Landscape by Ted Soqui ◍ Portraits by Catherine Opie
Michael Govan is on calls all day, every day, without a break—conference calls, Zoom calls, multiple calls at a time even. “I’ve mastered the art of having one call in each ear with two devices. It’s hard, but your brain can learn to switch back and forth,” says the 57-year-old CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during yet another call, this one with me, from his new “command central” in the dining room of his LACMA-funded Hancock Park home. “It’s hard to set down a big museum like LACMA, and a lot of issues have come up. But we’re good. I think we’re doing a good job weathering the crisis.”
The crisis Govan is referring to is not just the pandemic, which shuttered the museum on March 14—the county has no plans to reopen indoor museums as of this writing—but also the one precipitated by his relentless, decade-long campaign to demolish four of the five buildings on the museum’s eastern campus and replace them with a single, sprawling, architecturally ambitious structure designed by 77-year-old Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
Of the countless controversies that have roiled the Los Angeles art world in recent years, this one—the not-entirely-transparent process that has paved the way for the Zumthor building—has been the most triggering of all. Govan’s crusade has inspired the formation of two anti-LACMA activist groups, unleashed an avalanche of critical press, and wrecked a long, multimillion-dollar relationship with a donor who played an instrumental role in the museum’s founding. Depending on whom you believe, the glass-and-concrete building will be “a mastery of light and shadow” (Brad Pitt) or “suicide by architecture” (Los Angeles Review of Books). But however one feels about it, the $750 million David Geffen Galleries (so named because the entertainment mogul pledged $150 million to the capital campaign) is poised to become the new repository of LACMA’s vast encyclopedic collection, and a long-standing addition to the city’s cultural landscape.
Among the project’s most vocal detractors is Christopher Knight, chief art critic for the Los Angeles Times, who was awarded a Pulitzer this past spring for a series of sharply critical stories that dubbed Zumthor’s design “the Incredible Shrinking Museum” for its lack of on-site art storage and off-site curatorial offices. (While estimates vary, the new museum will also suffer a reported 10,000- to 45,000-square-foot loss of gallery space.) Proponents argue that the original campus was perpetually leaking (employees jokingly nicknamed it LEAKMA), seismically vulnerable, and crammed with awkward exhibition spaces. With no funding or appetite to retrofit those crumbling structures, they say, the most efficient solution was to knock them down and start fresh.
“This was a museum with a series of buildings that had been added to and painted and patched and repainted, and it was just tired,” says Stephanie Barron, senior curator and department head of modern art, who started working at LACMA in 1976. “When it rained, we knew where to put the buckets.”
Whether the Geffen Galleries are an architecturally, curatorially, or art-historically responsible gambit is almost beside the point now that the demolition is already nearly finished. But the toll this politically fractious and chaotic process has exacted on LACMA and the county, which is on the hook for $125 million for what may ultimately be a $650 million building (for a museum that draws less than a million visitors per year), is certainly worth further examination.
When LACMA was completed in 1965, it was short on art but full of light, with unhindered views across the Ahmanson atrium in every direction. Even back then, however, the museum’s design was controversial. Had Richard F. Brown, the museum’s inaugural director, and Norton Simon, the industrialist who was one of LACMA’s chief original funders, gotten their wish, the campus would have been filled with buildings by modernist icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But instead, an up-and-coming Angeleno architect named William L. Pereira—the brains behind the LAX Theme Building—was hired for the job. Soon after the buildings were unveiled in 1965, Brown was forced to resign by the board of trustees in part because of public backlash against Pereira’s designs. Some of L.A.’s top artists were similarly unimpressed. (Ed Ruscha set the new structures ablaze in his seminal painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, which now resides in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.)
In those early years, says Barron, “It wasn’t a very distinguished collection. So the museum made a decision in the ’60s to focus on major special exhibitions, which it did, and built a reputation rather quickly for those.”
