The museum district's exalted gem, the Menil Collection, has garnered praise in the past month from the New York Times and Vanity Fair as a cultural destination of international merit. Now, it's the focus of how to found and operate a museum from the top down.
Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, has identified the Menil as a model for the nascent Broad Collection, a future museum endowed by L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad (pronounced brode). Designed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the new museum's 50,000 square feet of exhibition galleries will flaunt rotating installations handpicked from the Broads' 2,000-piece contemporary art collection.
The museum's 2012 unveiling will arrive at a pivotal place and moment in Los Angeles, as it is positioned along a revitalizing Grand Avenue adjacent to such landmark institutions as the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The urgency of what will become of the institution's $300 million endowment in the context of greater Los Angeles has compelled Knight to refer to the cultural splendor instilled at the Menil Collection. Knight writes:
As a model for the new Broad, look to Houston's Menil Collection. The Menil may be the nation's most universally admired single-collector art museum. Partly that's because of a great collection. Mostly, though, the sensibility of the place is distinctive, beautifully embodying the humanist principles of its founders. As the late John de Menil explained it, 'Art: Take it off its marble pedestal and show it as a daily companion, refreshing, human and rich: witness of its time and prophet of times to come.' "
Knight believes that the Houston museum fulfills John de Menil's wish for art to serve as a "daily companion" thanks to its location in a residential neighborhood. He applauds Renzo Piano's architecture for "deftly" merging a public edifice with a domestic environment: "Arrive at the entrance and neither bombast nor institutional indifference nor hustle-and-bustle greets you." Knight paints a portrait of the magical journey of entering the Menil's art oasis:
Admission is free. A woman behind the front desk smiles and says hello. You can linger in naturally lighted rooms, many with a garden atrium and seating. The gracious atmosphere is serious but relaxed."
Will the Broad family follow the lead of John and Dominique de Menil, or fall into the trap of what Forbes has dubbed "the rise of the billionaire ego-seum?"
Even Piano didn't have much luck building for the L.A. cityscape — his recent Broad Contemporary building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was received as a disappointment. Whereas Dominique de Menil imparted her institution's philosophy to Piano, it remains to be seen whether Broad can communicate such a clarified vision through his building (the plans will not be revealed until October).
The disparity between the Menil and Broad collections seems insurmountable. While the de Menils emphasized cerebral Surrealist currents and ancient arts of Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa, Broad has culled masterpieces of Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as the work of L.A. artists working today, such as Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley and Elliott Hundley. The aspect of subtlety is lost in the Broad collection.
L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has received a sneak-peek of the museum's blueprints, which he describes as "theatrical and high-energy" — a fitting scheme for the inherent drama of L.A.'s omnipresent entertainment industry. Yet the Broad collection's site on the urban grid along Grand Avenue couldn't be more disparate from the leafy 77006.
A distinctive vision between Eli and Edythe Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro may coalesce before the museum breaks ground, but Knight warns, "Let's hope they and their new client spend a lot of time in Houston between now and then."