Los Angeles’s first-ever, full-scale museum exhibit of the work of the late, great artist Keith Haring opened at the Broad Museum over Memorial Day weekend. It took about three years to pull the show together, featuring the artist’s signature thick black lines, bright colors, and exuberant, dancing figures across a massive collection of sculptures, drawings, paintings, videos and public art projects from throughout his career.
Haring has long been one of my favorite contemporary artists, and when I attended a recent press preview, I was struck not only by the scope of Haring’s work, but also by his philanthropy and activism. During the late 1980s, Haring supported ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) financially and by designing posters, one of which is included in the Broad exhibit. Shortly after he was diagnosed with AIDS himself, the artists set up the Keith Haring Foundation with the mandate to provide funding to AIDS organizations for education, research and care, as well as to groups that work with children and marginalized communities. He died just two years later at age 31.
It’s not so rare for artists to set up foundations to promote their legacy or causes. But for Haring to do so while barely in his 30s, with his own mortality breathing down his neck, took a rare focus and vision. As he wrote in March 1987, “I don’t know if I have five months or five years, but I know my days are numbered. … I’m sure that what will live on after I die is important enough to make sacrifices of my personal luxury and leisure time now.”
The foundation’s recent grantees include $2.5 million to fund a full-time nurse practitioner fellowship in LGBTQ+ health at the New York-based, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. The funder also granted $1 million to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, as well as licensing the group the rights to a cool pink, orange and yellow image for an awareness-raising “AIDS-Free Generation” T-shirt.
The foundation is also a key lender of art and has been an important research partner for the Broad exhibition, called “Art Is for Everybody.” The show itself is a mostly joyous riot of color and zig-zaggy lines, accompanied by a soundtrack taken from Haring’s own mix tapes, including the politically charged music of legendary hip hop group Public Enemy. But it also includes some overtly political, shocking, graphic work critiquing homophobia, apartheid, the growing conservatism of his era, and rapacious capitalism that, back then, seemed like it might be in its final stages.
Sarah Loyer, the Broad curator who organized "Art Is for Everybody," said that Haring was dedicated to bringing art into the community, a driving force reflected in the title of the Broad show, which was taken from a line in his journals. Between 1982 and 1989, he produced more than 50 public artworks for nonprofits, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. To further this vision, the Broad show includes all kinds of public outreach events, including a double-decker bus/float that will participate in L.A.’s Pride Parade on June 11, lectures, family events, and a meeting and showing of the exhibit for staff from more than 60 local organizations focused on HIV/AIDs.
Gil Vazquez, Keith Haring Foundation executive director and president, and one of Haring’s closest friends, also came to L.A. for the show’s opening. Dressed in a goldenrod sweater covered with Haring’s dancing figures and topped by a charcoal blazer, Vasquez said that Haring saw art as a catalyst for social transformation. He sees Haring’s choice of him, a person of Puerto Rican descent, to be a founding board member, and the board’s subsequent unanimous choice of him as executive director, as “living proof that the art world is for everyone.”
But Haring's influence on arts philanthropy stretches even beyond his own work and giving. I was surprised to hear about the role Haring played in the Broad family’s own philanthropy. The museum’s founding director, Joanne Heyler, said that Eli and Edythe Broad went to New York in the 1980s, visited Haring, and started buying his work. Spending time with the 20-something, super-energetic, up-all-night artist — who threw paint at canvases to the pounding beat of hip hop — had a transformational impact on the Broads’ collecting and, therefore, on the direction of their arts philanthropy. Through Haring, they were exposed to the Lower Manhattan arts scene of the 1980s and started collecting not just Haring but also Jenny Holzer, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other contemporaries. As Heyler later put it, “The complex and generative New York art scene of that time was a game-changing phenomenon and the ignition point for the Broads as collectors of contemporary art."
I always think of the Broad as the repository for Contemporary Art’s Greatest Hits, and as we’ve written before, the Broads are behind some of L.A.’s most important cultural institutions, including multiple world-class museums. But I had no idea that Haring had been instrumental in shaping this collecting focus and, as a result, the ability for all of us to see some of the best works from some of the most exciting artists of the late 20th century and today.
Chuck D, cofounder of Public Enemy and a contemporary of Haring’s from the Lower East Side in the go-go 1980s, came to L.A. for the event. Dressed in all black and wearing a bright smile under a black baseball cap, he summed up the particular relevance of this show today. “It’s a full-circle moment,” he said in his deep, resonant voice (that made me, at least, want him to break into “Fight the Power”). He stressed the multi-sensory, emotional impact of the Haring show, the need to experience it not just with your eyes but also with your feelings. His injunction to the media: “Don’t just spread the word, but spread the vibe.”
The vibe I want to spread comes from my favorite piece in the show, a small, black-and-white image with two cartoon-style panes, one above the other. In the first, two people run scared from a barking dog, arms in the air, terrified. In the second pane, they run toward the dog, who is still barking, and bound over him like in a game of leapfrog. To me, the message is that rather than run from our fears and the real threats to our democracy, life and liberty that we face today, we can run toward them, bound over them, and include them in the solutions.