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Broad-Minded Museum

Renzo Piano Museums

by Renzo Piano, with an essay by Victoria Newhouse
Monacelli, 213 pp., $60.00

Collecting Collections: Highlights from the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 9–May 19, 2008

1.

Renzo Piano, who turned seventy in September, has amply demonstrated organizational and technical skills that have won him prestigious, skyline-altering jobs of the sort once deemed the summit of architectural success—large-scale urban development schemes and high-profile office towers. But during the past three decades, as the museum superseded the skyscraper as an architect’s dream, Piano became even more important, as the most sought-after specialist in the defining architectural category of our time. Thus far he has completed a dozen museum buildings or additions, and is now planning another five in the thriving offices he maintains in his native Genoa and in Paris.

Taken as a whole—as is done in Renzo Piano Museums—these commissions make up a self-contained body of work within his larger oeuvre, and a veritable checklist of the museum’s myriad present-day incarnations. Piano has designed single-artist museums, expansions for venerable private collections, large additions to encyclopedic institutions, and a Kunsthalle, as well as an ethnographic museum and a natural history museum. This handsome photographic portfolio opens with a cogent but cautious essay by the architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, who regrettably withholds the self-assured and sometimes idiosyncratic critical opinions that enlivened her well-received books, Towards a New Museum (1998, expanded edition 2006) and Art and the Power of Placement (2005).*

Foremost among Piano’s museums is the quartet of exquisite private galleries on which his unrivaled reputation justly rests: the Menil Collection of 1982–1987 and Cy Twombly Gallery of 1992–1995 in Houston; the Beyeler Foundation Museum of 1991–1997 near Basel; and the Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003 in Dallas. These jewel-like showcases elevate the viewing and contemplation of art to an exalted level unsurpassed in modern architecture save for the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, by Louis Kahn, in whose office the young Piano worked at the time of that commission. (Among Piano’s pending projects is a new building for the Kimbell, on a site across the street from the revered original.)

The triumph of Kahn’s Kimbell led to his commission from the Houston collectors John and Dominique de Menil for a private museum. But that scheme was not fully developed when the architect died, suddenly, in 1974, and the job eventually passed to Piano. His Menil Collection building is universally admired in art circles and has become an inevitable destination for museum architectural search committees. It has probably won Piano more work than any of his other buildings, but it has not had the immense impact of his and Richard Rogers’s controversial Georges Pompidou Center of 1971–1977 in Paris, which more than any other museum has altered the conception of the modern art institution—for good or ill, depending on one’s opinion of the widespread developments it set in motion.

Given the proliferation of Piano’s museum practice, his clients can find themselves in the paradoxical position of struggling for press attention despite having hired an architectural superstar. But there has been no lack of publicity for his latest effort, which opened to considerable (if discordant) fanfare on February 16. Described by its sponsors as most emphatically not a new wing—the standard phrase for extensions to existing institutions—the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (its official name) has been presented as a museum-within-a-museum.

This redundant nomenclature was adopted at the behest of the $56 million project’s mastermind and principal patron, Eli Broad, who has prospered by building tract houses and providing investment services to retirees. Broad, who will turn seventy-five in June, was ranked forty-sixth on Forbes magazine’s most recent tally of the four hundred richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $7 billion. An exceptionally munificent benefactor of several institutions, he has given $100 million each to MIT and Harvard. Lately he has attracted more attention as an art collector and museum builder. Broad (whose name rhymes with code) has endowed an eponymous art museum at his alma mater, Michigan State University, to be designed by Zaha Hadid, and has become an aggressive player in today’s ferocious market for high-priced contemporary art.

With more than 1,800 artworks—about four hundred owned by him personally and upward of 1,400 held by his Broad Foundation (with assets of some $2.5 billion)—his collection is considered so desirable that pragmatic observers felt LACMA should do whatever it took to secure this coveted prize. Accordingly, Broad, a LACMA trustee since 1995, was allowed to choose the architect for the building and to have his foundation’s curator participate in its installation. Furthermore, two years ago Broad was instrumental in luring Michael Govan away from his job as director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, to replace Andrea Rich as LACMA’s director, after she quit, reportedly because of her repeated run-ins with Broad, who is often portrayed in press accounts as a tough and demanding executive.

