The doors of The Broad, Los Angeles’ newest contemporary art museum, may have opened in 2015, but the process of turning Eli and Edye Broad’s private love of collecting art into a public treasure began decades earlier.
Edye’s love for collecting came early, on a grade school visit to a museum in Detroit in the 1940s when she first saw Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians. Even today, she describes encountering that painting as “a punch in the gut,” and it remains one of her favorite works. Later, traveling with Eli on business trips, Edye roamed galleries and acquired a Georges Braque print, an early work by L.A.-based contemporary artist Betye Saar, and in 1970, a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec print that piqued Eli’s interest, sparking the couple’s art obsession.
The Broads’ first decade of collecting as a couple was ambitious and wide-reaching. In 1972 they acquired an 1888 Vincent van Gogh drawing. Two years later, they purchased Joan Miro’s Painting, March 13, 1933, from a renowned series of 18 paintings based on collages that the artist created in the attic studio of his parents’ Barcelona apartment. The Broads made their first foray into contemporary art in 1978, acquiring a prime example from Jasper Johns’ “crosshatch” series, the first he painted in color. And that Van Gogh drawing? It was eventually traded for a very different sort of artwork: an important painting by contemporary artist Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954, to this day one of the most significant works in the couple’s collection.
In the 1980s, the Broads became addicted to acquiring works that reflected the here and now, with all its social and political complexities. During Eli’s New York business trips, the couple meandered through Soho and the East Village, visiting gallery shows and studios of artists who are now world famous, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Eli was also drawn to work with stark, uncompromising political content by Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger. Kruger, for one, has said that museums and major collectors showed almost no interest in her early work, and she found it hugely encouraging when the Broads acquired her work. In that pivotal decade, the Broads discovered two artists whom they have since collected in notable, and in fact, truly singular depth: Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons.
By the mid-1980s, Eli and Edye Broad had become established collectors of contemporary art and realized that their deepening commitment to art could serve a larger public purpose. In 1984, they established The Broad Art Foundation, dedicated to loaning artwork to museums around the world so that the widest possible audiences could experience the art of their time. It marked the beginning of Eli and Edye’s efforts to make their collection publicly accessible. While many contemporary art buyers were keeping artworks behind closed doors in their homes—or worse, in their basements and storage facilities—and treated art as an investment, the Broads were determined to keep the collection in the public eye. Museums anywhere could tap the foundation’s collection for their walls. The decision to take a public approach to their collecting gave the Broads room to grow their collection to approach the breadth and depth of a museum’s trove. Works by some 128 new artists entered the collection during the 1980s, and by the 1990s the Broads’ holdings of classic historic Pop art also began to grow, with works by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. These would eventually number nearly 100 works, creating a historic base for all the 1980s work that had first drawn Eli into contemporary art.
Alongside the profile of the art foundation, by the mid-1990s, Eli began to take on a more public persona in the civic and arts worlds of Los Angeles. Though he had long been a presence—he was founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and he helped secure the cornerstone of its permanent collection—Eli’s philanthropy in art and culture was creating a larger-than-life profile. He joined then-Mayor Richard Riordan to revive a major but troubled project: Walt Disney Concert Hall, situated downtown and directly across from MOCA. After eight years and raising $225 million—much of it handled personally by Eli and the mayor—construction was completed, and Disney Hall opened triumphantly in October 2003.
I became curator of The Broad Art Foundation in 1995, at a crucial moment for the art collection and the Broads’ philanthropy, both of which were finding a new sense of purpose at this time. Even as the collection continued to evolve, with new artists and roughly 50 acquisitions added annually, a topic of increasing focus was their future destination. Since the 1980s, Eli and Edye cared above all that the art they collected be publicly accessible. By 2005, the collection had grown to roughly 1,500 works; 500 more would be added by 2015. It represented a journey of over four decades of one family’s patronage, marked by very deep relationships to certain artists’ entire oeuvres and deep friendships with many of the artists themselves. In-depth groupings of key artists’ works—in not just one or two cases, but across generations of American artists, including Sherman, Koons, Lichtenstein, Christopher Wool, Andreas Gursky and many others—were unmatched anywhere.
In 2009, we found the right site for our museum in downtown Los Angeles, on Grand Avenue. This was a homecoming, located on one side of the street across from MOCA, which Eli had helped build nearly 40 years prior and on the other side, across from Walt Disney Concert Hall. Situating The Broad on the main cultural corridor of Los Angeles would also cap Eli’s even wider role in a newly burgeoning downtown area. Eli was convinced, long before it was fashionable to say so, of the potential of downtown to evolve past its longstanding high-rise tower-filled, nine-to-five identity, into the cultural, commercial, social and residential center it is becoming today. We are thrilled to be part of that revival and a contributor to Los Angeles’ ascendancy in the contemporary arts landscape, so much of which has happened because of Eli and Edye Broad.
Joanne Heyler is founding director of The Broad. She is also the longtime director and chief curator of The Broad Art Foundation.