Restoration Artist

Under the guidance of Michael Govan, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is becoming the cultural center it has always striven to be

Since Michael Govan became director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006, the institution has raised its profile by living large. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum was already in the works with architect Renzo Piano when he took over, but Govan (rhymes with oven) has since overseen the creation of LACMA’s BP Grand Entrance as well as the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion. With the opening of Ray’s restaurant and Stark Bar, he’s helped make the museum more of a scene. And he’s commissioned massive attention-getting outdoor sculptures—Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a 340-ton boulder you will be able to stroll under when it opens to the public in November, and Chris Burden’s Urban Light, composed of 202 closely grouped vintage L.A. streetlights. Before coming to L.A. Govan, who is 47, headed the Dia Art Foundation, where he built an acclaimed contemporary art museum in an old Nabisco factory in Beacon, New York. Now in his sixth year at LACMA, he recently renewed his contract for another five. Though his $1.1 million annual compensation is hefty for a museum of LACMA’s attendance and size, Govan brought in $251 million during his first three years alone—$100 million more than what was raised during the three years before he arrived. We talked to Govan about how LACMA stacks up in the art world, the scuffle over the museum’s film program, and why wealthy Angelenos can seem tightfisted.

In January 2009, you said in an interview that LACMA was a good museum but not yet a “super-world-class” museum. At the end of your first five years, what do you think LACMA still has to accomplish to join the ranks of the super world class?
Did I say “super world class”? LACMA has exquisite and rare things, and we have some things you can’t find anywhere else in the world, like Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe and the Ardabil carpet. At the Victoria and Albert Museum you can find one other Persian carpet that rivals our Ardabil carpet, but we always say ours is better. That said, a lot of major artists are not even represented. We have a Rembrandt, but we don’t have paintings by Goya or Velázquez. If you’re a general museum and you’re the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you would expect to have those works. We can probably claim to have one of the most diverse collections of ancient American art and pre-Columbian art in the country, but our status in the ranking of museums and collections—if you go collection by collection, it’s not near the top except in areas like pre-Columbian and ancient Korean and Japanese art. 

In those rankings LACMA is being measured by the criteria of the art worlds of New York and Europe, which give short shrift to Asian and Latin American art. Why worry about what they think?
Your words are music to my ears. Our job is to find ways not just to live by the measure of the Met and Europe. It’s to set our own measure—that’s exactly the point. Nobody else is really making the huge investments that we are in ancient American and colonial Mexican art, and in recent years we’ve spent over $2 million to take a very fine collection of Japanese art and make it one of the finest. Our Korean collection is the largest presentation of traditional Korean art in the nation. I’m not guessing we’re going to have a Goya or a Velázquez of any large scale in our future, although maybe we’ll get lucky on one of those. But that doesn’t mean we can’t define ourselves by a different set of metrics.

While we’re on the metric system, you seem to like art with a lot of metric tonnage. It was one of the things Dia:Beacon was known for, and it’s certainly evident in Chris Burden’s Urban Light, Robert Irwin’s palm garden, and Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass.
I did a lot of my art history studies in Rome, researching ancient Rome and other ancient cities. Art plays a role in cities of the past that it seems to have lost in cities of the present—in the outdoor spaces and in public space. The cliché now is to build a big museum and then have a little artwork in the entry. I’m trying to reverse that trope. Renzo Piano’s architecture is simple and beautiful, but it also provides a backdrop that allows Chris Burden’s lamps to scream out at you as a real icon—and as architecture. It was my dream that the image of the museum be an artwork, not a building. Not that I don’t love buildings. LACMA has great buildings, but you want to lead with art. 

By introducing a general encyclopedic art museum through such massive works of contemporary sculpture, do you run the risk of misleading visitors about what they’ll experience once they’re inside?
First of all, I want to abandon the word “contemporary” from art. It’s just art, right? There’s art and there’s artists, and if you’re going to build public sculpture in Los Angeles and you’re going to commission an artist, you can’t commission a dead artist, you know? That’s not an option. You commission living artists and architects to sculpt and shape your space. Chris Burden’s project is so beautiful in part because it deals with the city, and it speaks to—I wouldn’t call it a golden age—but the history of Los Angeles. The dates are right on the lamps. Similarly, one of the reasons Robert Irwin was so interested in creating LACMA’s palm garden was their primordial relationship to the La Brea Tar Pits—the site’s prehistory. There’s also this issue of L.A.’s cultural history, of seizing on palm trees to help identify the city. And Mike Heizer spent time in ancient Mexico and Egypt, and his whole issue was, “How come you can’t channel some of that energy of ancient cultures in art today?” In his Levitated Mass you have a monolith marking space. It’s the Incas who had that tradition; it’s the Egyptians. So I’d say these works provide pathways from our present circumstance into history and from history into our present circumstance. 

