Los Angeles has a brand new huge art museum, The Broad. I had a chance to visit it a week after it opened.
Unlike most contemporary art museums, The Broad is designed to house and display one person’s collection. Eli Broad (rhymes with toad or goad) is a fantastically wealthy person who is a major collector of contemporary art. After supporting some other museums in town, he decided to go it alone and build his own building for his own stuff. It’s right across the street from Museum of Contemporary Art, right next to the rippled Gehry structure that houses the LA Phil. In LA, at the moment, it’a a big frickin’ deal.
The Broad is, above all else, a jewelry box designed to hold items of great financial value. What else is The Broad?
I imagine you can’t really try to understand The Broad without trying to understand Eli Broad. I know about him primarily from his major donations to art museums in Los Angeles. He also has heavily funded biomedical research (and has gotten nasty with the approach to patenting how science is done), and has poked his nose into how public education is administered too.
Broad pulled himself up with his parents’ bootstraps. In 1957, Broad borrowed a quarter-million dollars (that’s the current-day value of what he borrowed back then) to start his first company.
He must have parlayed that initial investment mighty well, because it’s gotten him a brand new building downtown filled with Koons, Ruscha, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Murakami, Lichtenstein, and more. And he’s the world’s biggest collector of Cindy Sherman, who is one of my favorite visual artists. The collection features in-depth collections of work by Establishment contemporary artists.
Walking through the galleries in the Broad, the collection reads more like a textbook on contemporary art than a narrative designed to make you think and feel. At least to me, The Broad doesn’t feel like it was put here to challenge us with ideas, or do whatever artists want their art to do. The Broad is put here to teach the masses about the Importance of Art. In radio interviews, that’s pretty much the paternalistic tone that I’ve picked up from Broad.
Broad deserves praise for creating a huge Foundation, and instead of locking away his collection like so many other collectors, he is allowing the public to benefit from access to the art. This is no small feat, because the crowds admitted to the museum required a substantial number of gallery staff to protect the art.
Yes, Broad is generous for sharing his art. However, it’s clear from my time in the museum, that he is less generous in his assessment of the public’s ability to benefit from this collection.
More so than any other art museum I’ve visited, The Broad was telling me what I’m supposed to think and feel about the art. I didn’t arrive with this expectation, but I clearly left annoyed and disappointed that the museum was prescriptive about how we are supposed to approach contemporary art.
It seemed clear to me that the gallery staff were trained to interact with visitors in the galleries to discuss the art. (They were not hiring educators for this role, it should be noted.) In my visit, on four occasions I was accosted with an explanation of what I was seeing. I think I’d be okay learning about the historical context about why or how the artist created the piece. Or lots of other facts. But instead, I was being repeatedly told how I should feel when looking at the art. An oversized table that you can walk underneath should make me feel like a child. A set of what appears to be childish scrawls by Cy Twombly should make one feel, umm, I forget what visitors were being told how to feel.
After I figured out how to get the staff to ignore me, then I overheard another person being told that if they can appreciate a Pollock, they can appreciate a Twombly. (For what it’s worth, I disagree with that. I’m not the only person who has trouble connecting with a lot of Twombly, as his wikipedia page suggests, quoting his New York Times obituary, “truculently difficult not just for a broad public, but for sophisticated initiates of postwar art as well.”) Of course, “I could have done that myself” isn’t a reflective or constructive way to think about art. I can think that Twombly isn’t so good without adopting such a reductive viewpoint. But I’m not inclined discuss this with a Visitor Services representative on the floor of the museum.
It’s an odd educational choice to spend so much money on a famous work of art only to deprive the public the opportunity to respond to it as the artist presumably wanted to happen.
It looks like the owner of the The Broad perceives that the public can’t adequately consider the art as he thinks it should be considered. So then, it somehow becomes the museum’s duty let the public know how they should feel about the art. Alternatively, the people who run the museum might actually be aware that there are myriad possible reactions and interpretations of art, but feel it’s their duty to either impose their own views, or a simplified view designed for the less mindful. Either way, I’d appreciate it if the staff would avoid attempting to impose their interpretation of the art on me, and on all of the other visitors for that matter.
