LOS ANGELES • Traditional art museums are some of the most conservative and controlling institutions on earth. They are built as vaults to preserve the past and as monuments to edited histories.
In the Gilded Age America of a century or so ago, many new museums were also monuments to private collectors - Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner - who strove to shape and fix an image that history would have of them, as enlightened power brokers of their day and benefactors to the future.
In our present Gilded Age, private collection museums are again proliferating, but with a difference. Most are devoted to new art, art without a past. The stories they tell are not yet history, but exist in a state of flux.
The very definition of collecting, in a time of speculative buying, is now up for grabs. Shouldn't these changes radically alter the old museum model, loosen it up, make it more experimental, shift its identity from locked treasure house to clearing house for fresh ideas?
These questions arise as one of the most eagerly anticipated private museums of contemporary art in the country approaches its opening on Sunday. Called The Broad (pronounced brode) and housed in a US$140-million (S$197- million), three-storey building by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, it enshrines the collection of about 2,000 works owned by Eli and Edythe Broad, two of this city's leading philanthropists.
Mr Eli Broad, a billionaire who made his fortune in home building, has arguably had more impact shaping this city's cultural identity than anyone else in recent times.
For nearly 50 years, he and his wife have been among the country's most assiduous contemporary collectors. They began picking up work by hot artists - Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman - in New York in the early 1980s, later filling in historical blanks and doing some buying in their own California backyard.
The inaugural display is clearly intended to show the collection in representative form, and does.
The museum's chief curator, Ms Joanne Heyler, has installed about 200 works more or less chronologically on the building's third floor, beginning with a clutch of classic pieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly.
Johns' 1964 Watchman is a star; a blood-red Rauschenberg abstraction from a decade earlier is less familiar, but the Broads cashed in a Van Gogh drawing to acquire it.
The concentration of Los Angeles art is the most interesting aspect of the inaugural show. Ed Ruscha's laconically meticulous word paintings and John Baldessari's recycled film images may fit the collection's clean-lined Pop proclivities, while the acidic zaniness of Mike Kelley's work does not, but the Broads bought plenty of it over the years.
I'm always glad to encounter things I've never seen, such as the sculpture called Bateau De Guerre by the apocalypse-minded Chris Burden, who died last May. A whirring, blinking death star made of gas cans and toy guns, it wasn't in the recent Burden retrospective that came to New York.
I wish there were more things like it here, under-known, offbeat, less than neat. And there could be.
With a reported US$200 million- plus endowment and additional funds for acquisitions, The Broad will be doing a lot more buying.
And it would be good if this museum started to stray from the blue chip-masterpiece path that winds its way from Koons on the third floor to a gallery on the first floor of big, bland, abstract pictures by Mark Grotjahn and Christopher Wool. Their presence here makes The Broad feel ordinary, old- school, predictable.
A tight, unadventurous building design doesn't help. The exterior, with its sheets of perforated, biomorphic white cladding - the colour and texture of gefilte fish - is eye-filling but unmagical, though there are nice touches inside.
The cavern-like lobby sets up a mood of mystery. The third floor skylights are a pleasure, as are occasional breaks in the white-box gallery walls that give glimpses onto the street. The street is Grand Avenue, which Mr Eli Broad has long planned to develop into a downtown cultural district. The Broad is part of that plan.
So is the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall next door and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which Mr Broad helped found and support, across the street.
By offering free admission, Broad intends his museum to be a popular destination. It surely will be while it's new and in the news, and could continue to be. The Broads have always viewed their holdings as a public asset that they make accessible through an active institutional loan programme. They refer to their holdings as a lending library, with items regularly leaving for other museums and returning.
This traffic flow, enhanced by the arrival of new acquisitions, should encourage people to make repeat visits, knowing they are likely to see new things each time.
But even with this mechanism for flexibility, The Broad is a museum of an old-fashioned kind. It has been built to preserve a private collection conceived on a masterpiece ideal and consisting almost entirely of distinctive objects - paintings and sculptures, precious things.
Apart from most of the objects being new or at least not old, The Broad could have existed, pretty much as is, a century ago.
NEW YORK TIMES