What’s going on with the life-size sculpture of a locomotive dangling from a crane that LACMA commissioned Jeff Koons to create? Is there an estimated time of arrival?
I wouldn’t put an arrival time on that train in particular, but progress is being made. We did a feasibility study examining buildability issues and public safety issues. Then we began to scan the train into digital files, and now it’s being analyzed by a company in Germany that is exploring methods of construction. 

You went to graduate school in San Diego, so you came here already familiar with Southern California. Still, were there any surprises about the arts and cultural climate in Los Angeles—pleasant or otherwise—when you began this job?
Before moving to L.A. I always thought that the city’s midcentury architecture was so well cared for. L.A. really is a city of domestic architecture, whereas most cities have all this architecture that’s commercial or religious or governmental. So I assumed everybody treated those houses as the masterpieces of art that they are. Then I got to L.A. and realized that a lot of these houses were in danger.

You’ve said you want LACMA to be a steward of some of those endangered homes.
To me it seemed like you could actually take care of them like a sculpture. I wasn’t proposing that we would go out and buy a lot of things as much as I was encouraging people to think of their houses as they would a painting. That’s what we’re doing with our restoration work on Watts Towers. 

The current owners of Frank Lloyd Wright’s endangered Ennis House in Los Feliz lowered its purchase price from $15 million to less than $6 million. They still can’t find a buyer. Isn’t this residential masterpiece a better value as a work of art than a $50 million Andy Warhol silk screen that might have taken 15 minutes to make?
Those houses are not very good values, in the sense that the Ennis House needs $12 million of restoration and a $20 million endowment to really take care of it.

Sounds like you’ve penciled it out.
We’ve been in touch with the sellers, but we don’t have the resources to take on the Ennis House. Nevertheless, in terms of scholarship as well as restoration and access, we can be a great vehicle and conduit for patrons to invest in things that are guaranteed to be world class. It’s not like you’re taking a risk here. The Ennis House is one of the greatest pieces of architecture in the nation. 

Last year you got an earful when you considered suspending LACMA’s chronically underfunded film program.
We never ended up putting the program on ice. And our goal has been to strengthen our attention to film and make it a more central activity of the museum. So we have this year’s show on Tim Burton, and we’re working on the Stanley Kubrick show for next year. We’ve teamed with Film Independent to bring artists and filmmakers to the table. And we’ve jointly hired Elvis Mitchell to lead our film program. Obviously there are a lot of strong points to Elvis, but one of the strongest is his interdisciplinary approach to film. He’s a film geek, but he also has an interest in art and television. So I’m sure he’ll show great old and historic films and will have surprising ways of presenting those films.

There seems to be a fundamental reluctance in this city to get involved and give. Why do you think L.A.’s richest citizens are so unmotivated to play a bigger philanthropic role in our civic and cultural life?
There’s a cliché that L.A. is a more selfish culture—you hear that on the East Coast—and I violently disagree. I think the main factor is time. L.A. is a much, much younger city. You look at a picture of LACMA’s site in the 1930s, and there’s nothing here. We didn’t open until 1965. So give it time.

Yet there was stronger philanthropy here in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, when the downtown clique ruled L.A.’s civic life.
Some of the philanthropy you’re talking about came from businesses that mirrored those of the East Coast, like banking and newspapers. It was a bit of an East Coast model. Hollywood is literally only 100 years old. Now we have to establish a new tradition. 

Philanthropist Eli Broad provided money to construct LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. How do you feel about his decision to not donate his collection to LACMA and build his own museum downtown?
It’s great that Eli’s leaving his collection in Los Angeles—better to give credit to that and be excited about it and know that those works are available to us in a diverse presentation, and that with BCAM he generously created a facility that launched the rebirth of LACMA as an institution. It’s fine because it also leaves a great deal of space for others to participate. 

Still, aren’t you somewhat disappointed? If not about that, then the $5.5 million in cost overruns in BCAM’s construction that LACMA had to write off when Broad determined he wasn’t obligated to pay?
I wish that collectors who have huge resources like Eli Broad would better see the value of participating and giving and playing a smaller role in a larger enterprise, because I think there’s such power in larger collaborations and contributing to a larger whole. It can be frustrating in the short term, but it has immense power in the long term. Look at the Metropolitan—all that collaboration over so many years, and look what you have. So I can be honest: I wish. But that’s not going to let this slow me down. If we were relying just on Eli Broad, it would be a sad state of affairs for this city. There are more—there have to be more.

 Photograph by Sian Kennedy