Eli and Edye Broad: a history of passion

 Los Angeles  |  14 November 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

From collecting artists in-depth to supporting the constant improvement of mind, body and spirit, Eli and Edye Broad’s philosophy of development runs through everything they do. We talk to two of the world’s most important collectors of post-war and contemporary art about the brutal honesty and power of “the art of our times”.

Most collectors, when asked what the first work of art they ever bought was, respond with something devastatingly unattainable; a name that instantly demonstrates how innately skilled they have always been at spotting incubating genius: an early Basquiat, perhaps, or an oil painting by a young and struggling Tracey Emin.

It’s therefore refreshing, encouraging, humbling, to discover that Eli and Edye Broad – the couple who, two years ago, opened The Broad, a $140 million museum in downtown Los Angeles, to house and display three quarters of their 2,000 strong collection of post-war and contemporary art, and who are now ranked number 13 in the Artnet index of the World’s Top 100 Art Collectors – are not afraid to trace the beginnings of their own collecting back to a relatable 12 year old Edye, who remembers the very first postcard reproduction of an artwork that she ever bought: Picasso’sThree Musicians.

Yet Eli and Edye’s entire story is characterized by growth: from the couple’s first meeting in 1954 when they were just 21 and 18, respectively, to the celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary three years ago; Eli’s persistent hard work that took him from a door-to-door salesman during his student years, to the only person to have built two Fortune 500 companies in different industries; and Edye’s fledgling love of art as a young woman, that has led to one of the most important collections of post-war and contemporary works in the entire world.

The B-roads

The only child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents, Eli’s father was a house painter who went on to own five-and-dime stores; his mother was a dressmaker. The family name, originally Brod, was changed to Broad by Eli’s father in an attempt to fit neatly into American society though, conversely, reimagined by Eli to rhyme with ‘road’ in a bid to stand out. The pronunciation remains.

Edye (short for Edythe) Lawson was the daughter of a homemaker and a chemist whose company sold extracts, syrups and liqueurs. Eli met Edye in 1954 in Detroit, through a friend who had passed on her number. After a few dates, Eli proposed and the couple were married that same year.

Eli had just graduated cum laude with a major in accounting and a minor in economics, and had worked throughout college selling women’s shoes, selling garbage disposals door-to-door, and working as a drill press operator at Packard Motor. Following their marriage, Eli found a job as an accountant, where he stayed for two years before launching his own business, aged 23, with $12,500 borrowed from his father-in-law and with a business partner related to his wife. The company – Kaufman and Broad (now KB Home) – rode the wave of the post-war growth of American home ownership and became the first homebuilder listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Fifteen years later, in 1971, Eli acquired Sun Life Insurance Company of America for $52 million. He transformed Sun Life into the retirement savings powerhouse SunAmerica and, in 1999, sold the company to the American International Group (AIG) for $18 billion.

It was against this backdrop of commercial activity that Edye founded the beginnings of their renown collection. From postcards, the budget grew to posters and prints. “Edye was the first collector in our family,” remarks Eli. “While I was busy working long days at my first business, Edye visited galleries.” But it wasn’t until she returned home one day with a Toulouse Lautrec poster that Eli sat up and took notice. “This was an artist I had heard of before,” states Eli. “So I started asking her all about collecting. I was hooked.”

“I was very excited when Eli became interested [in art],” Edye once told a crowd at the Los Angeles Public Library, “because the acquisition budget went up!” The couple bought their first major work, a Vincent Van Gogh drawing, in 1972, though the fragile condition of the piece meant that it couldn’t be exposed to daylight and Eli ended up keeping it in his underwear drawer for protection. Six months later, the couple exchanged the drawing for a Robert Rauschenberg Red Painting. “We’ve been collecting contemporary art ever since,” remarks Eli.

Friends like these

The Broads are quick to acknowledge those who helped them shift their focus and begin to build their post-war and contemporary collection. “Edye and I learned a lot from our friend Taft Schrieber, an executive with MCA and a great art collector. Before we ever bought any art, Taft invited us into his home to show us his incredible collection, which included works by Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. I’ll admit that contemporary art confused me at first. Taft helped me understand it.” Speaking of the same occasion, Edye remembers being mesmerized by Taft’s collection. “I went weak in the knees. Oh, my goodness, to see these things not in a museum, but all in one house.”

