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Whenever a billionaire alumnus donates $28 million to his alma mater for a shiny new art museum, it has to be a good thing, right?

The wealthy alum in this case is Eli Broad and his alma mater happens to be mine as well – Michigan State University. The museum,  known simply as The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, opened in November of 2012. The College of Business at MSU also bears Broad’s name. The man is worth about $6 billion and he has been more than generous to the university over the years. God bless him.

Eli Broad is himself a fascinating story, but one that I don’t have time to discuss here at the moment. Suffice to say that he wields an enormous amount of influence in the art world as a collector and philanthropist and is no stranger to controversy. Last year, in fact, he made a large number of art world insiders very unhappy when he orchestrated the dismissal of the chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the story was prominent in the art press for quite awhile (one of the many articles on that incident can be found here). Artists resigned from the MOCA board in protest and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was bedlam, a truly ugly situation that I can’t claim to understand in the slightest except to say that two rival factions in contemporary art collided head on and one faction had money while the other didn’t. I’ll let you guess who won.

So when Broad gave all that money to MSU, beginning in 2007, I’m sure the gift carried with it an obligation to do things pretty much the way Broad wanted them to be done and the result looks to me very much like a celebration of the benefactor’s wealth and influence as much as a serious museum of art. I don’t think that’s necessarily negative. If MSU didn’t want to go along with the program, they could have turned the money down.

We visited the museum last weekend when we were taking our young neighbor Natasha on a campus tour. The building itself is spectacular. Not in a good way. It’s a shiny metallic mass of edges and angles. Sitting on the fringe of the MSU campus at Grand River Avenue and Farm Lane, it fits into the atmosphere of the university community like a gaudy hooker at Sunday morning mass. Imagine a intergalactic spacecraft designed and built by clever 8th graders and you pretty much have it. In another location, surrounded by different buildings, it might work. Here, it doesn’t.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum - Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.(©2013 by Richard X. Moore)

The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum – Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. (©2013 by Richard X. Moore)

Inside, on the other hand, it’s visually stunning. As angular inside as it is out, it offers open and well-lit exhibit spaces wrapped up in a fascinating and dynamic environment. It’s spacious in the way that a lot of modern museums and galleries are spacious, lots of air and towering white walls,  and some the work on exhibit seemed to get lost in this alternative architectural universe.

The work on display is an odd buffet of styles, media, and historical periods. There are three exhibitions and several independent works to be found, ranging from traditional painting and sculpture through installation art and video. Broad is a well-known collector or contemporary art and, on balance, the work leans decisively in his direction. Some of it was so utterly foreign to my sensibilities that I found it comical but there was enough variety to engage even those of us who are stuck in the solitary, cobweb-covered halls of ancient art history (e.g., the 20th Century). Some of it was downright weird, some creepy, some of it was utterly fascinating.

Boat #2 - A Sculpture by Nguyen Phuong Linh (from the artist's website)*

Boat #2 – A Sculpture by Nguyen Phuong Linh (from the artist’s website)*

We had less than an hour to spend so what we did was mainly a cursory walk-through. Still, I saw enough to keep me contemplating contemporary art for days, maybe weeks, and that’s a good thing for a museum to do. It’s a feast for the eyes. I guarantee that you’ll find something to delight you, something to captivate you, and something to loathe, all in this one full-service extravaganza of the visual arts.

I’ll have more on what we saw there at another time…..

* – this is one of at least four ‘boats” made by this Vietnamese artist from sea salt. I don’t know which one made it to the Broad Museum.

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