Putting LA at the heart of world culture

“I’d just like to say,” says the man estimated to be the 93rd richest in the world, fixing me with a steely gaze, “that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with bankers and business people.” Perish the thought.

Eli Broad, art collector, philanthropist and property billionaire, is a man whose range of interests is every bit as eclectic as his surname (pronounced to rhyme with “road”) suggests. He may be one of the most successful businessmen of his generation but he sounds like he has had his fill of money-making. Perhaps the turmoil of the past year has had an effect, or maybe he is plain bored with counting zeros.

Today, as we meet in the pristine sanctum of his offices in central Los Angeles, he wants to talk about art. There is little 76-year-old Broad does not understand about the relationship between art and money. As we talk, he is putting the finishing touches to a gala weekend that will celebrate one of his greatest achievements: not in monetary terms, perhaps, but for its cultural significance.

Next weekend marks the 30th birthday of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It is a respectable reason for celebration, but there is more. The occasion also commemorates the museum’s renaissance. A year ago, it announced that it was facing a financial crisis. Its spending was outstripping its revenue, and it was dipping into its endowment.

Broad stepped in. He pledged $30m to the museum, via the foundation he founded with his wife Edythe. More important still, he launched an appeal to his fellow citizens to play their part in restoring to health one of the most important contemporary art institutions in the world. His words were pungent: “This is not a one-philanthropist town,” he wrote in the LA Times. Saving MOCA, he said, had to become “one of our civic priorities”.

The results were spectacular. Within six months, MOCA had raised $57m. The institution cut millions of dollars from its budget. “We are in great shape,” says Broad a year after his intervention. “We have no debt whatsoever, and I cannot think of any art institution that can say that.”

But this has been more than an emergency turnround. Broad’s ambitions are greater than that. At the heart of his donation and support is a determination to put his adopted city at the heart of world culture: to make it, in his own words, “the most important city for contemporary art in the world”, and a must-visit cultural destination. “LA is really, in my view, one of the four major cultural capitals of the world, together with New York, London and Paris. But the number of people that we get as cultural tourists is a fraction of those cities. Why? Because people don’t realise what we have.

“In the performing arts, no one has a greater symphony hall or symphony orchestra than we do. We have great opera with [the LA Opera general director] Plácido Domingo. We’ve got more theatrical productions than New York or London – admittedly they’re all spread out. And then there are all the great museums we have here. Los Angeles is in the process of changing – and we’ve got to do a better job at communicating what we have to the rest of the world.”

As if to prove that last remark, I point to the cover of a tourist guide I have with me: it shows a picture of Randy’s Donuts Store – hardly the image for a sophisticated cultural metropolis. “What people think of is the beaches and Disneyland,” says Broad resignedly. He wants to put that straight.

Broad’s interest in art was born in the early 1970s when he returned from one of his many business trips to find that his wife Edythe had bought a poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. “I had no background in the arts but I knew who he was.” He started a friendship with Taft Schreiber, one of the co-founders of entertainment company MCA, who himself had been introduced to collecting by Hollywood luminaries such as Charles Laughton and Edward G Robinson.

It was, he says, “a great learning experience”. Together with his wife, they moved from buying Miró, Picasso and Matisse to contemporary work. The Broads’ collection of Rauschenberg, Twombly and Jasper Johns is notable. In the early 1980s, they were struck by a charismatic dreadlocked newcomer to New York, and bought their first Basquiat for $5,000. A trip to Mercer Street introduced them to Cindy Sherman; today they have 120 of her works.

“I don’t see myself as a great discoverer of artists, like Charles Saatchi,” says Broad. “But there was something about that work that was interesting to me. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it. There was something about what Cindy was doing that went well beyond photography. The same with Basquiat – it wasn’t just graffiti.”

I ask what he makes of the recent, now somewhat deflated, bubble in the contemporary art market and he appears phlegmatic. “All that happens when the values go up is that we have to pay more for insurance. Because we don’t sell. We do not view art as an investment. The only dividends you get are psychic – feeling good about the art, living with it.”

