What Becomes of the Brokenhearteds’ Stuff

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LOS ANGELES — Last spring, John B. Quinn, the founder of the litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, took his extended family to Croatia. Over the course of eight days, he and his second wife, five grown daughters, their boyfriends, husbands, and children rumbled through the country in a bus.

In the riverfront city Zagreb, a tour guide mentioned a regional highlight: the Museum of Broken Relationships, a crowd-sourced art installation started in 2010 by former lovers Drazen Grubisic and Olinka Vistica. Mr. Quinn was intrigued.

“A museum of broken relationships? You’ve kind of got to go see that,” he said recently here at the downtown headquarters of Quinn Emanuel.

On display were the relics of romances gone wrong: a wedding dress from a three-year marriage, red heels worn by a dominatrix who realized she was servicing her high school boyfriend, a teddy bear holding an “I Love You” heart.

Mr. Quinn, a hard-driving lawyer whose yearly firm-wide hikes have been called death marches, was moved. “I thought more people should see this,” he said. “This is something that a lot of people can relate to, maybe, especially, in L.A. A lot of people here come pursuing dreams, and a lot of wreckage ends up here.”

Within days, he sent an email to Mr. Grubisic and Ms. Vistica.

“It was very short,” Ms. Vistica said. “‘You have a wonderful museum and I want to bring it to L.A.’ It was straight to the point.”

This is how Mr. Quinn ended up, last month, celebrating the opening of the Museum of Broken Relationships on Hollywood Boulevard, an extension of the Croatia concept that he funded and founded. More than 100 exhibits range from everyday artifacts (a spare key never given to its intended recipient, a mirror that didn’t go with an ex’s decorating scheme) to signifiers of deeply troubled unions (a pair of silicone breast implants a woman got at her boyfriend’s urging).

Some radiate sorrow, like the blue chiffon blouse a wife wore the day her husband told her he was moving out. All objects are submitted anonymously and come with stories explaining their significance. Despite the museum’s bright white walls and high ceilings, it’s hard not to walk out with a heavy heart, the remnants of so many soured relationships trailing like baggage.

But on opening night, Mr. Quinn, 65, fizzed like champagne, snacking on canapés by Wolfgang Puck and clinking glasses with high profile well-wishers such as Dawn Hudson, the chief executive officer of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which Mr. Quinn has represented since 1987.

“This is knowing him on another level,” said Ms. Hudson, standing under a Calder-esque mobile of origami cranes (made by a man for his ex-girlfriend).

What kind of lawyer decides to open a museum? To understand Mr. Quinn’s latest quixotic endeavor, it helps to look at one from his past: in 2013, he persuaded Hiroyuki Naruke, a sushi chef he met in Tokyo, to leave Japan and open Q, a stark 26-seat omakase restaurant around the corner from his law firm.

But the motives behind Mr. Quinn’s memorializing love and loss are more mysterious than his scheme to get five-star sushi on his lunch break. Asked why he’s fascinated by the rubble from relationships gone wrong, he said: “They’re human stories. We’ve all had broken relationships. We all know these experiences. Without going into a lot of detail about myself, this is not an unknown phenomenon for me.”

Born in Virginia, Mr. Quinn’s family moved to Connecticut when he was 2, and the proximity to New York made him a museum enthusiast. One of his older sisters (he is one of eight siblings) would take him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he gaped at towering canvases by Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Raised Mormon, the Quinns relocated to Utah when John was 12. (His father, a retired defense contractor, supervised the building of churches.) The move was jarring. “That’s an age when you really want to fit in,” Mr. Quinn said. “I had sort of figured out how to fit in in Greenwich. That didn’t work so well in Bountiful, Utah.”

Mr. Quinn found comfort in collecting and cataloging things: rocks, stamps, coins and birds. Determined to escape Utah for college, he worked a variety of jobs to fund a private out-of-state tuition, and came back to them during breaks while attending Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

“You name it,” he said.“I was a night watchman. I cranked doughnuts over a vat of oil. I worked in a steel fabrication facility. I worked on a press to make guardrail. I got a job hanging guardrail on the highways of Utah.”

