LACMA’s Michael Govan talks about his new rock star


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As long as artist Michael Heizer is not granting interviews about his 340-ton boulder, which has achieved celebrity status en route to becoming a museum piece, LACMA director Michael Govan has served as its de facto spokesman or agent.

Last year Govan first introduced the public to the rock at its quarry in Riverside (above), where he marvelled over the jagged lines and dramatic form of what seemed at first glance a perfectly generic boulder. This week he has fielded countless requests from radio and TV programs about the boulder’s high-profile journey.


We caught up with him Thursday in the middle of the madness.

Did you ever expect the rock to get this degree of attention and adulation?
We thought it would be interesting to mark the city with this megalith and that it could have a power that extends beyond the [LACMA] campus. But, no. I don’t think we could imagine this--that there would be 20,000 people in Bixby Knolls. We always think of artists as challenging expectations, so I wasn’t expecting this kind of outpouring of expression and love.

PHOTOS: Giant rock rolling toward LACMA

What do you think it is about the rock that’s captured everyone’s attention?
Somebody said, I think a news cameraman, that there’s something very primal in human beings about moving rocks. I think that’s as plausible a reason as any. Why is it when you look across the globe from India and Asia to Mexico that so many ancient cultures did the same thing?

How much of the attention do you think comes from interest in the engineering?
Engineering is an art itself. You can Google Egyptian carvings and drawings of people moving monolithic stones thousands of years ago. And everybody thought it was fantastic then, so nothing changes….When they moved the 220-ton obelisk Cleopatra’s Needle from the Hudson River to Central Park in the 19th century, tens of thousands of people came to watch.

Do you think the rock is photogenic?
It was Michael Heizer who wanted to protect it from scratches, he was treating it very carefully. So he proposed that it be shrinkwrapped. It’s swaddled in high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, placed between the wood blocks and the rock so as it’s moved it’s cushioned even further. It looks very cool, this white form, at night.

How important has this journey been for LACMA, in terms of marketing?
We wanted to make a sculpture that would last a long time and significantly mark the institution. You can see how it works with the ‘Urban Light’ sculpture on Wilshire, which is an urban monument, while this is a desert sculpture—in a large, wide-open space. And then you have Robert Irwin’s palm trees in between. We are a city in the desert. That to me was very important, identifying this place by artwork.


Is it accurate to say ‘Levitated Mass’ is part of your larger plan to use public art to turn LACMA into more of a cultural destination?
Yes. Our goal is to turn LACMA into a place that has a specific identity in the western U.S. and Los Angeles, a place that people want to visit and a place where they can enjoy the indoor/outdoor feeling of the museum.

What do you think has been the biggest misunderstanding so far about the rock?

People know museums for exhibitions, so they talk about us exhibiting this as if it’s temporary. We just want to make sure people understand: this is a permanent sculpture. It’s not just a rock. It has an artist. He has a name: Michael Heizer. It’s a sculpture. It will be at LACMA.

Who thought of doing the Twitter feed from the rock in its own voice, @lacmarock?
The rock speaking is from Don Knabe’s office, the county supervisor.

Did he clear it with you?

Not originally, but we’re OK with it. One of the things Michael [Heizer] and I talked about is how much this aspect is really in the public. You can control the rock’s siting and try to make sure you make a great work of art that has some power. But once the rock is out in the public, it belongs to the public. So it’s not something we seek to control in that sense. We just try to make sure people get the facts right.

How is Michael Heizer, who I understand is still in Nevada, reacting to all the hubbub?
We’re focused on the final sculpture, and he’s hard at work on very specific details of the engineering and placement of the rock....We had the same response at the beginning: We felt this was a chance to talk about art. You see a rock moving through the city street; for us it’s a big opportunity to explain that this is a sculpture.


Do you think it’s at all strange that one of the most reclusive artists of our time has inspired such a public spectacle?
I don’t think that’s discordant at all. Throughout history artists being big, visible personalities and their works being prominent are two different things. I don’t know if too many people have met the artist behind what they call ‘The Bean’ in Chicago.

Do you anticipate a boost in museum attendance from the rock?
I assume that when we put good art on view, we will get more attendance. ‘Urban Light’ created attendance. The shows we do, yes. But I’m interested in these longer-term things. People have been coming to Chris Burden’s ‘Metropolis II,’ and I hope a lot of people will come to see Mike Heizer’s project.

Several people have criticized the total cost of buying and moving and setting up the rock, around $10 million, as extravagant in this economy. What’s your response?
The Getty just spent $40 million on a Turner painting. That’s what art museums do all the time: Art museums acquire artworks for the public. Ten-million dollars is not a lot of money relative to very famous artworks. Plus, this is not money used for buying something but for building something: it goes to concrete workers, truckers, quarry workers, so this money is being injected into the economy and lives of working people. It’s not unlike the impulse of the 1930s WPA Works Progress Administration to put craftspeople in a down economy to work. For me, there is a key distinction: Are you putting money into the pockets of a European gallery or putting money into the American economy?

What’s your best estimate for how many jobs have been created?
We know that there are hundreds of people working directly on this, between quarry and transport, the Department of Transportation. We never made a count because this is not done for this purpose. [But] people will come from far and wide to see the sculpture, and the more people who come from out of town, the more impact the sculpture will have on the city’s economy. The give-back to the city will be far greater than the cost. It’s an absolutely appropriate expense.

Just to confirm, $10 million does not involve any public funding.
Yes, all private funding. It’s not taxpayers’ money, and there will be a net benefit to the economy here.

Will people have to pay admission to experience it?
No. It will be free to the public and open during daylight hours when the park is open—the park that includes LACMA, the Natural History Museum.

What are your projections for the annual costs of maintaining the rock, like insurance and guards?
They are not significant. We have to keep the park open and secure in any case, and there’s guardianship for the public already. There are no major costs. The rock doesn’t need to be fed. It doesn’t need electricity. It doesn’t need to be rebooted.


MAP: Follow the route

What about insurance?
It’s part of our general insurance policy.The rock is quite safe. It will have the appearance of being somewhat precarious, but it’s been engineered to death. It’s not moving. It’s not in fact a risk to anyone who walks under it or near it.

What is the timeline for completion of the artwork; at what point can visitors can walk under it as intended?
We’re hoping for late spring or early summer, but because of the nature of the project, we haven’t set an exact date. As you can see, logistics aren’t always predictable. Besides, it’s going to be here for hundreds and hundreds of years, so what’s a few weeks?


Full coverage: LACMA’s rock

LACMA Rock: trouble with hills


Interactive: Getting the rock ready to roll

The $10-million LACMA rock caravan stops short

--Jori Finkel