There is no lack of opinion in contemporary art, but there is a limited amount of space specifically dedicated to opinion editorials on art in published discourse. This series will present divergent points of view on the same issue or topic in contemporary art. For the counterpart to this piece, please see: The Broad: America Deserves Better by Tucker Neel.
All images by Shana Nys Dambrot. All rights reserved.
THE NEW Broad Museum is not for me. Don’t get me wrong — I love it. I returned the week after the media opening for another spin and look forward to visiting again even before they change out the exhibitions. What I mean is, it wasn’t built for me, or for other fancy art world people like me. Instead, it’s for everyone else. The art press greeted the first installation/iteration of the permanent collection with a run of unexpectedly hostile skepticism; this results from the fact that, despite an adulation for buzzwords like “public engagement,” “appeal to younger audiences,” “cultural tourism,” and “accessibility,” in contemporary art discourse of late, those in power don’t actually like it all that much when paralegals from Pacoima show up with their kids.
But that’s exactly who this glorious museum is for — those kids — and other curious persons of any age who, strange as it may sound to sophisticated ears, may well have never visited a contemporary art museum before. It’s a cultural destination that, precisely because of its carnival tent allure and extensive coverage in mainstream (non-art) media outlets, will garner the attention and attendance that the likes of the Hammer (except when Steve Martin is involved) might not. Owner and renowned collector Eli Broad has stumped the museum as his “gift to the city,” and many have viewed this in a cynical light. In a Facebook post on September 22, shortly after the opening, I noted that, “I think what bothers the art world most about the Broad is that it’s not really for the art world.” This post got 217 likes, scores of comments ranging from the supportive to the cynical, the thoughtful to the knee-jerk, and a long enumeration of all the other his-name-over-the-door-vanity-museums that we ironically cherish without headache: Hammer, Frick, Carnegie, Getty, Geffen, de Menil, Barnes, Annenberg, Guggenheim, and more. But if the goal of engagement in contemporary art is to support a more profound sense of involvement, relevance, and relatability in the everyday lives of everyday people — the Broad can only help. And if the goal is to foster new audiences for contemporary art in economic, generational, and demographic terms — the Broad is to be celebrated. The future of arts patronage depends on it.
And here’s why it will work. The Broad is like a gateway drug. People read about it in the paper, notice that it’s free and pretty easy to get to, and decide to take a chance and bring their kids. The kids fall in love with Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog or the Robert Therrien table or — whoa, those incredible Murakami paintings! — and, before you know it, they are asking to go back again. Soon enough, these same kids start to think that other museums might not be so terrible and visit those, too. This early appreciation for art enriches their lives in all the ways that the research says it will. Those kids become members of MOCA or of LACMA when they grow up. They buy art at galleries. They engage with the art of their time; some become artists; some become critics. The art world is safe for another generation. While an elite eye and Artforum-saturated brain might not find much to stir the soul afresh in Broad, imagine a child — imagine yourself as a child — looking at this collection. Think back to the first time you remember wondering about a work of art, not because someone encouraged you to, but for your own reasons, a discovery. Instigating a host of those moments is what the Broad is poised to do best.
I remember my moment. It was Kazimir Malevich’s White on White, 1918, in the collection of MoMA back in my hometown of New York City. My parents were divorced and my dad is a science guy who, though hyper-intelligent, didn’t “know that much about art” but felt the museum would be a fine place to take his daughter on their weekends together. I was about 10 the first time I saw this small painting of a tilted white square on slightly less white canvas. What can I say? I was a weird kid. I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. It was the single most powerful reason that I later studied art history; it still has pride of place in my heart and mind.
I’ve been asking other people about theirs, with far-ranging responses: A major Diane Arbus book discovered on a “cool uncle’s” coffee table; an Alexander Calder in a random public plaza; the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Picasso’s Goat in MoMA’s garden; a local artist at a county fair; photographs of Spiral Jetty; the Wild Style tagger who favored your local train station; Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and the list goes on.