The Broad Museum’s debut was accompanied by a book about the project that is noteworthy for an essay of a frankness uncommon in such publications. Written by the LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky (who supervised the installation of the new building), “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Contemporary Art at LACMA, 1913–2007” retraces the museum’s sad history as a champion and repository of new art. Perhaps LACMA officials imagined that a critical account would make the Broad enterprise seem like a Hollywood happy ending after such a dismal backstory. But Zelevansky’s litany of self-interested meddling by earlier donors unconcerned about the destructive effects of their behavior is all the more troubling because it reminds the reader of the obvious parallels between erstwhile LACMA trustees and the museum’s current big kahuna. As Adrian Ellis recently wrote in The Art Newspaper, LACMA’s acquiescence to Broad poses

a very real danger that the appropriate conservatism of the museum sector will be challenged aggressively by a new generation of proprietorial museum board members who feel that, as in their own professional lives, “rules are for other people” and that, whatever the formal legal status, these institutions are an extension of their own private property and can be run as such.

2.

A month before the Broad Museum was inaugurated, its namesake gave an interview to the New York Times reporter Edward Wyatt, in which Broad revealed that rather than giving his art to LACMA as many had anticipated, his holdings will remain the property of his foundation, which will make decisions normally reserved by a museum for works in its possession. Observers viewed this stunning news as an ominous portent for American arts philanthropy. Michael Govan tried to put the best possible spin on Broad’s ill-timed announcement, but there was no disguising the worst public relations disaster to befall an art institution since 2006, when the reopening of the Getty Villa in Malibu was eclipsed by the international antiquities scandal that implicated the museum. Although Govan gamely told Wyatt that “I don’t think most people care when they walk in the door whether the museum owns the works or not,” the consensus in the art world echoed the Time magazine critic Richard Lacayo’s blunt blog posting: “LACMA got screwed.”

The most scathing reaction came from Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, who cited Broad’s “track record as a hugely successful businessman who exchanges project involvement for near-absolute control.” Knight called the collector’s rationale for hanging on to his art “nonsensical” and expressed fears for the museum’s future:

LACMA was poised to become the nation’s only encyclopedic museum …that would also have a major commitment to contemporary art. Since Broad, a LACMA trustee who occupies the stratosphere of the world’s contemporary collectors, won’t himself make the institutional pledge, that scheme has disintegrated.

Furthermore, if Broad…won’t give masterpieces to his own favored museum, why should any other private art collector? Especially not when any gift would be to something called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

We can imagine that Broad, known to brook no opposition in his various spheres of activity, might have been apoplectic over such journalistic lèse-majesté at the very moment he expected to be wreathed in glory. Five days after The New York Times broke Wyatt’s Broad story, and two days after Knight added his own criticism, the Newspaper of Record took the unusual (though not unprecedented) step of contradicting one of its finest reporters in print. In its backpedaling January 13 editorial, “A Collector’s New Plan,” the Times scolded Wyatt without naming him directly:

To say that the museum has been spurned is too strong a word, since Mr. Broad, who financed the new addition and is on the board, is still likely to play a leading role there.

(No one had suggested that Broad was about to relinquish his central role in LACMA’s affairs; in fact expectations were quite the opposite.) Rather than getting to the ethical heart of the matter, the Times treated the disposition of a potential civic treasure as though it were merely a question of conscientious housekeeping:

Whether this turns out to have been a good decision will ultimately depend on the character of the foundation Mr. Broad creates around these works of art. If they are stored and conserved properly, if scholars have ready access to them and if they’re made available for lending to museums, then nothing will be lost.

In offering to be a collaborator, not just a donor, he may be serving the public interest as well as his own.

Extraordinary as it was for the Times to comment editorially on a new museum (let alone one that had not yet opened, and in another city), attentive readers wondered if complaints from the West Coast might have prompted what amounted to a retraction. The editorial was followed by another LACMA piece by Wyatt, published in the Times Arts and Leisure section the weekend before the opening, in which contrary comments by the donor and the director raised speculation about a power struggle between them. While Govan told the reporter that Broad “has no more control than the other 45 people sitting around the table at the board meeting,” Broad said that he had assured Piano that “you only have to deal with the director and me.”

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art receives substantial public funds and many of its staff members are civil service employees of Los Angeles County. Thus the parties who acceded to Broad’s de facto privatization of a big chunk of LACMA—the cultural equivalent of a leveraged buyout, or taking a public company private—have done a grave disservice to the taxpayers of the county, who, whether they like it or not, will be footing the bill for much of Broad’s monument to himself.

It has long been customary for benefactors rich enough to have a museum named after them to provide an endowment for the upkeep of the building in perpetuity. The annual expense of such unglamorous necessities as utilities, cleaning, maintenance, guards, liability insurance, and other carrying charges is so daunting that many collectors who fantasized about founding a private museum have fallen into the arms of established institutions once they realized what autonomy would cost them. Strange as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the ways of American museums, art world veterans agree that Eli Broad pulled off an enviable deal for approximately $60 million.

  1. *

    Reviewed in these pages by Ada Louise Huxtable, April 22, 1999, and Richard Dorment, September 22, 2005.

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