I’m in Los Angeles, where the chatter is about Eli Broad’s decision to build a museum for his art collection downtown, in a 120,000-square foot complex designed by Diller and Scofidio. The choice puts to rest some questions about the fate of Mr. Broad’s collection. It also leaves a larger question open: Is adding another museum to LA a good idea?
The answer is complex, and responses vary depending on the professional and institutional loyalties of the folks doing the talking. In my view it boils down to this. Adding another art institution to LA’s “cultural corridor” is probably good urban policy and it may not be the best cultural policy. In the long term, however, what really counts is not whether Mr. Broad builds his own museum, but whether he can get other Los Angeles philanthropists to follow in his lead as an art patron.
Downtown LA has come a long way since MoCA opened across the street from the planned Broad museum. Diller and Scofidio, coming off recent triumphs in New York, will no doubt deliver an edgy-yet-contextual neighbor to Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall and Rafael Moneo’s sublime Cathedral, just around the corner. But the area still lacks critical mass. For Los Angeles, a city trapped in a state of permanent becoming, filling another empty lot downtown will be another step toward creating a lively cosmopolitan district with enough density and foot traffic for someone to want to hang around. It may even be a kind of tipping point.
But sound urban policy is not always great cultural policy (as much as arts advocates would like to believe). The Broad museum will certainly add vigor to LA’s anemic downtown. But it does little to address chronic institutional weaknesses in the city’s other museums. That weakness is rooted, at least in part, in the historic tendency of LA art patrons to go their own way. Getty, Simon, Hammer, the various donors behind LACMA’s cacophonic campus – all these men chose to build their own institutions and buildings, rather than throw their resources into a larger, stronger, more fiscally sustainable pot.
Would the underfunded museums of Los Angeles benefit from receiving larger chunks of Mr. Broad’s benefactions? Certainly. Much strengthening is in order, as MoCA’s recent near-death experience attests (with Mr. Broad coming to the rescue). Cultural policy makers could no doubt point out many opportunities for more collaboration and efficiency among the city’s museums. But Mr. Broad, is above all, a city builder. Though his decision follows a familiar pattern, my hunch is that it was motivated, foremost, not by the needs of existing institutions but by a vision of a certain kind of city.
Prognostications that the new museum may choke off oxygen from other museums are premature. It will be years before we learn how it will fit in with its peers. More importantly, the Los Angeles cultural scene must stop seeking salvation from Eli Broad. His generosity to the arts in Los Angeles has no comparison. The good news is that Broad still has a lot more giving to do. And if more of his fellow wealthy Angelenos follow his example, the city’s struggling museums will end up just fine.