There were lawyers in his extended family, and Mr. Quinn said he thought he’d be good at that line of work. He went from Claremont to Harvard Law School (“They didn’t have gap years back then,” he said) and scored a job offer from the prestigious firm Cravath Swaine & Moore in New York after his graduation in 1976.

But Mr. Quinn also received a fellowship from Harvard to study and travel. This time, he took the year off, doing a grand tour of Europe and lingering among the ruins in Greece.

Back in New York, he quickly found that fast-paced work-centric Manhattan life wasn’t for him. Southern California beckoned again. After several false starts, by 1986, Mr. Quinn had a steady flow of clients, and with three associates, he opened what is now Quinn Emanuel.

From the beginning, he sought to do things differently: only cases involving litigation, few meetings and no dress code. (On a recent day at Quinn Emanuel, he wore athletic pants and a Nike Dri-FIT top).

Mr. Quinn’s love of art is well known. In 2015, when work hit a lull, he sent a memo to all the firm’s lawyers suggesting that they “do some fun stuff,” listing more than a dozen exhibitions he would check out if he had the time.

Before the Museum of Broken Relationships Los Angeles opened, offices on Quinn Emanuel’s second floor were occupied by the curatorial team Mr. Quinn had hired (with the help of paralegals) and the objects they culled through online submissions (including a three-foot-tall dinosaur piñata).

The office displays his ever-growing art collection: Hanging on a wall of a 10th floor conference room is a floor-to-ceiling portrait of a man clutching a naked woman.

“As you can see, her nipples are exposed,” Mr. Quinn said. “I wasn’t sure if there would be issues with putting this in an office, so I put it in a conference room and sent an email to all personnel: ‘Come and see it. If one person objects, we won’t hang it.’” (No one objected.)

There’s one thing Mr. Quinn does not like to talk about: his first marriage, which lasted nine years. He cites his daughters — two from his first marriage, two with his wife, Shannon Quinn, whom he married in 1983, and one from Ms. Quinn’s previous marriage — all of whom were raised without distinctions, he said. (Photos of them line nearly every flat surface of his office.)

But it’s a part of his past that is hard to ignore, given that he’s built a museum about heartbreak. Asked how he could encourage the brokenhearted to open up about their checkered pasts without elaborating on his own, Mr. Quinn said: “People submit things to the museum anonymously. People share their stories anonymously. It’s not something I’m comfortable talking about.”

He admitted that his wife isn’t the biggest fan of the museum, but that’s mainly because she holds the purse strings.

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“My paycheck, I just give it to her,” he said. “Mostly, on the occasions where I’ve said I have a bright idea about what to do with some money, it hasn’t turned out to be so great.”

Despite its location on a hokey stretch of Hollywood Boulevard (a block from Madame Tussauds, across the street from Ripley’s Believe It or Not!) and the building’s recent past as a Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie store, Mr. Quinn wants it to be taken as seriously as the city’s other arts institutions.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in improving the space, in making it aesthetically attractive,” he said. “It does have an upside: a lot of street traffic.”

The night of the opening, onlookers thronged the rented red carpet duct-taped by the doors. Inside, “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks bumped from a D.J.’s booth. Mr. Quinn worked the room, enthusiastically introducing guests to his wife and two of his daughters, who witnessed the start of this very expensive hobby last year in Zagreb.

If Mr. Quinn was hesitant to elaborate on his personal connection to the museum, they were less so. His daughter Meghan Quinn, 34, speculated that the recent passing of two of Mr. Quinn’s brothers (one fought in the Korean War and inspired a fund to preserve the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, another side project of Mr. Quinn’s) and his desire to have a legacy beyond his law firm fueled the project. “He’s softened and started embracing new things,” she said.

Mr. Quinn lit up with ideas about what this could all lead to: interactive exhibits, content culled from social media, experiments like “breakup insurance.”

“So if you break up, you can call a number, someone will come and get you in a car, take you to a bar, buy you a drink and spend two hours talking to you,” he said. “And of course, we want to have outreach, and a speaker series. What more can this be? How can we take this outside of the four walls of this museum?”

He looked at the crowd. A more immediate concern came up. “We still need some more benches,” he said. “Because, really, if you’re going to look at everything and read and all, this is an hour and a half.”

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