“I used to cut school to go to LACMA. They had a good coffee shop downstairs that was real cheap. It was the only place a truant officer wouldn’t follow me,” remembers Billy Al Bengston, the Venice-based artist whose paintings were the subject of one of LACMA’s most notable early special exhibitions in 1968. (It came on the heels of Ed Kienholz’s landmark 1966 retrospective featuring the controversial assemblage sculpture Back Seat Dodge ’38, which depicted a couple copulating in the back seat of the car. L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors deemed the work pornographic and threatened to withhold financing to LACMA as a result. “That was a big deal,” says Bengston.)
As time passed, the campus began to grow on the public. Suspended above reflecting pools and accessed via footbridge, LACMA’s sun-drenched galleries and renegade programming were eventually woven into the fabric that supported the broader L.A. art world. The affection for the museum and campus only deepened as the collection grew to become the largest encyclopedic holding west of the Mississippi, home to 142,000 objects, some dating back 6,000 years. Many Angelenos are outraged that Govan is excising this history, and especially furious that the buildings came down at the height of the pandemic.
“We always knew that when they came down there would be a bit of bittersweet sadness, because those buildings did a lot of good—people learned about art, they hosted memorable events,” says Govan. For some, the loss of the familiar buildings is more bitter than sweet.
“It seems like such an affront to the community to destroy the buildings now,” says Enrique Martínez Celaya, the Cuban-born artist who won LACMA’s Young Talent Award in 1998, and whose work is in the permanent collection. “And then the final straw that makes LACMA build this building is ultimately the opinion of an actor? Really? This town is so confused about what the role of art is.”
The actor Martínez Celaya is referring to is Brad Pitt, who showed up with Diane Keaton last April to the final county-supervisor meeting to testify on behalf of Zumthor’s vision. (Supervisor Hilda Solis posted pictures of herself with the stars on social media after voting to approve the funding.) Despite the celebrity endorsements, Change.org launched a petition shortly after the meeting blasting Govan’s plan and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for voting unanimously to approve it. “In doing so,” the petition complained, “they ignored serious recent criticism published by the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Curbed L.A., Architectural Record, The Art Newspaper, The Architect’s Newspaper and hundreds of public comments running 83 percent against the project.” The petition garnered nearly 4,000 signatures.
Zumthor’s name, as it happens, popped up at LACMA years ago, even before Govan took over the museum in 2006. Back in 2001, Govan’s predecessor, Andrea Rich, initiated a competition to find an architect for the $200 million job of fixing or replacing the Bing Theatre, the Ahmanson, the Hammer, and the Art of the Americas buildings. Ultimately, Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas got the gig, with a design for a tabula-rasa single structure covered by an airy, translucent tent. Money for the project never materialized, and it never got built, but Rich did take the Rotterdam-based architect and five LACMA curators on an inspiration-gathering tour of museums in London, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. One of those curators was J. Patrice Marandel, who turned out to be a Zumthor fan; he even handed out books of Zumthor’s architecture to his colleagues during that selection process.
“They said, ‘Who is that?’” recalls Marandel, who retired as chief curator of European art after 24 years in 2017. “That was the first time most of my colleagues had heard of Zumthor. And they all returned the books to me, and that was the end of Zumthor.”
Not quite. Flash forward to 2013, when Govan stunned the L.A. art world by announcing that he’d chosen Zumthor to reimagine LACMA’s campus. “There was no competition and no choice,” notes Marandel. “Govan chose Zumthor, and the rest is history.” Nor was there any scouting trip to European museums. Instead, curators were allowed to gather photos of museums they liked and disliked and present those to Zumthor during a single boardroom meeting. Says Barron, “It was more of a presentation than a conversation.”
Govan unveiled the first sketches of Zumthor’s LACMA plans during a 2013 exhibition of the architect’s work. The architect’s bold vision for the new building resembled a gigantic amoeba crawling up the north side of Miracle Mile. It’s asphalt black skin mirrored the aesthetics of the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits. The design has since evolved quite a bit, into a bone-white futuristic structure that looks more like Starfleet Academy than a home for priceless artworks and antiquities.
