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At the Broad Museum, All is Vanity

The billionaire’s new Los Angeles museum is a beautiful lens awaiting a vision.

Broad Museum

The twenty-first century vanity museum seems to be everywhere. The Broad Museum, which opened recently in Los Angeles, is only the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that includes Walmart scion Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, which opened in 2011, and Mexico City’s Museo Soumaya, a showcase established in the mid-nineties for the collection of business magnate Carlos Slim Helú. The vision of the Broad claims neither the wild breadth of the Soumaya, nor the strictly American focus of Crystal Bridges, nevertheless, it follows a now-familiar formula for the vanity museum: eye-catching architecture with a collection that charts the development of the art market over the last fifty years. 

Located on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, the Broad stands next door to the silvery swoops of the Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a similar collecting mission. It offers free admission, and is positioned as a “gift to the city” from Eli and Edythe Broad, billionaire philanthropists and art collectors who already provide much of the financial muscle behind L.A.’s contemporary art scene. They funded the construction of a building called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in 2008 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the same year rescued MOCA, which had spent down its endowment to alarming levels. They have also been staunch and ardent supporters of performing arts, science, and education throughout Southern California. 

Given the depth of this commitment to existing institutions, it’s unclear why the Broads needed to create their own museum, beyond the obvious but rather self-interested reasons of securing their legacy and maintaining control over their collection. Still, L.A. has always been a polyglot place, and there’s always room for one more voice. Based on the inaugural exhibition, it remains to be seen whether the Broad will be a distinctive conversationalist.

It is, however, a stunning space for art. Designed by New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the $140 million building is encased in a matte white exoskeleton, perforated in a honeycomb pattern, over a square, glass-walled interior. Visitors enter through a grotto-like lobby with curved, enveloping gray walls. The effect is a bit like the entrance to a theme park ride, but it’s oddly enticing and intimate in a way that is rare in institutional spaces.

From the lobby, one takes an escalator, which feels like burrowing through a tunnel, to the main galleries on the third floor, where one emerges in a vast white space. The walls here are mostly freestanding within the building’s glass enclosure, and circulation is excellent with nary a dead end or awkward sequence. The honeycomb pattern on the building’s exterior continues across the ceiling here, filtering daylight from above. When a rare cloud passes over, the light dims slightly, making the space feel connected to the outdoors even though there are no city views. To the credit of lead architect Elizabeth Diller, the focus is on the art.

It’s too bad then that the inaugural exhibition is so boring. Arranged chronologically, starting in the '50s and '60s with works by stalwarts Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the show trudges through the second half of the twentieth-century pretty much in lockstep with the great white men theory of art history: Ellsworth Kelly, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Joseph Beuys, with a few more in-depth stops for Broad favorites Cy Twombly and Roy Lichtenstein, who each have their own room.

Pop Art icon Lichtenstein is particularly well represented, including his stunning five-painting Rouen Cathedral, Set 3 from 1968-69. A riff on Monet’s paintings of the same subject, it turns Impressionist brushstrokes into the Ben-Day dots of commercial printing. It would have been nice to see these paintings next to Warhol’s gridded portraits from the early '60s, which use repetition in a different way. But alas, they are several rooms away.

The capacious space next door instead holds plenty of work by Jeff Koons, including a giant, bright blue balloon dog, a creepy sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and a case full of vacuum cleaners. Where Lichtenstein is arch and oblique, Koons is crass and bombastic.

At this point the exhibition begins to reflect the explosion—in volume and price, but also in diversity—of the art market that began in the 1980s and has since reached a fever pitch. The Broad’s collection expands to include works by women, people of color and international artists, although the selections still seem to reflect market success as much as conceptual innovation or social commentary.

Unfortunately, most of the works by female artists—Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine—are grouped in a single room, even though their practices are vastly different. African American artists Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker fare a bit better, with rooms of their own, and large-scale works by Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu occupy the large central space, along with a stunning, found-object tapestry by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. The comparison between Bradford’s mural-sized collage of FEMA signs used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Anatsui’s enormous tapestry made from bright red liquor labels is especially poignant, drawing parallels between different moments of collective desperation.

If only there were more such juxtapositions in this anodyne exhibition. The show continues on the first floor with twenty-first-century works by art market darlings from Ellen Gallagher to Luc Tuymans, Neo Rauch to Takashi Murakami. In the future, these downstairs galleries will house temporary exhibitions, which hopefully will be curated with more purpose than the current hodge-podge.

However, tucked away down a winding tunnel is a gem of an installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away is a small, square room lined with mirrors and hung with hundreds of tiny colored lights. Visitors enter one at a time and find themselves reflected in a landscape of stars, stretching infinitely into the distance. (When the room was installed in 2013 at David Zwirner in New York, visitors were only allowed forty-five seconds in the space and spent much of the time taking selfies.) It’s perhaps just as much a spectacle as a Koons balloon dog, shiny and pleasing to the eye. But it’s also a rare moment of introspection within an otherwise market-driven story. 

The market, of course, plays a large part in anointing which artists are “important,” determining whose work circulates and influences others. The Broad’s collection is full of works by these influencers, and is continually growing. According to founding director Joanne Heyler, works are added to the collection at the astonishing rate of one per week.

Yet popularity alone does not make art interesting. Other selections, or a different arrangement might have drawn out more insightful and idiosyncratic relationships. It would have been interesting, for example, to see the artworks in the order in which they were acquired, more explicitly acknowledging the point of view of its benefactors as well as the development of their taste. As it is, the Broad Museum is a beautiful lens, awaiting a vision.