions. One is the record-setting $23.8 million he paid at Sotheby’s in 2005 for David Smith’s “Cubi XXVIII,” a stainless steel structure that currently presides over his driveway but will soon appear at LACMA in its Smith survey.

Broad says he was happy to pay top dollar this time because he had been looking for a work from the “Cubi” series for so long. But typically his feelings about being the winning bidder at auction are complicated.

“To be a successful bidder means you’re willing to pay more than anyone else in the world. I don’t know if I would call that a success.”

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jori.finkel@latimes.com


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