ART

How Edye Broad's 'natural eye' drew her billionaire husband into the art world

Maven of contemporary collecting emphasises the joy of finding and nurturing talents of the age

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 5:20pm
NYT

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The nude in the silver frame calls no attention to herself amid the colours and splashes of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and other 20th-century masters hanging in a well-lit house beyond the pepper trees. But the Henri Matisse drawing, an elegant work of quiet power, is one of Edye Broad's favourites.

She and her husband, Eli, 82, a billionaire accustomed to getting his way, disagree over the picture's fate.

"He wants to get rid of it, but I won't let him," she says. "It doesn't fit in our collection. He's so precise. One day, it will be gone."

She smiles with gentle defiance, closing the door and walking past an Andy Warhol Superman on her way to reflecting pools that glimmer off the courtyard of their Brentwood estate.

Edye Broad is the aesthetic spirit of a couple who, over the decades, have amassed a collection of about 2,000 pieces of art valued at more than US$2 billion.

The Broad museum, which opens in downtown Los Angeles this month, is in many ways a testament to Edye, who bought her first picture, a postcard reproduction of Picasso's Three Musicians, on a school field trip when she was 12. Since then, the couple have acquired works by the most celebrated names of post-war and contemporary art.

The US$140 million museum is a significant addition to the Southern California art scene, and the latest move by Eli Broad to make his mark on Los Angeles' cultural landscape.

The Broads themselves are a portrait sketched over 60 years of marriage: he the logical, get-it-done businessman; she the well-read, unpretentious patron. They have befriended artists, and visited studios and garrets around the world. Edye can tell you about the aloofness of Warhol; the kindness of Lichtenstein, whom she met in the 1970s in New York's meat-packing district; the playfulness of Jeff Koons; and how Eli kept a Van Gogh pen-and-ink drawing in his underwear drawer to protect it from the light.

Their collaboration, notably in the early years, was marked by Edye's eclectic inclinations and Eli's desire to shape one of the world's leading collections of contemporary art. He could appear passionate, if brusque, sweeping into a gallery, making assessments and departing. Edye was a slower touch, lingering, studying the work, chatting with the artist. She is, as those who know them say, the balm to his sting.

"Edye responds to stuff emotionally, not intellectually. It's her visceral reaction to a work of art," says Stephanie Barron, senior curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the Broads endowed a US$56 million building designed by Renzo Piano. "She's a humanist. She loves music, the opera. She's a voracious reader and interested in a lot of the arts. She's patient - not a word I'd use to describe Eli."

Edye has a "maternal aspect with the world around her", says Koons. "She knows the names of all my eight children."

Unlike her husband, Edye, 79, prefers to stay out of the spotlight. "I don't know why you're writing about me," she says. "I'm not very interesting."

The daughter of a homemaker and a chemist whose company sold extracts, syrups and liqueurs in Detroit, Edye, born Edythe Lawson, was a child of the second world war, paging through Life magazines and imagining the splendour of Rome and Athens. "My father worked all the time," she recalls. "We didn't travel in my family."

She attended public school and went on class outings to the Detroit Institute of Arts. There she saw Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. The 18th-century painting of sailors in a rowboat trying to rescue a man was as unsettling as it was stirring. "That stuck in my mind," she says.

Edye and Eli were married in 1954 in Detroit. Not long after, Edye's father, Morris, gave Eli US$12,500 as start-up capital for Kaufman & Broad homebuilders, which became successful building tract homes in the 1960s. Broad then bought an insurance company that he turned into SunAmerica, a retirement investment firm that AIG bought for US$18 billion in 1999.

The couple and their two young sons moved to Los Angeles in 1963. Edye went on nighttime art walks through galleries on La Cienega Boulevard. She soon began buying, mostly Southern Californian artists, but one day she came home with a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

Eli took notice. "Do you know what you're doing?" Edye quoted her husband as saying. "This is a name I recognise."

The couple later met Taft Schreiber, an MCA executive whose home was decorated with works by Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and others.

"I was mesmerised," she says. "I went weak in the knees. Oh, my goodness, to see these things not in a museum, but all in one house."

The couple's first major purchase was US$95,000 for a Van Gogh drawing in 1972. But collecting significant works of established masters was difficult. Artists such as Van Gogh were either too expensive or owned by private collectors and museums.

As Eli became more involved, the couple concentrated on post-war and contemporary art, which for years they have lent to museums. The Broads, who still travel to art fairs in Basel, Switzerland, and other cities in search of art, used the Van Gogh drawing as part of a trade for a painting by Rauschenberg, whose works opened the way for pop art.

"The things the artists were doing in the current time were interesting," says Edye.

"You could know the artist. You could buy work early. It wasn't so expensive, and it was a fun experience. Some artists we bought young, and they went on to become successful. But it isn't that we had this amazing eye that could walk in and say, 'Ahh, that's the next Picasso'."

To Edye, an artwork calls to mind a time, a place. She nodded towards Warhol's Elvis. "That's when the price of art really started going up," she says. "Eli met Warhol at a party. Eli told him about our collection and Warhol walked away."

Today, Edye has a particular affinity for Koons, a popular, if polarising, artist whose works include a shiny porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles.

"I love what Jeff does. I know it looks whimsical, but it isn't to me," she says. "There's no limit."