The spanking new Broad Contemporary Art Museum is now
open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring a yearlong
display of mostly borrowed paintings, sculptures and photographs.
Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown has just opened
"Collecting Collections: Highlights From the Permanent Collection," a
show that fills the building until mid-May.
Is something a bit odd here?
Let's see if I've got this straight. One major
L.A. museum is celebrating construction of plentiful new gallery space
filled with art it doesn't own, and another is celebrating 250 works of
art it does own but can install in its galleries only for a short time.
LACMA: Lots of museum space, very little museum art.
MOCA: Lots of museum art, very little museum space.
This is a puzzle worth parsing because buried deep inside is one
possible solution to several vexing problems in the city's cultural
life. So let's parse. BCAM's jubilant debut was marred by the
eleventh-hour revelation that, contrary to previously published
comments, L.A. super-collectors Eli and Edythe Broad would not donate
any of their art to the eponymous building, for which they picked up the
$56-million tab. Plans are instead afoot to fold their personal
collection (about 400 works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy
Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.) into their foundation collection (almost
1,600 works by nearly 200 artists). The Broad Art Foundation has
successfully operated as an art lending library for more than 20 years,
and LACMA will get dibs on up to 200 loans at a time.
This frustrating news generated a bizarre flurry of public feints,
dodges and weird claims. It was said that art museums don't really need
art collections, museum collecting is actually more trouble than it's
worth and perpetual loans from private collectors could be a new museum
paradigm. Editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times,
remarkable for their obsequious philistinism, effectively said, "Swell!"
When, exactly, did art collections turn into an insufferable burden for
museums? When did the need for a new museum paradigm arise? When, in the
wide-ranging cultural conversation about art museums today, did we lose
our collective mind?
The answers to these questions, in order, are: never, never and last January.
Art collections are not a museum burden. They are the reason art museums exist.
Professional progress in museum management, such as putting art
collection archives online or increasing public access, is helpful. But
no new paradigm is needed.
And Jan. 8 is when the Broad bombshell dropped. The news that one of the
world's great contemporary art collections would remain wholly
uncommitted, except to itself, created shock waves. It caused otherwise
sober people to hallucinate that, at the very least, rotating foundation
loans would always be available.
"Always" is a long time, as Albert C. Barnes might say. Barnes, who died
in 1951, was America's greatest, crankiest Modern art collector, who
amassed a stupendous collection of Impressionist, Postimpressionist and
African art. A rich Pennsylvania entrepreneur, he established an
incomparable foundation to carry out in perpetuity his explicit artistic
wishes. But lately Philadelphia's philanthropic establishment has
banded together to wreck that legacy, dismantling what Barnes built. For
the inimitable Barnes Foundation, "always" is turning out to be about
The Barnes' cautionary tale is instructive. Fifty years of Broad Art
Foundation loans would be nice, but 50 years of Broad Art Foundation
gifts would be nicer. A fundamental difference distinguishes a private
foundation from a public museum. One operates strictly according to the
founder's wishes, as long as the founder is around to crack the whip;
the other sustains its program, including collections, by virtue of
Over at MOCA, the impressive show "Collecting Collections" is a
marvelous pileup of 254 paintings, sculptures and other post-1939 art.
Much of it was acquired from celebrated collections -- Panza, Lowen,
Schreiber, Weisman, Lannan and more. One work, a sparkly 1999 painting
of a shaman-like monkey by British artist Chris Ofili, was bought with
funds from the Broad Art Foundation, which also helped underwrite the
Following the law of unintended consequences, however, the exhibition
turns out to be less a noisy celebration than a quiet and wholly
unexpected plea: MOCA is in desperate need of a bigger building.
Current gallery space is horribly inadequate. When MOCA opened in 1986,
half the 25,000 square feet of galleries was pegged to permanent
collection display. The allocation surely seemed brave for a fledgling
museum with barely any collection, but today commercial galleries in
Chelsea are bigger than that. (So is each of BCAM's three floors.) Given
5,000 collection works now, plus MOCA's hard-earned stature as the
nation's most prominent contemporary art museum, the minuscule permanent
collection space has become laughable.
The joke's on us. Take Mark Rothko (1903 to 1970), the great American
artist who melded saturated color and compositional structure to create
some of the 20th century's most powerful abstractions. MOCA owns one of
the finest Rothko groups anywhere. At least six of the 11 works, which
together tell a 27-year story, are among his best.
Three are included in "Collecting Collections." Looking at them I
wondered: How did the curator choose which Rothko masterpieces to
include and which to omit?
With the aforementioned puzzle now parsed a bit, let's turn to a possible solution. It has three parts.
First, the Broad Art Foundation should buy MOCA's building and move its
art lending library there. The foundation has been looking to relocate
from its cramped Santa Monica quarters, and MOCA's building already has
the requisite art storage and maintenance functions. It's also adjacent
to the proposed Grand Avenue redevelopment site, which Broad has guided,
and near a subway stop. Long-term foundation installations could be
mounted in the galleries and opened to the public.
Second, MOCA should use proceeds from the building sale as seed money
for a serious capital campaign. The goal would be a new building with
plenty of essential permanent collection space, preferably near the
Geffen Contemporary warehouse, plus a decent operating endowment.
Finally, the Broad Art Foundation should invite LACMA and MOCA curators
to make formal requests for specific gifts, complete with written
rationales for why each particular work makes sense as part of the
museum's permanent collection and restricted to the foundation's
pre-1978 art. Make it an annual practice, with a rolling 30-year buffer.
Museum gifts would yield a full generation of historical distance, and
the foundation could continue to buy. Risk would shift away from the
cash-strapped museums to the wealthy foundation, while leaving plenty of
The idea is a variation on a standard practice, such as the Ahmanson
Foundation's long and magnanimous relationship with LACMA, in which the
foundation has worked with curators to build an increasingly impressive
European painting collection through annual gifts. A
lending-plus-rolling-gift Broad initiative might not represent a whole
new paradigm, but at least it's one that would make sense.
By Christopher Knight
For The Los Angeles Times