Millennials are in the Broad’s sights, too. The museum encourages the taking and posting and tagging of pictures for Instagram. It’s what they want. I went first to an early press preview, and then, a week later, was a guest at a social media “influencer” event where I saw that some of my favorite working artists had been invited and they, as painters, were in art nerd heaven: Eric White, Tim Biskup, Hueman, Gregory Siff. Taggers were freaking out in a room filled with Cy Twombly paintings; Pop Surrealists were freaking out over photographs by Ed Ruscha; everyone freaked out together in the room dedicated to the contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Every profile picture was suddenly taken in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room — not that you can blame an Instagrammatic society for photographing themselves in a small, mirrored room that, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, appears to be not only bigger on the inside, but infinite. It’s not all highbrow, to be sure. But it’s not all confectionary either. Seminal works by Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly (I had no idea he did sculptures!), Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Mark Bradford, Chris Burden; and even the selected gems from their vast trove of Warhols have a certain gravitas.
But there is another perspective on the collection that is sparking unrest and that is the fact that, by all accounts, only about 17 percent of the collection is by women artists. This underrepresentation is as outmoded, dated, and wasteful as the 40-foot Julian Schnabel plate painting that somehow made the debut cut. Those were terrible then and they are worse now, and its presence there is not helping. But for the most part, the curators seem to be trying to make up for the inequity; the current installation includes a significantly over that 17 percent figure of works by women artists. I feel like this must signify that they’re trying to ameliorate the imbalance. Time will tell, as the collection will of course be periodically rotated, giving curators more chances to succeed or fail on this count. But even now it’s worth noting that the first grouping of works viewers see upon exiting at the top of the escalator are a bright Jeff Koons flanked by a major Mark Bradford, an impressive Julie Mehretu, a significant Marlene Dumas, and a spectacular El Anatsui. Furthermore, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Yayoi Kusama, and Jenny Saville have some of the most impressive works on offer. (Footnote below: a list of all the women included in the permanent collection.)
In the lead-up to the opening, the Broad staged a series of well-attended talks at locations throughout the city. The museum has just announced the continuation of these and other public programs, including music, film, and performance art, as well as guest curation by, among others, Karen Finley and Ava DuVernay. And lest you doubt my children-are-the-future insight, indulge me in a lengthy quote from the museum’s recent press materials:
The Broad is launching programming for schoolchildren. Partnering with local arts organizations 826LA and Inner-City Arts, this programming will be developed this fall and available to grades 3 through 12 beginning in January 2016. Inner-City Arts’s teaching artists will utilize the Broad collection as a teaching tool for Inner-City Arts classes that will visit the museum to study artwork in the collection as part of Inner-City Arts’s curriculum. The Broad will be hosting school visits in the hours before the museum opens to the public between January and May. These visits will be shaped by materials and activities developed through the Broad’s partnership with 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization. The Broad has invited students from 826LA to visit the museum this fall to assist with developing creative writing activities and accompanying materials about artworks on view, to be used by schoolchildren during visits to the Broad … in English and Spanish. Over 30 mornings, the Broad will welcome a total of 3,000 schoolchildren in its first year.
Note to self: Maybe try to avoid those 30 mornings for future visits. Between the kids whose exuberance is being actively courted, the young audiences whose expressivity is being actively encouraged, and the adults whose memories and imaginations are being powerfully activated, it could get noisy in there.
Note: Women artists represented in The Broad notably include: Yayoi Kusama, Julie Mehretu, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Goshka Macuga, Karen Finley, Amy Adler, Janine Antoni, Tauba Auerbach, Hilla Becher, Vanessa Beecroft, Cecily Brown, Sue Coe, Marlene Dumas, Katharina Fritsch, Ellen Gallagher, Jenny Holzer, Jenny Saville, Louise Lawler, Annette Lemieux, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Sharon Lockhart, Shirin Neshat, Kara Walker, Catherine Opie, Susan Rothenberg, and Kiki Smith.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.