Nov. 7 2012 12:00 AM

Eli Broad's 'unreasonable' road from builder to philanthropist


Like many wealthy captains of finance, Eli Broad (pronounced “Brode”) likes to get a contact buzz of creativity from free-spirit artists.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat smoked pot in my bathroom,” he boasted in his 2012 book, “The Art of Being Unreasonable.” On a visit to the studio of Damien Hirst, Broad was handed a protective suit so he could watch the controversial artist lower a shark’s carcass into a tank of toxic chemicals.

“Although that’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, I loved it,” he wrote. He enjoys hanging with artists and scrutinizing their work — usually with a buyer’s eye. “All this research has enriched my life immeasurably and required me to use a different set of skills and a different part of my brain than I did in business,” he wrote.

For Broad, 79,  it’s been a long road to that toxic shark tank. Beginning in the 1950s, the Michigan State University alumnus and got rich building homes in Detroit and Los Angeles. Along the way, he made a $6 billion fortune, built two Fortune 500 companies (KB Home and SunAmerica) and accumulated one of the world’s greatest contemporary art collections.

In recent years, Broad’s attention has turned mainly to the search for productive ways to give his fortunes away. He continues to shape downtown Los Angeles with a series of big cultural projects, but reached east to his alma mater in 2007 with a gift of $28 million that became the catalyst for MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

Rather than sitting on a trove of art valued at about $500 million, Broad and his wife, Edythe, founded the Eli Broad Foundation, a “lending library” of art treasures, in 1984. Broad is also the founding chairman and a life trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Contemporary art is only a fragment of Broad’s philanthropic universe. In 1999, he founded an education foundation that committed more than $500 million to help struggling urban schools. In 2003, he made one of his boldest philanthropic strokes, giving $600 million to start a genomic research foundation that called for unprecedented cooperation between rivals MIT and Harvard.

The shotgun marriage of MIT and Harvard is classic example of Broad’s “why not?” philosophy, etched on a desk paperweight his wife, Edythe, gave him:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (The quote is from George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman.”)

Broad was born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Lithuanian immigrant dime store owners. After his family moved to Detroit, he hustled hard to graduate from Detroit’s Catholic Central High School in 1951, going to summer school and night classes.

Broad’s first negotiation is lovingly recounted in his book. At a house party hosted by Broad and his buddies in East Lansing, a beefy MSU lineman body slammed his landlord’s baby grand piano. Broad talked the landlord out of calling the dean by offering to pay for the piano and clean up the mess if he could stay in the house. He listed the takeaways.

“I had done three things: made a fair offer, kept my emotions under control, and taken the other party’s interests into account,” he wrote.

After graduating cum laude from MSU in 1954, Broad quickly plunged into the post-World War II homebuilding boom. At 20, he became the youngest person ever to pass the Michigan CPA exam, a distinction he held until 2010. He began keeping books for Detroit-area homebuilder Donald Kaufman. Soon he was a partner in Kaufman & Broad, later KB Home. With a loan of $25,000 from a cousin-in-law, the partners built homes on 13 suburban Detroit lots to start.

Broad pioneered a cheaper design, with a carport but no basement, that only cost $13,740 and was ideal for returning veterans starting a family on short money.

After building hundreds of houses, KB went public in 1961 and moved to Los Angeles in 1963. By 1990, KB was the largest single-family-home builder in California, with worldwide revenues of $1.3 billion, according to the Los Angles Business Journal.

At 56, Broad felt he had “done it all” in the building business and entered a new career phase as head of Broad Inc., a financial services business spun off from KB. Soon after, Broad founded financial giant SunAmerica, where he served as CEO until 2000.

Broad began his art collection in 1972 when his wife urged him to pick up a 1888 Van Gogh for $95,000. 

Soon after, he unloaded the van Gogh to pick up a 1954 painting by Robert Rauschenberg  “Untitled (Red Painting),” The contemporary art buzz proved irresistible.

“They do what no one else would think to do,” he wrote in his book. 

Broad has purchased works by nearly 200 artists, most conspicuously Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly and 1980s artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Broad almost veered into performance art in 1995 by paying $2.5 million for Lichtenstein’s “I…I’m Sorry” at Sotheby’s with his American Express card, earning 2.5 million frequent flyer miles. He explained that he wanted to hang onto his money, which was earning high interest rates, for an extra month until the bill came due. He donated the miles to students at California Institute of the Arts.

At the next Sotheby’s auction, the auctioneer announced, “We no longer take credit cards … Eli.”

As Broad made the rounds of art auctions, he watched with alarm as foreign collectors snapped up American contemporary art. He founded the Broad Art Foundation in 1984 in part to counter the drain by doling out his masterpieces to dozens of American museums and universities.

A permanent home for Broad’s 2,000-piece art collection, The Broad, is under construction on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. The $100 million facility will take the dramatic shape of a honeycombed veil floating over a central vault.

“People don’t remember cities for their lawyers or accountants,” Broad told NPR. “They’re remembered for their artists and their architecture.”

MSU development offer Mark Terman worked closely with the Broads as they crafted their $28 million museum gift to MSU.

Terman said he didn’t see evidence of Broad’s “unreasonableness” until it was time to plan the museum’s opening.

Despite the Nov. 10 opening date, Broad insisted that the museum’s opening festivities take place outdoors, next to the museum.

The university was reluctant to throw up tents in the face of possible wind and snow, but Broad didn’t budge. Nothing could substitute for the museum as a backdrop.

As a result, East Circle Drive will be closed to accommodate a temporary, truss-supported, heated and insulated building, bankrolled by Broad. The ephemeral edifice will house a gala event for 400 guests, seated at tables, to be used the next day for a 1,500-seat dedication, and will be subsequently taken apart.

It was the unreasonable thing to do.