Over the last couple years, I’ve been tempted to start two other blogs on entirely different topics. The first would be one in which I copyedit daily strips of the comic Frazz, to make them funny and to dial back the sanctimony about healthful lifestyles. In the second one, I would share photos of absurd museum labels. Now that the Broad is in town, this one just got a lot easier. For example, check out this work of art below. (They let us take photos for “personal use.” Putting them on my personal blog, without any advertising, I’ll interpret as “personal use” until they tell me otherwise.):
Take this painting in for at least several seconds. What do you think about it? What do you think about it’s saying about the women, the world they live in, and how they see the world? Come up with your own thoughts.
Now, read the label that goes with it.
“The two women look out hopefully, as if awaiting the return — from war perhaps — of the fathers of their unborn children.” Whaaa? Where’d that come from? Why is the museum telling me I’m supposed to think this? I’m supposed to think that she’s putting her pants on backwards because the men aren’t around to tell them to put them on the right way? What the hell?
This absurd label is a good companion to the absurd things that the museum staff were telling the visitors. In short, “Here is a masterwork that Broad purchased and put in a museum free to the public. Now we are being paid to tell you what this means.”
I’ve spent plenty of time in art museums. And I’m used to talking with gallery educators. The good ones ask me questions. Whereas the ones in the Broad have been trained make blanket statements.
If they really want to do the public a favor by sharing the art, they’d share the art but spare us the specious art lesson. He might be spending a lot of money on the museum, but is doing education on the cheap. As far as I can tell, there isn’t even an education department in the museum, or a trained educator in charge of interpretation. People can visit the museum for free, but if you want to bring a group of, say, schoolchildren? Then you have to pay. Meanwhile, museums that really care about education are letting the kids in for free while charging the paying public to get in. How is it, exactly, that Broad is helping out arts education?
Which brings me to thinking about what this museum says about Broad’s drastic plans for our public schools. He’s identified many of the real struggles in public schools in the US. What’s his way to fix them? He wants to put recent college graduates with no training in teaching methods to work in temporary positions in schools with working conditions so poor that they have trouble keeping experienced teachers. That’s right, he’s a big booster of Teach For America. And, if he gets his way by buying more elections of school board members, there will be many more charter schools in the LA Unified School District.
In his foundation’s own words, Broad wants to “transform K-12 urban public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.” The way I read that statement, he doesn’t want to pay teachers better, but instead wants new people to boss them around and to crush collective bargaining by letting public schools hire teachers with worse benefits and lower pay. He doesn’t want to train teachers better, or to enhance the public perception of their essential work. He just wants them to compete with one another.
Broad is one of those otherwise-socially-progressive charter school dittoheads who thinks that his economic successes have given him some insights into what makes public education work better for low-income families. What separates him from the rest of us isn’t that his ideas are better, but that he has so much money he can push through his agenda for kids in urban school districts, against the wishes of the people who are genuinely dedicated to these communities.
The day The Broad opened to the public last weekend, hundreds of people turned out to protest Broad’s push to undermine public education by supporting the development of more charter schools, that do not have to serve the entire public, and that take dollars away from the public.
Broad built a whole museum to share art with the world, for free. But he didn’t want to drop any money on education efforts. As a result, we have a bunch of Visitor Services staff trying to do what educators should be doing.
Don’t believe the hype, Broad doesn’t give a hoot about education. If he did, his efforts at “reforming” our public schools would be spent on giving more training and support to teachers, and working to lift the children of Los Angeles out of poverty so they can focus on learning instead of worrying where their next meal will come from.
If Broad’s vision for education inside his own museum looks anything like his dreams for our public schools, then our children won’t be prepared for independent thinking and problem-solving. We’ll have a lot of flash, a canned diet of the well-accepted standards, and someone else telling us what big ideas matter. Quality education doesn’t come from spending money on management and planning, it comes from people who are willing to challenge children to think independently and provide them with love, support, and honest feedback. If visitors to a contemporary art museum of Broad aren’t expected to think independently, how can we imagine he would expect it of the kids in public schools?