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Broad Brush Strokes: Q &A With Eli Broad

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BCAM Born! It's hard to miss the banners with the sparkling, red, cracked egg sculpture by artist Jeff Koons sprinkled across the city. This week the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens the 72,000 square foot, Renzo Piano-designed, $56 million showcase for contemporary art, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. According to the Los Angeles Times, "BCAM is the centerpiece of a multi-faceted initiative to create a bold presence for contemporary art at LACMA and the keystone of a three-phase effort to transform the Wilshire Boulevard institution's 20 acre campus." In other words, it's a big deal for the art world, the city and the museum itself.

The "B" in BCAM is businessman (the founder-chairman of two Fortune 500 companies, KB Home and SunAmerica, Inc.) turned philanthropist Eli Broad. With his wife Edythe, Broad created and actively manages the $2.5 billion Broad Foundations dedicated to the advancement of entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science, and the arts.

Recently I had the chance to speak with Broad at an event hosted by USC's Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. Here is some of what he had to say about risk, reward, and how much fun he's having in his latest career.

Willow Bay: Full time philanthropy, relatively speaking, is a new career for you. But how does this career compare to creating, managing, and growing Fortune 500 companies?

Eli BROAD: It's far more rewarding. I tell everyone I'm working harder now than when I ran a Fortune 500 company. It's a far more important calling than simply running a major business center.

WB: You call your approach to solving problems "venture philanthropy." Can you clarify what that means?

EB: Well, we don't want to just write checks to maintain the status quo. In fact, we're very different from most foundations, which have a grant cycle where they wait for grant applications and then review them and write a check. We don't do that. In fact, 90 percent of what we do are things that we personally went out and looked at.

Right now we're concentrating our efforts in the areas of education reform, scientific and medical research, and the arts and civic development here in Los Angeles. We're always looking for big ideas.

WB: You operate in this entrepreneurial mode. Can traditional foundations bring that entrepreneurial spirit to their own organizations?

EB: I like to say there is a big difference between philanthropy and charity. Charity is just giving money to good causes. Philanthropy is really investing, making a difference, improving institutions that exist, and creating ones that are needed that do not exist. We hope we're setting an example, and we hope this is the new philanthropy, a philanthropy for the 21st century that is very different from philanthropy of the past.

WB: How do you and Edythe do this together?
EB: We're partners. She and I are the trustees of the foundation, and we've got a great governing board of people that are very accomplished, including Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, Andy Stern, the progressive labor leader, and Henry Cisneros.

WB: How do you rate your progress so far?

EB: I think everything we have done is good, if incremental. We have not changed the world yet, but we've made progress. Are we going to see more change? Yes.

WB: With all of the critical issues plaguing the world today, does giving to the arts matter as much?

EB: It matters. If we want to be a creative, dynamic nation, we've got to educate people in the arts, whether it's the performing arts or the visual arts. I think it's important to what we are.

We started collecting 35 years ago. And then after our walls were filled with art, we created a foundation which is truly a lending library to museums throughout the world. Most museums -- with all their burdens to pay for exhibitions, administration, and security -- really don't have any money really to acquire art, with few exceptions. So we said we could. And that has worked out very well.

WB: You've been very vocal about making Los Angeles one of the great art capitals of the world. What will it take to get there?

EB: I believe Los Angeles is one of the four great cultural capitals of the world. If you look at the performing arts, no one has a better symphony or symphony hall than we do. We have more theatrical productions than New York or London. But you know what? We only get 2 and a half million cultural visitors a year when New York, London, and Paris get between 10 and 14 million. So we have to convince the world that Los Angeles is not about simply the film industry, the Grammy's, and Disneyland.

WB: You are rarely the full funder of projects. You like other entities and individuals to have some skin in the game, don't you?

EB: Yes. We don't believe in free goods. If we are doing something in a city, we want that district to put some of their own money in the game. We want to see some local philanthropy to be a partner also, and then we join forces with other foundations, whether it's the Gates or Robertson Foundation in New York.

WB: What is the overall plan for sustaining your foundation?

EB: Frankly, Edythe and I will put more money in the foundation, but the real question is, "What do you do with it?" Anyone will take your money. For example, people give money to Harvard, which is great, but they have a $34 billion endowment. If we gave money, what difference is it going to really make? So we're looking for other things that need to be created, that don't exist, or look at things that do in fact exist but need to be made better.

WB: What- in all of this- makes you happy, the most proud?

EB: When we get results. When student achievement goes up in a place like New York City. When charter schools do well. We want to see a higher percentage of their graduates going on to college, like double the percentage from other public schools. Then it makes us feel good.

WB: What are the chances that the growth of mega foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, will lead the government into reducing funding for social and cultural programs?

EB: Our job is not to end up filling a void in the general fund for a governmental agency, be it state or federal. So we look at things that they are not willing to do or can't do. We're also risk takers; we're willing to take risks that other foundations or the government are not willing to take. A lot of foundations have senior grant officers that have been around a long time and don't want to be embarrassed. I don't worry about getting fired.

WB: Can I get you on the record saying you that really are having a ball?

EB: I'm enjoying what I'm doing. If it makes a difference, I want to work hard at it and so on. I do not enjoy sitting and maintaining the status quo.

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