Bullish About L.A. - CityThink - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

Bullish About L.A.

Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

The construction cranes are swinging at the site of the Broad museum, which is set to open next year. Built to house the modern art collection of its patron, Eli Broad, the project will cement the role Broad has played in transforming Grand Avenue into an architectural showcase. It will also usher in a new phase for the nearly 81-year-old philanthropist as he contemplates his legacy.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Detroit, Broad worked in an auto plant in college. He made his money by launching a home-building company, now called KB Home, just as Americans began their move to the suburbs. He followed that by selling financial products through his insurance company, SunAmerica. For the past 13 years Broad has been trying to spend his money even faster than he made it. His name adorns buildings from the Broad Stage in Santa Monica to Caltech’s Broad Center for the Biological Sciences.

But while he and his wife, Edythe, have given more than $3.5 billion to various institutions, Broad has long carried a reputation for being hard-nosed and controlling. Those traits have alienated him from some of the trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which he helped create and later saved from financial ruin. And Broad famously clashed with the architects behind Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art building that bears his name; his decision to loan, rather than bestow, his artwork to the institution led to further criticism. Though Broad may not be interested in changing his m.o., he does have plans about the fate of the foundations he and Edythe have established. We spoke with him in his Westwood office about what he still wants to achieve and whom he is grooming to take his place.

Just over a decade ago you helped rally support to finish Disney Hall, a project that was at risk of collapse. Recently you remarked that the city needs another push in order to launch similarly big, ambitious civic endeavors. What’s holding it back?
Right now Los Angeles needs a lot of things. It needs better political leadership and better citizen and corporate leadership than it’s had.

What else?
Local ownership of the Los Angeles Times.

You and former deputy mayor Austin Beutner have been kicking the tires over there. Are you trying to buy it?
The answer is yes. Beutner and I are working together to find a way to buy it. But what the [parent company] Tribune Co. is doing is making that difficult. They are creating a new structure that will make it more difficult for the newspapers to break even financially. That’s a concern for us and for a lot of people.

How would you describe your connection to this city? Do you think it’s your job to step in and fix what’s wrong with it?
I love this city—it’s a great meritocracy. I’ve been able to do a lot of things here I wouldn’t be able to do in other cities. Whether it’s Boston or maybe even San Francisco, you have to come from the right family, have the right religion, and so on.

Is there another figure in L.A. who has done what you’re trying to do?
We had Dorothy Chandler, who had the power of the Los Angeles Times to help create the Music Center. But I don’t see anyone who’s—I don’t mean to brag, but in Los Angeles I don’t see anyone who has stepped forward to do the number of things that I’ve done.

Do you ever think you’ve had too much influence?
No.

Not enough?
It depends. In some things, yes.

I know you’re bullish on this city. But both the LA2020 report, which was commissioned by the city council, and the LA2050 report, put out by the Goldhirsh Foundation, warn of a future with fewer jobs—particularly for the city’s most vulnerable—and chronic lack of investment. Those are some bleak predictions.
I like the 2020 report. I think it is going to end up making a big difference.

Let me phrase it differently: Do you think we’re potentially screwed?
No. I think this is a great city, and we have an opportunity to do things and solve some of these problems, whether it’s K-12 education, a pension problem, or poverty. We have the opportunity to attract more major corporations—especially more Chinese, Japanese, and Korean corporations—to set up shop here.

Many top officials, including the mayor, didn’t exactly endorse the 2020 report’s findings. Do you think L.A. will be able to stop deferring the tough decisions required—such as paring back bureaucratic red tape or renegotiating public employee pensions—and avoid the projections in the report?
I think there will be more pressure in the future on people in public office to finally make some of those decisions.

So you feel the political leadership is partly to blame for the city’s weak financial standing and other daunting problems?
Yes.

What did you think of the previous mayor?
I liked Antonio Villaraigosa. He was a great cheerleader. But my idea of great mayors are Mike Bloomberg in New York, Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, and Tom Menino in Boston. 

What have you seen from the new administration so far?
I like Eric Garcetti, but let’s see how tough he’s going to be on some of these issues.

Did you vote for him?
Yes.

You’ve remarked how L.A.’s wealthy will give when called upon. Are they doing enough?
I think they can be more engaged than they are, especially people in the entertainment industry. But if you look at the philanthropic foundations here, Keck does a number of things in the city. Annenberg does a few things. Ahmanson is smaller now and does a few things. Weingart does a few things. But I don’t see any of them having the staff and the type of agenda we have.

Sometimes people feel that if Eli is involved in a project, he can suck all the oxygen out of the room.
I’ve tried to get others involved. With MOCA, when it had its difficulties, we raised a lot of money, and it now has an endowment of $107 million.

