Choosing trees to cap off a massive building project isn’t something that a general counsel typically takes on. But as a six-year-long project to design, plan, and build The Broad museum in Los Angeles was nearing an end, that is what Deborah Kanter, JD ’91 (MA ’92), was thinking about—trees. And she was determined to find the right ones to fill the plaza next to the now iconic museum, fulfilling the vision of entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad.
Kanter first met Broad in the 1990s when she was general counsel of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He recruited her in 2002 to become chief legal officer of his family offices and philanthropies. When the plan to build a museum for his family’s extensive art collection began to take shape, Kanter worked closely with him, overseeing all aspects of The Broad construction and then serving as interim chief operating officer for the museum. As with every detail in the multifaceted project, she was intimately involved with the final touches in the plaza. And the trees had to be just right.
“When you’re dealing with a project of this magnitude, there are millions of decisions and it would be easy to say ‘just plant something pretty.’ But Deborah brought an aesthetic to this, and she was determined to make the plaza stand out,” says Joanne Heyler, founding director of The Broad, who worked closely with Kanter on the building project.
After a lot of looking, Kanter located 110-year-old olive trees in northern California and had them shipped down to L.A. “They brought a certain complexity to the site—these ancient trees next to the new building and plaza. It’s quite beautiful,” says Heyler.
Since its opening in 2015, The Broad has become a popular destination—particularly for millennials (the average age of this museum’s visitors is 14 years younger than that of other museums).
Kanter has combined her love of art and law into much more than a career, the product of her work now a lasting part of the bustling art scene in a revitalized downtown L.A., with The Broad, its restaurant, plaza, and grove of ancient olive trees a destination for art lovers around the world. And now, she’s thinking about what’s next.
DEBORAH KANTER TELLS THE STORY OF HOW SHE wound up at Andy Warhol’s funeral in 1987 with a hint of disbelief still in her voice.It starts, much like her route to law, with writing a letter. Kanter was an art history major at Wellesley when she wrote to the artists included in her honors thesis. And most agreed to meet with her. She struck up a friendship with one artist, Robert Longo, and he offered her a job at his studio in New York helping to catalog his work for a retrospective at LACMA.
“He was very willing to help this naïve, green, young woman figure out how to make a career in the arts,” says Kanter. She even had a hand in one of his pieces. Longo was working on something that involved melting shoe polish and pouring it onto a canvas. He asked her if she wanted to try. “I said ‘sure,’ but I didn’t let the flame go out quickly enough so when I poured the polish, the whole canvas went up. I thought it was ruined. But when the flames went out, he looked at it and said ‘I like it.’
“We were creating a whole new museum, so this was a launch in every sense…It really is not an exaggeration to say that The Broad would not be what it is if she had not been a part of it.”
– JOANNE HEYLER, FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF THE BROAD
While working in New York, Kanter had been applying to art history masters programs, but she began to consider law. Her father, a litigator in Albuquerque, New Mexico, encouraged her. So she wrote to Henry Geldzahler, a lawyer who became the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She eventually received a message inviting her to lunch. This was right after the death of Andy Warhol. “It was kind of amazing because Geldzahler was such a legendary figure, and he had incredible art—pieces by Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Hockney. He was a really interesting, eccentric character. And he took the time to talk to me about law school,” she recalls. A few days later, he invited her to be his guest at Warhol’s funeral. “It was surreal—felt very Andy ‘Warholian’ to be this young kid with all these greats. I sat between Geldzahler and David Hockney.”
Kanter also wrote to Stanford law professor John Merryman, an early art and law expert who helped to create the field, and they arranged to meet when he was in New York. “He is one of the reasons I came to Stanford,” she says. “I got to know him well and he was a mentor of mine for many years—and a dear friend.”
Kanter found, to her surprise, that she loved law as much as she loved art.
“I thought that my career would go more in the art direction, but the graduate program in art just wasn’t as interesting to me as law,” she says. “I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy law so much, but I loved it.”
AFTER LAW SCHOOL, KANTER STARTED her career as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, where she often worked with museums and galleries. The relationships she developed, and her experience in the art world prior to law, led to her appointment in 1996 as the first chief legal counsel of LACMA. She served on the executive management team during a crucial time in the history of the museum, helping turn it around after years of financial and programmatic decline, overseeing a $10 million renovation of its Hancock Park home, structuring and negotiating the museum’s largest collections acquisitions, and negotiating its first comprehensive licensing agreement with the estate of Picasso.
“I loved it. It was my dream job,” she says. It was during this time that she met Eli Broad, who was on the board. “We were writing a strategic plan—the institution had been in the red for years—and we were really turning it around and building the board. Eli was integrally involved in that, so I was working with him very closely.”
After six years with LACMA, Kanter resigned in 2001. Following the birth of her second child, she had found juggling work and family life with young children at home too much. But her time as a stay-at-home mom was very brief.
