A Look at Billionaire Eli Broad’s ‘Unreasonable’ Legacy

Why the late businessman and ”venture philanthropist” did more than anyone in the last four decades to shape the landscape of Los Angeles

In 1996, a $90 million parking garage opened at the southwest corner of First Street and Grand Avenue. It was a very nice garage as far as garages ago, but the problem was, it was only a garage. A new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic had been slated to rise on top of it. The Frank Gehry-designed project was put into hibernation when the cost skyrocketed.

It was at this moment that Eli Broad pulled his then-greatest act. The man who would later be called a billionaire philanthropist was “merely” known as a billionaire businessman at the time. He and his friend, Mayor Richard Riordan, determined that completing the Walt Disney Concert Hall was vital to Los Angeles’ future. Along with the overlooked but equally important Andrea Van de Kamp, they embarked on a furious arm-twisting campaign.

About the only thing harder than raising money is raising money from deep-pocketed businesses and benefactors who expect some kind of spotlight in return for their largesse. Whatever was said behind closed doors in well-appointed boardrooms I have no idea, but I do know that in 1997 I attended a seemingly nonstop series of press conferences where big company after big company was lauded for announcing they would chip in to the landmark endeavor. The Times-Mirror Foundation gave $5 million. Arco dropped $10 million. The Walt Disney Company donated $25 million (the Disney moniker actually came from Lillian Disney—Walt’s widow—who had provided $50 million in seed money in 1987). There was no doubt that the prime cajoler was Broad, that he was fluent in the secret language that propels seven- and eight-figure checks, and after Disney Hall opened in 2003, Los Angeles’ reputation on the world stage was heightened.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

This was not Broad’s first major act. He had already helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art (across the street on Grand Avenue) and launched a pair of Fortune 500 businesses in homebuilder Kaufman and Broad and retirement services firm SunAmerica, but Disney Hall elevated him. Sure, Los Angeles has had plenty of other champions and benefactors, but Broad occupied a plateau of his own until his death on Friday at the age of 87.

“Eli Broad was a legend by every definition of the word,” said Rick Caruso, the developer of the Grove and the Americana at Brand (among other projects), who also knows a thing or two about being a businessman and navigating local power dynamics. “His vision, tenacity and his ability to get things done made him one of the most effective civic leaders of our time and he will be greatly missed.”

Los Angeles is a city of power players operating in fields that only sometimes overlap—business, politics, entertainment, tech, etc.—but few played the game more adroitly and with more steely force than Broad. Additionally, few cared about the fabric of the city and were willing to get personally engaged to the degree and as consistently as he did. No one in the past 40 years did more than Broad to shape the physical and civic landscape of Los Angeles.

Watching Broad operate was like watching a soft-spoken tornado, one with the power to tear up whatever stands in its path. The status quo meant little to him, and he was unapologetic about disrupting, well, anything he thought could and should perform better. Sometimes this was widely lauded, such as the money he spent supporting stem cell research. Other times his approach sparked division—he was an ardent backer of charter schools, believing they would bolster education, and he would write big checks to get pro-charter candidates elected to the LAUSD school board, a move that forever ignited the wrath of teachers’ unions. He flexed his muscle in unlikely ways, including getting Austrian architect Wolf Prix hired to design the space age performing arts high school in downtown.

Broad maneuvered with the confidence of the self-made billionaire and never stood on the sidelines when he believed he could propel the city forward or better its most important institutions. In 2003 he joined a group seeking to buy the Dodgers from the despised News Corp. Displeased with the direction of the Los Angeles Times, on multiple occasions he sought to acquire the paper, feeling it should be under local ownership. He did not succeed with either aim, but those failures did not diminish his confidence to try again when he thought he could make a difference.

Some bristled that Broad wanted more control than others when he donated money, and in the days after his death the phrase “venture philanthropy” has been mentioned a lot. But Broad was never about the conventional. He proudly titled a book The Art of Being Unreasonable, and in 2015 he told me that the reference came from a George Bernard Shaw quote about how the “reasonable” man or woman adapts themself to the world, while the unreasonable one does not. “Therefore, all progress comes from unreasonable people,” he said, channeling Shaw.

Broad was also adept at playing politics, and as administrations changed, he remained. He was tight with a Republican mayor in Riordan and a Democratic one in Antonio Villaraigosa. In between them was Jim Hahn, and Broad also wielded influence—when there was a kerfuffle in 2004 about possibly eliminating the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Broad was tapped to rethink the department’s direction. Others might say rather than being tapped, he inserted himself in the process.

Those components—art and politics—intersected again when he decided that he wanted to build a permanent home for the 2,000 artworks collected over the course of decades and controlled by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. He set his sights on Grand Avenue, where he had launched MOCA and revived Disney Hall, and where he was part of an effort to build another $1 billion project, also designed by Gehry (it is currently under construction).

It has been largely forgotten, but the process of acquiring the government-owned parcel was rocky. So Broad threatened to build his museum in Santa Monica instead. Ample headlines were generated.

When I spoke with him shortly before the opening of the Broad in 2015, I asked him how serious this was. I assumed that, ever the player, it was gamesmanship.

“No, it was not gamesmanship,” Broad corrected me, and described a process snarled by multiple levels of government. “It all turned around one evening when I had dinner with Antonio Villaraigosa. He said, ‘What are you doing in Santa Monica?’ I said, ‘Antonio, life’s too short to deal with the city, the county, the joint powers authority, the CRA, etc.’”

Did I get the truth? I don’t know, just as I don’t know what was said behind closed doors by powerful individuals. But at the time of the impasse Broad was in his mid-70s, and “life’s too short” might not have been just a cliché. Whatever the case, the land was soon shifted to his control. The Santa Monica threat dissipated and construction began.

The Broad opened in 2015, free to the public, and once again, a building on Grand Avenue helped shape how the world views Los Angeles. But the art of the dealmaker may have been as impressive as the art inside.

RELATED: Billionaire Philanthropist and Art Collector Eli Broad Has Passed Away at 87

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.