The Broad Foundation’s philanthropic interests extend well beyond art: health and education have been at the heart of what he calls his “venture philanthropy” model. He explains it to me: “We have three tests – one, if we don’t do it, will it happen anyway? Two, will it make a difference 20 or 30 years from now? And thirdly, the people we invest in, do they really have the ability to make it happen?

“I don’t worry about getting fired, nor does Bill Gates. So we’re going to take risks. Some things are not going to work out. And if they don’t work out, we move on.” He believes strongly that art institutions “have to look at their role in why they deserve funds, versus other human needs. They’ve got to democratise the arts and not just deal with people like me and other collectors, thinking about what their fellow curators think. They need to think instead about how to educate as broad a public as possible”. He says he wants attendances to double at the new MOCA.

I ask what he thinks of the European model of state support for the arts and he shrugs enviously. “I wish we had it here, it would make my life a lot easier! When I recruited Pontus Hultén [MOCA’s founding director] from the Pompidou, he was accustomed to going to the culture minister once a year, being very charming, and getting an allocation of funds for the year. That was his fundraising. When he came here, I had to drag him around to breakfasts, lunches, cocktail hours, dinners, to raise money. It’s hard work.”

It seems to be surprisingly hard in LA, I say, where the art world and the entertainment industry don’t seem to mix terribly well. I read out a quote by Larry Gagosian that asks why people would bother to go to a cocktail party at an art gallery in LA when they can have lunch with Jack Nicholson any time they like.

“Maybe we’ll get Jack Nicholson to the museum,” replies Broad, quick as a flash. “Or people like him. We’re going to do that.” He says he is looking for a “great, exciting director” for MOCA – “not just an art historian, but someone who, frankly, will sell in the entertainment community.”

Already, those links between LA’s two cultural worlds, strangely alienated from each other, are being forged. Maria Arena Bell, creative producer and writer for soap opera The Young and the Restless, has been elected a co-chairman of the museum, while Darren Star, of Sex and the City fame, is a new board member.

Tellingly, that very theme, of reconciling art and entertainment, is explicitly addressed by the artist who has been commissioned to adorn next weekend’s gala celebrations.

The Italian Francesco Vezzoli has devised for the occasion a recreation of Le Bal, a 1929 Diaghilev production with the Ballet Russes, with a truly stellar cast: Lady Gaga will sing a new song, accompanied by 12 dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet. Frank Gehry has designed the singer’s hat; Miuccia Prada the dress; Baz Luhrmann the masks. Damien Hirst has painted the piano. It is a giddy combination of talents.

Yet as ever with Vezzoli’s cleverly ironic work, there is more spice in the billing than there will be in the work’s substance. The occasion has the feel of a happening: an “over-aspirational project”, as the artist puts it. The guests should not expect some kind of Oscar night celebration or Hollywood extravaganza. “It is more of a tease,” says Vezzoli. “We are playing with the whole vocabulary of Russian cultural heritage, both decorative and conceptual.”

The presence of Russia’s most glamorous new art patron, Dasha Zhukova, as honorary chairman of the gala adds yet another layer of intrigue to the project. “The art work is the dream of putting all this together, not necessarily the final output,” says Vezzoli.

He lays down what might be a mission statement for a refreshed institution, and city, that have punched below their weight during the cultural flowering of recent years: “Los Angeles is the best, and most dangerous, place to do this. It would not be so tempting in New York or London.

“But LA is the most exciting city for me because of this dynamic, ongoing dialogue between contemporary art and the entertainment industry. It is potentially the most fascinating dialogue of the present century. But it is still at a very early stage. The conversation is not fully evolved.”

‘Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years’, featuring more than 500 highlights from the museum’s collection, opens on November 15, tel +1 213 626 6222;www.MOCA.org

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