Right from the start, Zumthor rubbed some people the wrong way. “We were dealing with an architect who was out of his depth,” says Joseph Giovannini, an architect who has served as the architecture critic for New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I’ve been in and out of the museum world for quite some time, and I felt this scheme was unexpected. Not only because it was a floating amoeba, but the fact that the floor plan was all scrambled.”
So what drew Govan to Zumthor in the first place? The Swiss architect (he’s actually trained as a cabinet maker), who declined to comment for this story, had a long career before he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the Oscars of architecture, in 2009. But his greatest hits before the LACMA commission were the architectural equivalent of indie art flicks: fanciful buildings that were praised as “magical” and “spiritual”—like his cast-concrete and glass-sheathed Kunsthaus Bregenz museum in Austria or the sail cloth-sheathed, oak-floored pavilion he designed to honor the witches burned at the stake during Norway’s 17th century witch trials on the island of Vardø. But he’s done nothing on the scale of the LACMA project. For Govan, Zunthor’s thin resume wasn’t a problem. “What Zumthor has is a tradition of creating space that feels lasting and solid, of real materials; not painted Sheetrock but, rather, concrete, hard plaster, stone,” he says. “And he contrasts that with a very subtle sense of light and shadow.”
Zumthor’s anonymity outside rarefied architecture circles presented Govan with an opportunity: to “discover” a new and exciting talent. Govan could have picked, say, Frank Gehry, whom he’s worked with for decades (they liaised on the Guggenheim Bilbao; and Gehry collaborated with Govan on several LACMA projects, including the new galleries that house the museum’s modern collection). But he recognized that the Geffen would be just another note in Gehry’s hit parade, and probably less buzzworthy than Disney Hall or any of the acclaimed architect’s other iconic edifices. But Govan had higher ambitions.
“Michael, in his heart of hearts, wanted to work with me. He never told me that, but I felt it. Of course, he had to go his own way.” —Frank Gehry
Before he arrived here, Govan told WSJ Magazine that “L.A. is a rung down” from other art capitals like Rome, Paris, New York—even Athens. “I don’t care what anybody says,” he said. To bring LACMA up a rung or three he wanted its new building to make an entirely original statement, an impulse that Gehry completely understands. “I looked at some of Zumthor’s work, and it seemed minimalist. But it seemed to have a passion that exceeded the minimalism,” the 91-year-old architect says. “We’ll see where it goes. Michael, in his heart of hearts, wanted to work with me. He never told me that, but I felt it. Of course, he had to go his own way. I trust him because I’ve been through it with him. He sticks to his guns, and he’ll make it work.”
The exact nature of Zumthor’s plans, especially for the museum’s interior, have, until very recently, been kept under seal. The true floor plans were not made public until after the supervisor vote and period of public comment had ended last April. According to Govan, the delay was deliberate. He told me in March that the public isn’t shown “the inside of hospitals—they let the experts design them. But everyone will see them. The plans will be out. People will see this over the course of time. We’re actually going to have a certain pleasure in releasing details and getting people excited about the building toward its opening.”
Govan took such pleasure on September 17, when he invited a small group of journalists on a Zoom tour to view the final layouts of the clustered concrete galleries he has likened to a sidelit “European village” filled with core, terrace, and courtyard galleries that invite visitors to embark on a choose-your-own-adventure experience. The showing also added definition to Zumthor’s controversial plans for a bridge across Wilshire Boulevard, connecting LACMA to an abandoned parking lot that will someday house a new theater (half the size of the now-demolished Bing). The bridge has drawn especially heavy fire. In his scathing, 7,000-word “Suicide By Architecture” critique in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Giovannini dismissed the slickly dramatic span as “pure Cecil B. De Mille.”
“It’s an iconic street,” notes Gehry. “I was once asked, 15 years ago, when LACMA bought the lot across the street, how I would join that site. I designed a very Zen, simple bridge that you almost didn’t see. Like the wings of a butterfly, it was very light. When you cross an icon and cover it, that’s probably a hot ticket for people to pounce on.”