“Eli called me on my first day home and said, ‘So, I think you should come work for my foundation,’” she recalls. When she said she couldn’t, he suggested she try doing just one day a week. “For the first seven years, it was a part-time job, with a lot of flexibility. It was perfect.” During that time, she became close with the Broads and the small team at the Broad Art Foundation, which included Heyler.
Kanter explains that in the lead up to construction of The Broad museum, the foundation’s art was stored in five different facilities, the main one in Santa Monica. But with limited space and no parking, it wasn’t open to the public. And to store the art safely, pieces had to be crated.
“If an art professional wanted to borrow something or a scholar wanted to study a piece, it was a big rigmarole because it had to be uncrated and recrated. It wasn’t good for the art,” says Kanter. “Eli and Edye Broad’s goal in building the museum was to make the art accessible to the widest possible public—to make the art available.”
And so, when the Broads decided to build a museum to house their massive art collection, Kanter was in the right place at the right time—and ready to embark on the most exciting part of her career so far.
The project had many challenges, including the charge to the architects: Create a storage facility for priceless art as well as a public exhibition space, while also helping to revitalize downtown L.A.
“Eli and Edye love Los Angeles and always felt that it needed a city center and that it should be on Grand Avenue,” she says. “Eli was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the driving force behind the fundraising for Disney Hall, which are both there.”
But realizing the Broads’ vision required a big push from the whole team. For Kanter, it meant leading the development, financing, and construction of the museum, plaza, and restaurant—while also serving on the jury that selected the architect, managing the d sign process with Heyler, negotiating entitlements for the building, working with the Office of the Mayor and L.A. City Council and Board of Supervisors, and more.
“Good architects are supreme problem solvers. And it’s a joy to watch them solve problems and to see how they approach things, which is very different from how a lawyer would.”
– DEBORAH KANTER, JD ’91 (MA ’92)
“Those who go through building campaigns for cultural buildings usually are building a new wing or renovating an area. We were creating a whole new museum, so this was a launch in every sense,” says Heyler. “And Deborah was essential to it all from leading the financing of construction to decisions on how to develop the place and the restaurant. It really is not an exaggeration to say that The Broad would not be what it is if she had not been a part of it.”
Heyler explains that a project of this size would typically be supported by an existing institution, with committees taking on key tasks. “But it really was just the two of us working with the Broads until we got closer to opening and started hiring.”
“Working with her over the last 16 years, she has done a fantastic job,” says Eli Broad. “Deborah also took on a lot of additional major responsibilities dealing with the city and county and joint powers. So in addition to being a great lawyer, she has a great business mind and can work with people of all levels.”
Kanter particularly enjoyed working with architect Liz Diller and Diller Scofidio & Renfro. “Part of a lawyer’s job is to solve problems, right? Good architects are supreme problem solvers,” she says. “And it’s a joy to watch them solve problems and to see how they approach things, which is very different from how a lawyer would. It was fascinating to see different approaches to the same issue.”
“Deborah was the brains, the heart and the courage of the project,” says Diller. “Her leadership over the years brought the project to fruition.”
Attendance at the museum has beat estimates and more, attracting a diverse mix of visitors.
“We’ve reinvented the American museum to be more friendly, with visitor associates rather than guards. And a younger mix of visitors. And Deborah has been a big part of that,” says Broad.
And Kanter, like the millions of visitors who have been to The Broad so far, is in awe of the result.
“Liz Diller called the design for the museum the vault and the veil. And the vault, which is the storage area, she describes as the protagonist of the building. It’s a very conceptually coherent building,” Kanter says.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, THE BROAD UNDERTOOK ONE of the most expensive art exhibits in the country, showing the works of Jasper Johns. “This is what The Broad’s vision is all about—displaying art that wouldn’t have been accessible to the public. It’s a very expensive show because of the high value of the work, with transportation and insurance. And The Broad was the only venue in the United States that was willing to undertake that expense to put on this very important show with this important artist,” Kanter says.
Kanter, who recently stepped down from her position at The Broad Foundation, is gearing up for the next phase of her life—a new career, perhaps in public service. So, she has been exploring criminal justice issues and volunteering as a teacher in a juvenile detention facility.
“We were assigned to read The New Jim Crow, by SLS alum Michelle Alexander, so it’s full circle back to Stanford,” she says.
But Kanter will remain involved with the Broads and the museum as a member of the boards of directors for The Broad and The Broad Art Foundation. And she’ll be a regular visitor to The Broad too.
“I love the sculpture of the vault in the lobby. I think it’s so beautiful and sensual. I love the shape of it, the texture,” Kanter says. “And the galleries upstairs are sublime. It’s such a wonderful space to view art—it doesn’t overshadow the work, just gives you this feeling of spaciousness that expands without becoming overwhelming.”