L.A. County Art Museum Nears Hiring of Director

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is close to naming a new director, sources say, and the leading candidate is Michael J. Govan, director of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation and a specialist in contemporary art.

After a quarterly museum trustees meeting Wednesday, the facility’s top staff and board officials stressed that no vote had been taken to appoint a new director, and museum employees said no staff announcement had been made.

“We are still interviewing and going through the process,” said Nancy Daly Riordan, a trustee and head of the museum search committee. “We have not finalized our search.”


However, two sources inside the museum and one outside, all insisting on anonymity, said that in recent weeks the search committee apparently has focused on a single name.

Govan, 42, has served the last 11 years as director of Dia, which owns one of the world’s foremost collections of art made since 1960.

Efforts to reach him Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Under Govan’s leadership, Dia has dramatically changed direction, abruptly losing nearly half of its board members in the mid-1990s, then gaining a new set of donors. In the shift, Dia reduced its emphasis on bankrolling remote projects in the desert Southwest and stepped up efforts to bring art to broad audiences.

The culmination of that shift was a $50-million campaign, led by Govan, to convert an old 31-acre Nabisco factory in Beacon, N.Y., into a vast exhibition space for contemporary art. The Dia:Beacon site opened to great fanfare in 2003, featuring work from such artists as Andy Warhol and Richard Serra.

LACMA trustees Eli Broad and Peter Norton -- both members of the museum’s director search committee -- have made Dia donations large enough to be listed as members of the Dia Art Council.

“Michael flies his own plane, and that’s a [sign of] the kind of ambitious self-starter he is,” said Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and a principal with AEA Consulting.

“Michael is someone who will be always challenging himself, which is one of his strengths,” Anderson added. “It would be good to have him in that seat” at the Los Angeles County museum.

The director’s seat has been empty since November, when Andrea Rich ended her 10-year tenure. But the museum has been searching for a successor since April, when Rich disclosed her plans to leave.

The new director will take over a museum already launched on an ambitious set of changes, including a three-phase expansion and renovation plan that includes the addition of a subsidiary Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the reorganization of the entire collection, and the renovation of LACMA West, a former department store that the museum acquired more than a decade ago but has never fully upgraded.

Museum sources said other candidates recently considered included Lars Nittve, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm; and Julia Peyton-Jones of London’s Serpentine Gallery -- both contemporary art specialists.

Govan, born in Washington, D.C., earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and studio art in 1985 from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he met art-world luminary Thomas Krens, then director of the campus art museum.

Though Govan served as acting curator and special assistant to Krens at Williams, he also had ambitions as a conceptual artist, and briefly studied fine arts at UC San Diego before becoming deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where Krens had become director.

Govan moved to the Dia Foundation in 1994.

Compared to the Los Angeles museum, Dia is a small operation. Its annual operating budget was about $16 million for the year ended in June 2004; LACMA’s was $48 million.

Tax disclosures show that Govan’s salary package was $440,000 for the year ended June 2004. LACMA director Rich’s was $455,153.

Though the Los Angeles facility is an encyclopedic museum, aiming to present work from all eras, its expansion plans place a greater emphasis on contemporary work.