Art Collecting, Eli Broad Style

The Los Angeles homebuilder-billionaire specializes in top contemporary names -- and then makes them available far and wide

There's a story about real estate mogul Eli Broad. In 1995, the Los Angeles entrepreneur bought a Roy Lichtenstein painting at a Sotheby's auction for $2.5 million and paid for it with his American Express card. Charging the painting entitled Broad to receive 2.5 million frequent-flyer miles, most of which he donated to charity. "I believe the card companies changed the rules after me," Broad says in his typical matter-of-fact manner.

To many who follow Broad's activities, the frequent-flyer story illustrates the melding of the man's willingness to spend big bucks with the practicality that usually accompanies his expenditures. "Eli always says that he wants to make a difference," says Bruce Karatz, chairman and CEO of KB Home, a company founded by Broad (rhymes with road). "The way his mind works, whatever he spends time on, he wants the end result to be better than before he got involved."


  The public is getting an opportunity to see a major example of Broad's largesse in a new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections" shows off the highlights of a three-decade-long effort on Broad's part to assemble one of the premier contemporary art collections in the world. A new book on the collection bears the same title as the show (Abram's, $60).

The exhibit is hardly Broad's first contribution to the arts. The 68-year-old billionaire was a founder of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. He has donated $20 million to expand the University of California Los Angeles' art facilities. And he led the campaign to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a performing-arts center now under construction in downtown Los Angeles.

Broad also devotes much of his considerable energy to reforming public education by disseminating management-training information to school principals. That's done through yet another charity, the Broad Foundation. It's a strategy Broad calls "venture philanthropy." As Broad told the Los Angeles Times two years ago: "I am a builder. I don't like to simply write checks."


  Indeed, in a business career that has spanned five decades, Broad has created two major companies and built a personal fortune estimated at more than $5 billion. As a co-founder of Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., he put up affordable tract housing for thousands of baby boomers in the suburbs of states like Michigan, Arizona, and California. KB Home, as the New York Stock Exchange-traded company is now known, is the nation's largest homebuilder, with sales of $4.5 billion.

Then, in the early 1980s, Broad once again brilliantly anticipated the needs of baby boomers -- this time by shifting from homebuilding to retirement planning. He began investing in life insurance companies, eventually building SunAmerica into the nation's largest seller of annuities. The company is now a division of insurance giant American International Group.

Broad has brought the same intensity to building his art collection. KB's Karatz says he can remember going to weekend meetings at Broad's house. "He would have his stack of business papers on the left and art papers on the right, and he would look at both piles as his obligatory weekend work," Karatz recalls.

Broad and his wife, Edythe, began collecting art seriously in the early 1970s. At first, their efforts lacked focus. The Broads bought drawings by van Gogh and Matisse and a 1933 Joan Miro painting. Eventually, the pair began to concentrate on post-World War II paintings, at times selling some of their original purchases to fund new ones.


  The Broads approach collecting methodically, consulting with their in-house curator, Joanne Heyler, as well as other experts. Together, they choose artists whose work they believe will still be considered significant decades from now. After that, the Broads load up on what they judge to be the artist's best work. In the case of photographer Cindy Sherman, the collection contains more than a hundred pieces.

The couple can also be very patient. They lobbied Roy Lichtenstein's foundation for two years before acquiring his Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Different Times of the Day), a rare work that does not feature the artist's trademark comic-book characters. "In terms of his commitment to contemporary art and the intensity with which he brings to it, there's no one like him," says artist Jeff Koons, whose stainless steel statue of an inflatable rabbit is one of the stars of the current Los Angeles show.

The Broad collection now numbers more than 1,100 pieces. What can't fit in the the couple's home in LA's tony Brentwood neighborhood is stored in a four-story historic building in nearby Santa Monica that the Broads acquired specifically for their collection.


  In addition, the couple has established the Broad Art Foundation. Its mission is to lend Broad collection pieces to smaller museums that don't have the time and money to acquire top-tier contemporary art. Among the foundation's recent beneficiaries: the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe and the Des Moines Art Center. "The depth and quality of their pieces is just outstanding," says Bonnie Clearwater, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Fla. "They have been extremely generous with their work."

The Los Angeles exhibition isn't without controversy. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called the show a blatant attempt to persuade Broad to donate his collection to the county museum, on whose board Broad sits. Knight also concluded that while many pieces in the exhibit are significant, Broad hasn't broken new ground as a collector. Among the more familiar pieces in the show: Andy Warhol's series of Marilyn Monroe prints and an American flag painting by Jasper Johns, one of a number done by the artist. "In Los Angeles, Broad is a cultural leader," Knight says. "Artistically, he's a cultural follower."

Followers or not, the Broads include a good a deal of whimsy in their collection. Two highlights of the Los Angeles show are Fall '91 1992 an eight-foot-tall mannequin in a bright red dress by Charles Ray and Tips for Artists by John Baldessari. The latter begins: "Generally speaking, paintings with light colors sell more quickly than paintings with dark colors."


  Says critic Clayton Campbell of the Broad exhibit: "There's a sense of humor. Unlike a lot of collections, this shows that we're still a young country, confused culturally about our sense of self and about being in the position of having to mature."

The Los Angeles exhibit runs through Jan. 6. After that, it travels to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ever practical, Broad wants as many people as possible to benefit from his "venture philanthropy."

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles

Edited by Thane Peterson

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE