The Broad view of L.A.
Eli Broad has used wealth and power to set an ambitious agenda for change in Los Angeles
Eli Broad has used wealth and power to set an ambitious agenda for change in Los Angeles. (Don Kelsen / LAT)
Rare is the civic conversation in Los Angeles that does not involve Eli Broad. Whether the topic is the arts, education, politics or the fate of the city's largest newspaper, Broad invariably is at the table.
A billionaire several times over from home building and insurance, Broad did not make his fortune by being shy. Nor has he receded from civic leadership in retirement. Now 74, he presents himself precisely as he has for more than a decade: beneath trimmed white hair, pocket square neatly fashioned, eyes coolly alert and often slightly bemused. He is famously blunt, uninterested in small talk, irritated by blandishment.
His critics -- and he has his share -- view Broad's preoccupation with local culture as the manifestation of a bossy personality. To them, Broad is an egocentric who snaps up every chance to intercede in local debates, from the construction of a new downtown Civic Center to his unsuccessful flirtation with acquiring Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.
But even Broad's detractors concede his intelligence and commitment to Los Angeles. Through his philanthropy and political activism, Broad has pressed an ambitious agenda for change in the city. In nearly half a century of civic involvement, he has witnessed the coming and going of mayors, supervisors, council and school board members. Los Angeles is full of elected officials who court his favor; many go away disappointed.
In recent conversations with The Times, Broad sketched a vision for a grander, more sophisticated Los Angeles, one distinguished by its public architecture and cultural affairs, one deserving of a rank he already gives it -- alongside New York, Paris and London as one of the four great cultural centers on the planet.
As Broad contemplates that future, he begins by noting how far the city has come in recent decades.
Broad arrived in Los Angeles in 1963 and found a city with a few giant cultural figures -- Armand Hammer, Frank Murphy and Norton Simon, to name three -- but few defining monuments. "There was no great opera, no great symphony hall, no modern art museums, no Getty," Broad recalls. In those days, Los Angeles was overshadowed even within California by the more elegant and cohesive cultural community of San Francisco.
Broad was not much devoted to the arts in those years. His wife, Edye, was the first to dabble in collecting. She picked through galleries along La Cienega and admired the works displayed in Nick Wilder's famous West Hollywood gallery. Her first significant purchase was a lithograph by Georges Braque. Then she bought a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.
When Broad saw the pieces at home, he wanted to know where Edye had purchased them, how much she had paid and the like. His interest stirred, Broad's competitiveness took hold. In 1972, he paid $95,000 for a Van Gogh drawing and, with it, launched an avocation.
Broad engages few activities casually, and collecting was no exception. By the end of the 1970s, he was considered a major art and architecture patron, and he served as the first chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was, however, his work on downtown's Disney Hall that most firmly established Broad as a civic leader in Los Angeles.
Then-Mayor Richard Riordan persuaded Broad to take over the Disney Hall project after it had languished, the collateral victim of riots and recession that dried up money along with civic self-confidence. Broad turned it around, and today, he and others view that experience as a galvanizing one for the city.
"People thought it was a black hole," he says of the early Disney Hall fundraising days. "Instead, it became a rallying point for people to get involved."
From a dispiriting parking structure without much hope grew what has become an icon of Los Angeles architecture and a monument to the city's revival. It is for Broad a source of considerable pride.
But for that momentum to continue, he argues, Los Angeles needs a premier institution that the city's leaders aspire to serve, much as the Metropolitan Museum of Art does in New York. Broad sees the Los Angeles County Museum of Art taking on that role -- serving, much as Disney Hall did -- as both an object of philanthropy and a centralizing societal institution.
"You have to have a place that people are with their peers," he says, "that, frankly, has some cachet."
With that in mind, Broad has begun to recruit younger members to the LACMA board, where he believes a new director has energized the institution. Just recently, he helped reel in a major donation by British Petroleum, significant for the money and as BP's return to local philanthropy. Arco had been one of Los Angeles' most reliable civic participants, but when BP bought Arco and moved its headquarters out of town, the company's support for the arts locally evaporated.
That now seems to have been reversed, in part because of Broad. The beneficiary is LACMA.
The goal for that institution, Broad emphasizes with the bluntness that endears him to some and annoys others, is to "go for improving what is in some way a boring institution to one that's more dynamic."