‘I Never Experienced Such Focus and Determination’: Jeffrey Deitch, Jenny Holzer, and Others Reflect on the Life of Eli Broad

Broad died April 30 at the age of 87.

Eli Broad. Photo by Nancy Pastor.
Eli Broad. Photo by Nancy Pastor.

Eli Broad, a towering figure in the art world as a billionaire collector, philanthropist, and museum founder, died late last month, leaving a big void in the cultural landscape.

In the wake of his death, Artnet News asked some of the artists, dealers, and art-museum professionals who knew him best to share their memories of the entrepreneur-turned-collector.

 

Jenny Holzer, artist

Eli helped me various times. Once we walked the Potomac watching Teddy Roosevelt and JFK quotes projected from the Kennedy Center onto Roosevelt Island. The sentences were about how living in nature and in society at large could and must be better. Eli imagined and realized much that is better.

 

Jeffrey Deitch, art dealer

Eli Broad was such a vital presence in the art community that it is hard to fathom that he is no longer with us. He probably made a more important contribution to the American art world than any other collector of his generation.

I first met Eli in the early ‘80s when I was invited to a dinner at his home. When I introduced myself, he exclaimed “You’re on my wall!” It turned out that my name was part of a Jonathan Borofsky wall drawing installed in a prominent location in his house.

That was the beginning of an ongoing conversation about art that lasted 40 years. Eli was instrumental in bringing me to Los Angeles to become the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. For several years we met or talked on a weekly basis working together to rebuild the program and the finances of the museum.
It was astonishing to see Eli in action. I have never experienced such focus and determination. We would have marathon sessions where we would prep Eli and he would then call one prospect after another to raise funds for the museum.

Shortly after I arrived at the museum, Eli asked us to print out all of the museum’s financial records from the past several years. I delivered to Eli a two foot stack of accounting records. This would be his weekend reading. Eli was unique in combining this financial acumen with an enthusiasm for the latest artistic innovations.

On a trip to New York during auction week, Eli suggested that we view the auction exhibitions together. I was accustomed to accompanying collectors who only wanted to view the highlights. Eli insisted on looking at every last lot in the day sales. He had an amazing capacity for information and had unlimited energy.

Eli was not all business. When I hosted my boisterous musical performances in the garden of the Raleigh Hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach, Eli and Eyde were always at a table in the front row. I have to find the photograph that we took with Eli posing with the outlaw motorcycle gang the Chosen Few at the opening of Art in the Streets at MOCA. Eli will be sorely missed but his many remarkable contributions will live on for decades.

 

James Cuno, president and C.E.O. of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

Eli was a dedicated champion of Los Angeles, our artists, and arts institutions. He foresaw and worked tirelessly to promote our museums and performing arts centers, and Los Angeles is far the stronger for it.

 

Eric Fischl, artist

Eli and Edye were significant collectors of my work. They supported it and encouraged me. Their imprimatur meant a great deal as a younger artist. It turned the heads of others in my direction. What they did for this time in our cultural life will prove historical. What they did for L.A. will show itself to be beyond measure. Eli will be missed and my heart goes out to Edye for her personal loss.

My fondest memory in conversation with Eli was when I asked him something I was curious about and unable to imagine how one would do it. I asked him how he scaled up his business from a small office building one house at a time to a mega-conglomerate that employed something like 80,000 people. As an artist working alone, I just didn’t know how one could do it. He lit up with the question. He was very thoughtful, insightful, and animated. More so than when anyone asked him about his art collection. His lack of confidence at being able to articulate why he gravitated towards some artworks and not others was absent when he talked about business.

I felt clearly that his animation came from the excitement anyone of us feels when someone asks us honest questions about things that lie within our talent. Along with many others, I too will miss him and feel honored to have lived and crossed paths within our shared time.

 

Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery

Eli’s devotion to his artists was a model for other collectors. The last time I saw Eli, we were looking at Calders together. He had an infectious joy and enthusiasm looking at the work; he saw everything, both with the understanding of a scholar and the excitement of a child.

 

Jeff Koons, artist

I am always going to miss Eli’s smile, kindness, and intellect. I’ve always been amazed by Eli. Sometimes he would invite me to events. One, in particular, was the first Broad Prize event. It was during this conference at which the Broad Foundation was giving support to the greatest performing schools in low-income school districts that I realized how deeply committed Eli was to help everyone.

I believe Eli felt so fortunate to be able to lift himself up in life that he felt a tremendous need to share the opportunity for everyone to live a better life. Whether he was bettering the public school system or sponsoring the sciences or the arts, they were all a vehicle for Eli to give of himself to better the lives of all people. Eli has been an extremely important mentor to me. He showed through his actions that true joy and pleasure come through generosity. Eli had to create himself to be able to be generous to the greater whole. Our world and our sense of humanity are profoundly different due to the impact of Eli Broad. Eli will be greatly missed.

 

Joanne Heyler, founding director of the Broad, Los Angeles

Eli, larger than life himself, was well-known as a collector of large scale art. Truthfully, of course, there is a wide range of art in the Broad collection, but Eli did love the challenge of collecting physically ambitious work. It often meant working closely with artists and figuring out how to pull off something unexpected.

The examples are endless, starting with my first days as curator in the 1990s, when Eli put me—equipped with only an art history degree and determination to earn his trust—in charge of the installation of a new 60-ton, four-panel curved steel sculpture by Richard Serra he’d acquired. Or when I proposed a sculptural Nancy Rubins torn-paper drawing for his pristine corporate lobby, which was beautiful but also left the artist’s graphite fingerprints all over its cream colored walls (He called the next morning to say “I love it. It’s staying.”).

Our last artist studio visit was to Mark Bradford in 2019. When we got there, there were paintings on view that were not what I wanted to show Eli. I quietly asked Mark “can we take out Deep Blue and hang it on the wall?” Luckily, not only was Mark willing to install it, but Eli—uncharacteristically—had the patience to wait. While the 50-foot-wide painting was mounted on the wall, we spent 45 minutes chatting with Mark about his mother, the antics of her clients whose hair he did in her salon, and projects he was working on. When we went back to see the painting, Eli took one look and simply said “Let’s get it.” I told him I didn’t yet know the price. He shrugged and said “It doesn’t matter. It’s a masterpiece.”

 

Robert Longo, artist

Eli Broad owns some of the most important, major, large-scale works of mine from the 1980s, my “Combines.” He started supporting my work in the very early 80s, and his continued support of my work–especially over the last 20 years–has always been incredibly valuable. He has generously lent the works that he owns to museums and exhibitions.

To go to his extraordinary museum and see my works in a room is always a rush.

Whenever he visited my studio he would always ask great, enthusiastic questions. As a younger artist his support was invaluable and as an older artist his continued support was even more invaluable, as artists are always striving to remain relevant.

He will be greatly missed.


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