Many detractors also complain that Zumthor’s two-story lateral behemoth doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for art. While offering 110,000 square feet of continuous exhibition space and various outdoor plazas, the old buildings actually had more room for the museum’s ever-expanding collection. Giovannini, who has recently become something of an anti-Govan activist (he’s behind the Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA, which collected 13,000 signatures of support, marshaled an anti-Zumthor design competition, and placed ads against the design in the New York Times) personally financed a quantitative analysis of Zumthor’s plans that concluded the new museum would lose some 86,000 square feet of gallery space, with room for only 26 galleries instead of the original 115. Recently unearthed county records cited in his latest critique paint an even bleaker picture, suggesting there may be as little as 27,000 square feet of true gallery space by the time the structure is completed.
Govan says that’s much ado about nothing. He believes that Zumthor’s “lateral spread” is the wave of the future, and he plans on using the space he does have more equitably by creating new and unexpected adjacencies between the collection’s Western classics and areas like Islamic art that few people visited on the upper floors of the Ahmanson. This nonhierarchial, decentralized museum may be well-suited for our current political moment. “When I would use phrases 10 years ago like ‘structural racism’ and the museum’s ‘need to decolonize,’ it was an uphill battle,” says Govan. “But there’s never been a more important time in art history, because now we have the tools to do something about it.”
The museum is already bringing the collection to underserved neighborhoods throughout L.A., be it at Charles White Elementary, the Vincent Price Art Museum, a planned gallery at Magic Johnson Park, or utilizing LACMA trucks to spread art across the city, all of which Govan views as a dramatic expansion of LACMA’s footprint.
Naima Keith, who left her job as the director of the California African American Museum to become senior vice president of education and public programs at LACMA, believes that at least some of the fury over the new building is based in fear. Some Angelenos, she says, are understandably frightened by the tectonic shifts in the LACMA landscape; seeing their favorite Picasso disappear from its regular nook in the Ahmanson might indeed be jarring. But she doesn’t believe change has to be a bad thing, especially if that Picasso gets replaced (or juxtaposed) with works that aren’t normally considered part of the traditional canon. “Curators and art historians have been uprooting this linear view of art history for a long time,” she says, noting MOMA’s acclaimed rehang that juxtaposed the likes of Picasso with artists of color. “It’s a welcome change for those of us wanting to see not just diversity but a change in the way museums think about art history.”
Museum directors are the politicians of the art world, and Michael Govan’s charm and savvy political instincts have helped propel him to the top ranks of the international art scene. While his undeniable charisma and stunning command of technical data and art history should put him in league with JFK or Barack Obama, many of Govan’s detractors have compared him less charitably to Donald Trump.
“I’m not the only one to make that comparison,” says Marandel. “He’s not Obama, believe me. He’s not democratic at all. And no one you ask will give you that opinion. He has a wonderful gift of speaking. He’s very eloquent. He’s very charming. But his message is kinda scary sometimes.”
Martínez Celaya believes that Govan’s relentless push to complete the Zumthor building has been driven by his desire to burnish his own reputation. “I think he’s like the Gavin Newsom of the art world,” Martínez Celaya says. “High aspirations, very crafted persona in the world, nothing comes out of his mouth that is not calculated but somehow he always reveals his calculations. It’s very transparent. He’s not Clinton or Obama because he’s not there yet—but he’s hoping to be. He seems so important in L.A. because he’s hanging out with celebrities. But in the international pecking order of the art world, the head of the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the Prado, the National Gallery are much higher positions. He’s aspiring to those.”
Govan is very much the high-flying, Central Casting version of a museum director. He pilots a single-engine 1979 Beechcraft Bonanza to Catalina on weekends. Before COVID-19, he commanded a regular table at Tower Bar. He also enlisted Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Chow to cochair the museum’s annual Gucci-sponsored Art + Film Gala, where individual tickets are $5,000 and tables run to $100,000. The producer Brian Grazer, a former LACMA board member, describes Govan as a creative genius. “He has an ability to inspire people and attract them to his vision that is very rare,” Grazer says. “Michael is great at doing PR at a high level,” adds Marandel.