Another key advisor since 1989 has been Joanne Heyler, Founding Director of The Broad and Chief Curator of The Broad Art Foundation collection for more than 20 years. “The Broad collection continues to grow by about a work a week under her direction,” states Eli. “With her guidance, Edye and I have built our art collection on the principle of collecting in depth. That means that when we start buying an artist’s work, we continue to follow that artist throughout his or her career. We have deep representations of work by crucial post-war figures like Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, as well as work by more recent figures like Damien Hirst, Sharon Lockhart, Kara Walker and others.”

It is this aspect in particular – of getting to know and following an artist through their career – that both Eli and Edye appreciate about contemporary art. “Artists are unlike anyone I ever met in my business career,” says Eli. “I enjoy meeting artists and watching them work. They have helped me see the world in a different way… Contemporary art moves me and makes me think.” The power of contemporary art to move, and most importantly to tackle political and social issues with “brutal honesty”, is why the Broads have enjoyed collecting and sharing the work of artists like Leon Golub, Anselm Kiefer, Barbara Krueger and others with audiences across the world. “It’s the art of our times,” says Eli. “When The Broad first opened in 2015, we exhibited an artwork by Robert Longo, a charcoal drawing of police holding back protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. It is a powerful piece that captures the turmoil that followed the shooting of a young man, Michael Brown, by police. Art and artists continue to reflect our society in interesting ways.”

The widest audience possible

As the collection began to grow, the Broads felt an increasing need to share it with the world and, as a result, in 1984 they established The Broad Art Foundation as a lending library of contemporary art. To date, they have loaned 8,500 artworks to 500 museums around the world. Yet temporary loans didn’t feel like enough of a lasting legacy. “Edye and I realized that, after we were gone, we didn’t want to leave our collection to a museum. That would mean that most of our collection – 2,000 great pieces of contemporary art – would sit in storage. We wanted people to be able to see it.” The best way to do that was to create a museum. The pair started out looking at gallery spaces along Wilshire Boulevard, then at larger locations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Then one day Antonio Villaraigosa, then mayor of Los Angeles, came to Eli and Edye and said, “You have to be in downtown.” “He was right,” remarks Eli.

Positioned on the accessible Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, and with free general admission, The Broad has welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors since it opened on September 20, 2015. Within its 120,000 square feet are 35 works by Jeff Koons, 42 by Jasper Johns, 124 Cindy Shermans, 28 Andy Warhols, 19 Cy Twomblys, 14 Damien Hirsts, 13 Robert Rauschenbergs and 33 Lichtensteins, as well as nearly all the stars of the modern and contemporary art game: Basquiat, Christopher Wool, Glenn Ligon, Takashi Murakami, to name a few. A stunning edifice designed by Elizabeth Diller of New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro (who Edye herself helped select), The Broad sits alongside a growing host of Los Angeles institutions named after their founders – Armand Hammer, J Paul Getty and Norton Simon – as a testament to this new age of great private American art collections made public for the world to enjoy. The museum’s next special exhibition in February 2018 features Jasper Johns, one of the first artists that Edye and Eli started collecting. Described by Eli as “a singular and significant show”, it follows an existing collaboration between the Broads and the Royal Academy in London, whose current exhibition “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” the pair helped to organize.

Exponential growth

With so many seeds planted, the couple’s legacy can only continue to flourish: in addition to The Broad museum and The Broad Art Foundation, there is also The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, founded in 1999 to advance entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science and the arts. “Those areas don’t often overlap,” comments Eli, “but we like to think of our work as helping to improve the human mind, body and spirit.” The same philosophy runs through The Broad’s vision for their collection’s future, which they have entrusted to Joanne Heyler to deepen and broaden. “Together [with Joanne], we continue to make acquisitions, and I have no doubt that Joanne will keep collecting exceptional work long after Edye and I are gone.”

Though the idea of the collection continuing to expand without the Broad’s own energy seems a lonely one, the couple’s mantra that any works acquired must always reflect “the art of our time” guarantees that the dynamism of their collection will never soften. As Eli concludes, “the best artists always help us to see things differently. Whether it’s Marcel Duchamp in the early part of the century or Andy Warhol in the 1960s, artists have always pushed boundaries. I don’t see that stopping any time soon.”



The Broad. 221 Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA. www.thebroad.org