Who Calls the Shots at LACMA?

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It's been a week since the New York Times broke the story about Eli Broad's decision to retain permanent control of his foundation's art collection instead of gradually transferring its governance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The arrangement between Mr. Broad and LACMA has always been rather vague. He gave to the museum $50 million to construct a special building to showcase his impressive collection of contemporary art and chose the architect for the project, the much sought-after Renzo Piano. He was also instrumental in luring from New York the high-profile director of the DIA Foundation, Michael Govan. The understanding, or at least the hope, in the art community was that LACMA would be free to exhibit anything it wanted from the foundation's collection. It was also hoped that if the museum played its cards right, Mr. Broad would eventually donate part of, or maybe even the whole collection, to LACMA.

at080115a.jpgAnd why not? After all, LACMA gave Mr. Broad –- free of charge -– a prime piece of real estate in the center of its campus to construct the new building which bears his name. And in an unprecedented move, the new pavilion has been elevated to the status of 'museum', the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. So one would expect that LACMA, in exchange for all this bending over backwards, would get from Mr. Broad more than just a chance to show the highlights of his collection. But that's exactly what it turned out to be -– just a chance, though Mr. Broad claims that he will continue to favor LACMA.

at080115d.jpg There is a certain rationale in Mr. Broad's decision not to give his 2,000 artworks to any one particular museum. Knowing that no museum is able to show more than ten percent of its permanent collection, and not wanting ninety percent of his collection to end up in storage, he has come up with a new way of sharing his art with the public: it is available for loan to any interested museum. In addition to that, Mr. Broad announced that nothing from his collection would ever be put on the market. One cannot help but see in this development the collision of philanthropic generosity with the ultimate need of the super-successful businessman to retain full control of the project.

at080115c.jpg The art community is buzzing with speculation about what prompted Eli Broad to reconsider the nature of his relationship with LACMA and why it was announced in such unceremonious fashion a month before the opening of BCAM. Ironically, not enough attention is being paid to the generosity of Los Angeles collectors Janice and Henri Lazarof, who donated to LACMA their formidable collection of modern art, including numerous works by Picasso, Giacometti, and Brancusi. Handsomely installed in the newly refurbished galleries on the ground floor of the Ahmanson Pavilion, the Lazarof gift provides the museum's collection of modern art with new depth. One hopes that their generosity will inspire other Los Angeles collectors to follow their lead.

at080115b.jpg In conclusion, I want to share with you –- and Mr. Broad if he is listening -– some interesting discoveries I made during recent travels to Switzerland and Russia. In Basel, I visited Schaulager, a new museum of contemporary art designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It functions as a public exhibition space, with three upper floors specially designed as open storage space which can be seen by appointment, not only by art professionals, but by the public as well. In St. Petersburg, I went to see the new, state-of-the-art storage facilities of the Hermitage Museum built on the outskirts of the city and open for public tours. I think its time for American museums to consider this as a new alternative for making their collections available to the public, and Mr. Broad could elevate his philanthropy to yet another level by enabling LACMA (or any other museum) to follow these innovative examples.

Stay tuned for the next Politics of Culture, which will be broadcast live at 2:30pm on Tuesday, January 22. We will be discussing the subject of the unhealthy influence of the market and wealthy collectors on the way American museums conduct their affairs.

Banner image: The Janice and Henri Lazarof Collection at LACMA, installation view, Giacometti