And he has a lifestyle to match. For the past six years, Govan and his wife, fashion executive Katherine Ross (they have a daughter, and Govan has another daughter from a previous marriage), have resided in a $6 million museum-owned mansion in Hancock Park. (Last month the museum announced it was selling the property and relocating the Govans to less pricey digs.) Govan takes home more than $1 million a year in salary; he’s the only West Coast museum director to earn as much. But he’s also running the largest museum outside of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he’s spent the past 14 years at the helm of LACMA overseeing major public projects that have greatly expanded the museum’s profile in L.A. and across the world.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Govan attended the prestigious DC prep school Sidwell Friends, then majored in art history at Williams College, where he caught the eye of Thomas Krens, the professor-turned-director of the college’s museum of art. “I would say, looking back, I had maybe 3,000 students during the 17 years I taught there,” recalls Krens today. “Michael was clearly No. 1.” When Krens was appointed director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1988, he took Govan, then 25, to New York with him, making him a deputy director. (Another young protégé, Max Hollein, would later go on to become director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) It was a time of major expansion for the Guggenheim, with Govan helping Krens establish the Gehry satellite in Bilbao.
After six years at Krens’s side, Govan departed in 1994 to become president and director of Dia Art Foundation. He spent the next 12 years modernizing and expanding that organization’s footprint, nearly doubling its collection and converting an old Hudson Valley Nabisco factory into the Dia:Beacon (even enlisting Zumthor on some unrealized plans). Then, in 2006, he was approached for the LACMA gig.
“When you’re looking at that level, you’re looking for a museum director with some level of achievement but young enough to make a mark, that’s implicit. Los Angeles in many ways was a perfect place to do it because it’s the media center of the world. Its cultural institutions were not as well developed as those in New York. It was a fantastic opportunity for L.A. to get Michael and Michael to go to Los Angeles,” says Krens. “But you’ve got to navigate the complexities of powerful personalities in Los Angeles, the complex political machinery. You’re going to stir up opposition no matter what you do, it just comes with the nature of the thing. But to get the project as far as he has despite the criticism and fire power that’s been mobilized against him, Jesus, that’s amazing.”
Though his predecessor, the late Andrea Rich, accomplished a great deal during her decade-long reign, Govan is widely credited with turning LACMA into the international landmark that it is today. It was Govan who enlisted John Baldessari to reimagine LACMA’s logo when he first arrived. It was Govan who secured the money when Chris Burden wanted to increase the size of his Urban Light installation from 140 to 202 lampposts. (The installation soon became the most popular public artwork in Southern California.) It was Govan who engineered the epic installation of Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer’s 340-ton granite megalith excavated from a quarry near Riverside. But whatever good will these efforts marshaled in years past has been quickly forgotten (or overshadowed) by the impending arrival of Zumthor’s megaplex.
What galls Govan’s critics most isn’t necessarily Zumthor’s floor plan or his potentially disastrous sky bridge. Instead they complain that LACMA’s director autocratically froze out the rest of the community and made decisions for the rebuild largely by himself.
“From the moment I first set foot in this city, I was told that LACMA was interested in expanding,” says Govan, who adds that the board was reconsidering an alternate plan by Renzo Piano (whom Govan tapped for the Resnick Pavilion) when he threw out Zumthor as “a wild card.”
Traditionally, architects for huge projects like LACMA are hired after a competition. But Govan never wanted one. According to The New Yorker, when Govan first called Zumthor about the LACMA project the architect replied, “I don’t believe in competitions. And would like to work with you out of public view.”
Govan says that Zumthor’s “wild card” plan was less a blueprint than a “set of ideas, a philosophical-curatorial speculation, and the board had a chance to think about it and they liked it well enough to encourage me to develop it. They had no idea how much it would cost or how we’d get it done, but they liked my ideas.”
Govan’s unshakable adherence to those ideas wrecked at least one of LACMA’s long-standing partnerships, with the billion-dollar Ahmanson Foundation, an organization that helped the museum acquire $130 million worth of European old master paintings and sculptures over six decades. Govan’s refusal to commit permanent space in the Zumthor village to Ahmanson works reportedly marred the relationship. “The foundation would have given money [to the Zumthor building],” Marandel insists. “What Michael lost is a $100 million endowment. If any other director in the world did that, they would be fired within 24 hours. It wasn’t necessary—it was just a matter of pride and stubbornness.”
