The Broad Museum, Eli and Edythe Broad’s $140 million gift to Los Angeles, opened to the public on Sunday with a 200-piece exhibition that’s comfortably familiar. Museum director Joanne Heyler, who joined the Broad Foundation in 1989 and assumed the directorship in 1994, explained at the preview that the institution “took a straightforward, wide-lens, chronological approach” to its display, resulting in a greatest-hits sampling of the approximately 2,000-piece Broad collection.
The top-floor galleries, in a clockwise rotation, cover Pop art classics of the 1950s and ’60s and then move into the ’80s New York of Cindy Sherman and Basquiat, the launchpad of the Broad collection. The overlap between this show and the 2008 inaugural show of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art‘s Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM)—LACMA once had hoped to receive the real-estate magnate’s whole collection, in vain—is significant. “Mostly, the exhibition just looks expensive,” Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight wrote then. Not much has changed.
The addition of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room in the contemporary-focused ground floor raises this exhibition’s star power even higher, and offers another opportunity to take selfies, as if the reflective surfaces of Jeff Koons’ high-sheen Blue Dog were not enough. All in all, the takeaway is blue-chip contemporary 101, dominated by white male artists from New York or Europe, and drenched with a heavy dose of razzle dazzle. It aligns perfectly with Broad’s stated goal to draw the “broadest audience possible.” (No pun, one assumes, was intended.)
For every art critic bemoaning the inaugural exhibition’s obviousness and lack of risk, however, there will be many more members of the public happy to have the opportunity to interact with art. They’ll absorb the surround-sound of Ragnar Kjartansson‘s nine-screened, deconstructed musical performance The Visitors (2012), or get lost beneath Robert Therrien’s immense Under the Table (1994), a sculpture of an giant-sized dinner table foreshadowed by his stack of enormous plates next to the base of the escalator.
Provided that the art is a fairly rote, evening-sale-scented affair, let’s talk about something more interesting: the architecture. In that context, the Broad in downtown Los Angeles is nothing like BCAM, the Renzo Piano commission in a vast travertine warehouse that was received as generic and uninspired when it opened in 2008. The Broad, in contrast, was masterfully orchestrated by New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to serve two well-defined goals: to store all 2,000 pieces of the Broads’ collection—which continues to grow at a rate of approximately one piece per week—and “to make a building that could contribute to the urbanization of Downtown L.A., i.e. public, transparent, and open,” according to DS+R principal Elizabeth Diller.
The completed building is a wonderfully peculiar sight. In contrast to the way its next-door neighbor, Frank Gehry’s sinuous steel Walt Disney Concert Hall, reflects the intense California sunshine, the Broad absorbs it through the matte, sponge-like veil covering its façade that has already drawn visual comparisons to a cheese grater. The Broad’s curves, unlike the concert hall’s, are on the interior. There, the cavernous lobby welcomes visitors with a decidedly un-L.A. shade of grey.
Diller used the Hollywood cliché “cinematic” to describe the exactingly choreographed user experience created by the architects’ precision-control over the light. The plot begins on the sunny streets of L.A. before visitors enter (free of charge) the grey purgatory of the lobby, where the Venetian plaster walls have been brushed to a suede-like nap. “As you enter from the very bright sun of the L.A. street,” Diller explains, “you come into a slightly more introspective space.” A speedy, three-story escalator then shoots you through a hole in the ceiling into a luminous field of expertly diffused sunlight. The slanted, sometimes 10-foot-deep skylights temper the beating L.A. sunshine and prevent it from ever making direct contact with the works.
The art exhibition itself takes place in between the building’s two main features: the “veil,” the aforementioned cheese grater comprised of hundreds of skylights, and the “vault,” the vast and highly visible storage unit that forms the core of the building. As visitors descend through the dark staircase that connects the top-floor and ground-floor galleries, windows offer peeks into the neatly stored artworks inside.
In terms of space (and presumably budget), Broad “really pushed for efficiency,” said Diller, echoing rumors that Broad asked Piano to save space at BCAM by skipping the bathrooms. To accommodate the bigger-is-better mantra, she created nearly an acre of uninterrupted exhibition space on the top floor by pushing all load-bearing structures to the perimeter. Its current divisions are temporary and removable, offering flexibility for more large-scale exhibitions in the future—all two dozen of the Broads’ Koons pieces at once, perhaps. The freight elevator is also equipped for such a big job, having been designed specifically to accommodate all 20 feet of Ellsworth Kelly’s six-panel work Green Angle (1970).
For more than a decade, Broad has been trying to make Grand Avenue an arts destination, flooding millions of dollars into his neighbors the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall (two entities over which he could never assert full control, despite his best efforts). The new museum reflects that civic ambition; the veil lifts a bit at its corners to welcome visitors inside, and stretches over the sidewalk to offer passing pedestrians shade and a peek through its glass walls. Most importantly, for Broad, it allows him to retain full control of his art, now having to bow to a museum curator’s whims now or ever (as might be the case if he had donated it to an institution). For the average Angeleno, on the other hand, it offers accessible art by big names at no admission charge—an introductory approach, but one that feels appropriate to a city still finding its cultural voice.