This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.
LOS ANGELES — The Broad had planned to celebrate its fifth anniversary in 2020 by featuring artists that the museum’s founders, Eli and Edythe Broad, had collected for more than half a century, including Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Eli Broad, the businessman and philanthropist who died last month at 87, and his wife, Edythe, had amassed 13 Basquiat works since the 1980s, which the museum would present together for the first time.
But the pandemic forced the museum to close before the show even opened.
Now, as the city begins to emerge from Covid and the Broad (pronounced Brode) prepares to reopen next Wednesday, visitors will finally be able to see that Basquiat show, along with installations of the artists Roy Lichtenstein, Kara Walker and Andy Warhol.
“To know they’re going to have them all out is exciting for young people,” said A.J. Girard, an independent curator, who used to work as a Broad tour guide. “Eli should be super-celebrated. He had the works and exhibited the works.”
Unlike museums in most major cities, which were able to resume operations at limited capacity over the last year, those in Los Angeles had remained closed. It was only on March 15, after the pandemic started to recede, that the city finally allowed them to reopen.
Museums have been doing so at varying speeds. The Petersen Automotive Museum quickly reopened on March 25; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum on April 1; the Hammer and the Huntington on April 17; the Getty Villa on April 21; but MOCA will not reopen until June 3.
The Broad reopened with new health and safety protocols in place, including advance online ticket reservations; visitor capacity reduced by 50 percent; symptom screening and temperature checks; and mandatory masks. The museum also installed touchless features, such as ticket scanning stations and motion-operated restrooms.
Over the last year, given the Black Lives Matter movement, the Broad’s Basquiat show has taken on a new resonance. Basquiat, who died of an apparent drug overdose at 27 in 1988, dealt in his paintings with issues like colonialism, capitalism and the legacy of slavery.
“It’s incredibly relevant to what we’re all living through right now,” said Joanne Heyler, the museum’s director, “to the reinvigorated struggle for racial equity and racial justice.”
Moreover, as museums all over the country seek to add more people of color to their collections, Basquiat represents one of the few Black artists who became a superstar.
In 2019, the Guggenheim presented “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” which focused on the artist’s piece about Michael Stewart, a young artist who died while in the custody of New York Transit Police after being accused of tagging a wall in an East Village subway station.
In March, Basquiat’s painting, “Warrior,” featuring a male figure holding a sword, sold for $41.9 million at a Hong Kong auction, surpassing the previous record for the highest auction price for a Western artist in an Asian market.
His “Untitled” 1982 skull painting sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2007, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. On May 11, a skull-head painting by Basquiat sold for $93.1 million at Christie’s, the second-highest price for a work by the artist at auction. And at Sotheby’s the next night, his “Versus Medici” sold for $50.8 million.
“Everything that relates to the new generation of Black artists, he was the beginning of all this,” Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art told Artnet in advance of the sale. “Without Basquiat, art history of the past 40 years would have been very different. He’s the most desirable artist at the moment.”
Tellingly, museums were slow to recognize Basquiat’s importance (the Museum of Modern Art does not have any of his paintings in its collection, only drawings).
And some art critics dismissed Basquiat’s work as inconsequential graffiti; the art critic Hilton Kramer in 1997 famously described Basquiat in The Telegraph as “a talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin color and his abundant sex appeal” to win fame.
But the Broads committed to the artist early on and started buying in the 1980s for their Broad Art Foundation, which became the museum.
“This is an authentic interest — this is not because Basquiat was on the list of the best artists to buy or the artists who are going to go up,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the prominent curator and dealer, who delivered the eulogy at Basquiat’s funeral.
“You were making a very courageous statement to buy the work in depth at that time,” Mr. Deitch added, “when established critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes were very derogatory in their coverage.”
Ms. Heyler, who has been working with the Broads on their collection since 1989, said the couple was moved by Basquiat’s personal story — born in Brooklyn to a mother of Puerto Rican descent and a father from Haiti — as well as by his talent.
“They saw Basquiat as an artist who was profoundly gifted as a painter, but also very vulnerable in putting his own experiences and perspective in his art,” she said.
The Broads also appreciated the artist’s “stunning array of knowledge,” Ms. Heyler added. “He was like a polymath — of religion, of music.” (The Broad created a video series dedicated to the artist’s musical influences, called “Time Decorated.”)
As a young child, for example, Basquiat closely studied the Gray’s Anatomy textbook while in the hospital after a car accident, which informed his use of skeletons and skulls.
“That influenced a lot of the imagery in his paintings from politics to ancient civilization,” Ms. Heyler said. “It’s encyclopedic, the references in his work.
“Those connections were deeply compelling for the Broads,” she continued, “and Basquiat was one of just a very short list of artists that Eli pursued with conviction.”
The Basquiats are the most-loaned works in the entire 2,000-piece collection, Ms. Heyler said, with “Horn Players” the single most-loaned painting (36 times).
“I think that speaks to the fact that museums typically — with some exceptions, like the Whitney and a few others — did not pursue works by Basquiat,” Ms. Heyler said.
The artist also appeals to the Broad’s visitors, who Ms. Heyler said are mostly people of color and average around age 32. As people return to the museum over the next few months, Ms. Heyler expects many of them to make a beeline for Basquiat.
As a result, the installation “doesn’t have a fixed end date,” she said. “We will want to keep it up as long as we can.”