Another thing that infuriates his critics is Govan’s Teflon resistance to controversy. Earlier this summer, for instance, several seasoned museum directors and top curators from as far afield as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and SFMOMA were ousted from their jobs over alleged microaggressions, endemic racist policies, or tactless comments. Yet Govan, who has rankled at least half the L.A. art establishment with what they consider macroaggressions, has managed to survive without a scratch. Recently, he was dinged a bit by activists on Instagram denouncing what they saw as LACMA’s lack of diversity (“All the white men using museums to grow their personal wealth”). He also found himself dealing with a brewing scandal over longtime trustee Tom Gores’s ties to the prison telecom industry. (Gores resigned his position in October.) But, for the most part, none of the criticism seems to stick to Govan.
Still, passions over his rule at LACMA are running so high that the director’s critics seem to be suffering, at times, from Govan derangement syndrome. They’re even feuding over who hated him first. Giovannini was originally assigned his “Suicide By Architecture” story by Norman Pearlstine, the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. But Pearlstine killed the piece after passing it to a few of the paper’s editors and critics for their review, including veteran art critic Christopher Knight. In the ensuing month the Times would publish two of a half-dozen columns by Knight slamming the LACMA plan. Giovannini complained to Los Angeles that the Times‘ award-winning series was “a violation.” (Knight, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer twice before, declined to comment. Pearlstine angrily dismissed Giovannini’s charges as “garbage.”)
In any case, Giovannini says he’s grown exhausted by his LACMA battles. “I’m so sick of this I can’t even tell you,” he said last spring. And yet he continues to write about the saga. His most recent broadside, in the New York Review of Books, debuted just as this article went to press.
Stephanie Barron thinks it is now time for the curators to take control of the narrative. “At this point there’s been so much ink spilled about people having opinions about the building…but now the building is down and we’re going to start construction,” she says. “I think it’s going to be on us to create interesting stories to get the public interested to come” to the new Zumthor building.
Giovannini isn’t hopeful. As he wrote in the NYRB, “If the design succeeds in hijacking the institution, Los Angeles will be living for a long time with a wanton act of architecture and the bitter memory of a very expensive betrayal of the public trust.”
Despite all the chaos and drama that follow in his wake, Govan has managed to gracefully evade the slings and arrows of the art world. He’s particularly beloved by LACMA’s board of directors, which now includes fewer art world types and more deep-pocketed philanthropists and celebrities. (When Rick Brown served as director of LACMA during the Kennedy era, the museum’s board led by the genial Dutch still-life aficionado Edward W. Carter. The museum’s current board is led by Vegas hotelier Elaine Wynn and Atlanta Hawks owner Antony P. Ressler.)
While the pandemic has pinched many other cultural institutions, Govan is confident he’ll soon have the funds he needs to start building Zumthor’s monument, even if the recession continues.
Govan says the project is on budget and on schedule. While critics contend the building cost may balloon to a billion dollars post-pandemic, a LACMA rep insists: “The David Geffen Galleries will not be a billion dollar building. LACMA has carefully managed the cost of the new building, which is $650 million, including a substantial contingency. All buildings at LACMA have been built on budget.” Pledges from the county and major donors like Geffen will cover that sum, and Govan insists that patrons tend to be more committed in times of crisis, not less. If critics want to take potshots at him, he’s OK with that. It’ll be up to future art historians to judge the value of the Miracle Mile landmark he and Zumthor are preparing to build.
When Govan arrived at LACMA, it was 120,000 square feet. If it’s three times that size when he leaves—on Wilshire and all those other decentralized locations he’s planning beyond the Fairfax area—Govan believes he’ll have done his job. “All I’ve ever done is build museums,” he says. “It’s hard, it’s complex, there are a lot of misunderstandings. But I love what we do, and there’s a joy in it. So I won’t let anybody spoil that.”
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