You’ve had tremendous influence with Grand Avenue, home to MOCA, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Disney Hall, and soon the Broad museum.
I’m very proud of Grand Avenue. Cities aren’t remembered for their accountants or businesspeople. They are remembered for their arts and their architecture. I can think of no city which, within three blocks, has such great architecture: MOCA, designed by Arata Isozaki; Disney Hall, by Frank Gehry; the cathedral, by Rafael Moneo; the arts high school, by Wolf Prix. I love architecture. I’m very involved in architecture.

Maybe too involved? You’ve had some pretty notable disputes with big-name architects, from Frank Gehry to Renzo Piano, who did the Broad wing at LACMA.
Every project is different. With regards to Disney Hall, Frank Gehry had a contract as a design architect. He wasn’t supposed to get involved in construction. When I got involved, I had some ideas that Frank didn’t like. But we’re great friends now.

What about Piano’s roof at LACMA? The costs per square foot of that roof would set a new world record.
That’s OK. I’m very happy with the building. It’s a great building to show art. Also, I’m very happy with the building we’re doing with Elizabeth Diller at the Broad museum. She’s a great architect, and we’re getting along famously.

Those disputes were part of larger battles, particularly at MOCA, where you swooped in to save the museum but also chose a director, Jeffrey Deitch, who drove away artists and donors.
Look, before, at MOCA, we had a director who couldn’t control the chief curator [Paul Schimmel]. We took a chance on Jeffrey Deitch. He’s a populist. He did several great shows, like Art in the Streets. He created MOCAtv. But he didn’t have the stomach, frankly, to deal with trustees or raise money or do other things. He was not a manager.

Would you hire him again?
No.

Looking back over the past few years at the strife at MOCA, are there things you would have done differently?
Well, it needed a new director. We had a lot of old trustees on the board who give nothing and create a lot of problems. Four or five of the old trustees didn’t give anything to this campaign for the endowment, but they have no problem talking to the press and complaining. We’ve got new leadership now, with Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz cochairing the board.

Now that you have your own museum, is it nice not to have to battle with other trustees and boards?
The answer is yes. I’ve been involved with a lot of art institutions—MoMA in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington—and those experiences are far better than what I’ve seen in this city. Because I don’t see people on these boards here opening their purses.

You’ve announced that the Broad museum will have free admission. What are you trying to achieve there?
We hope it achieves dramatically higher attendance. We want to get more people to the Broad and to all of Grand Avenue, which will be a big help to MOCA right across the street. We’ll have quite a marketing budget. We want to be a public institution, not just a vanity museum.

The art world is a walk in the park compared with public education. You’ve invested heavily in education management—not training teachers as much as training superintendents and administrators. Do you think the real problem with public education is in the bureaucracy?
Yes. When we began to look at this, just about every superintendent had started as a coach or a teacher and worked their way up, years later, to become CEO of a major urban school district. They had no training in management, labor relations, human resources, or finance systems. You’d think the districts would hire someone from outside to do the job. No, they hire their buddies.

Do you expect to see results anytime soon?
We’re going to see improved results but not fast enough compared with what’s happening elsewhere in the world. We get a lot of pushback from the defenders of the status quo—from teachers’ unions, for example. I’m a lifelong Democrat, I was a union member, my father was a union member. But they see me as some right-wing Republican. Couldn’t be further from the truth.

You’ve spoken about how important it is that you—the entrepreneur—run your foundation because you’re more willing to take risks. And you don’t want this to become something akin to the Ford Foundation, which you think has become too cautious.
Established foundations tend to become too cautious. Senior grant officers don’t want to be criticized, don’t want to make mistakes, and hence become too cautious. That’s a fine approach for some foundations, but it doesn’t lead to truly transformative change or improvement in a program area.

What do you get out of putting your name on everything you fund?
Well, it gives us great ego satisfaction. Hopefully it inspires others to do the same.

How many years can you keep up this pace?
I don’t know. I’m in good health.

Are you concerned that the Broad Foundation, after you’re gone, could lose its edge?
That’s why I chose a new president, the foundation’s first, who’s got quite a background. Bruce Reed was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. I want him to have his own marching orders. I want him to understand, “You’re now a principal. You’re not a chief of staff.”

And you think that by giving him that kind of direction the Broad Foundation won’t turn into a stodgy, timid funding arm?
It won’t. In fact our plans are that ten years after Edye and I are gone, it won’t exist anymore.

Explain that one.
We want to finish all our work within ten years after our demise. We don’t believe in having a foundation that’s around 50 years from now that has no idea of what the founders wanted done.

Does that mean there’s going to be an accelerated pace of investment in the next ten years?
Oh, yeah. We’re accelerating our investment.

What do you think your legacy will be 50 years from now?
That I’ve been an activist instead of just someone who writes checks. And that I’ve had a great desire to make a difference—to create institutions that didn’t exist before and to make things better.

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  1. Frank posted on 04/14/2014 10:28 AM
    Great interview. Surprising myself by saying that L.A. is lucky to have him.
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