A New Canvas for New Chief
Ending a 10-month search and days of intense speculation, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art appointed Michael Govan, head of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, director and chief executive officer of the Wilshire Boulevard institution Thursday. He will succeed Andrea L. Rich, who retired in November.
Govan, 42, is a well-known figure in the art world who rose from deputy director at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to the top job at Dia, a leading cultural institution that collects contemporary art, supports massive outdoor projects in the American West and maintains large exhibition spaces in Manhattan and Beacon, N.Y. During his 11-year tenure, he is credited with transforming Dia from a highly specialized source of funding for individual artists’ projects into an institution that brings contemporary art to a broader audience.
He will leave the relatively small, privately funded bastion of rarefied aesthetics for a sprawling, complex institution that supports itself with a combination of public and private funds. With the largest encyclopedic collection, ranging through history and across geography, in the Western states, LACMA has a sweeping public mandate. It also has undertaken a massive renovation and expansion program, but Govan said he looks forward to the challenge.
“Los Angeles is a great city,” he said. “It’s home to more creative people than anywhere in the world. It’s the future. I think the museum is a sleeping giant.”
LACMA’s board of trustees voted to appoint Govan in a conference call Thursday afternoon, ratifying the recommendation of an 11-member search committee that considered 26 candidates. Govan is expected to take charge of the museum in early March.
The terms of his contract were not disclosed. The director’s seat has been empty since Rich ended her 10-year tenure.
Nancy Daly Riordan, chairwoman of LACMA’s board of trustees and head of the search committee, described Govan as “a visionary and a doer.”
“This is a man who makes a commitment and works very hard to do the best he can wherever he is,” she said. “After spending time with him and learning what he has done at Dia, we feel that he will bring that same dedication to LACMA at a time when we are ready to move into a new level and make the most of our amazing collection. He is a leader who understands art from the historical side, from the antiquities side all the way through to the most contemporary view. He will maximize everything the museum is.”
LACMA trustee Eli Broad, who has funded the $50-million building for contemporary art that is under construction, hailed the appointment as “a great choice.” Running through a list of Govan’s curatorial work, fundraising and experience with building projects, Broad said: “It’s great for LACMA to get a new, young director with 20 years’ experience. He has done it all, and he is in the prime of his life.”
Govan’s appointment is subject to the approval of the county Board of Supervisors, which is expected to endorse the trustees’ decision after meeting with him in Los Angeles at a yet-to-be-scheduled time.
“It will be a good fit,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has met with Govan and talked with him about his ideas for the museum. “I am very impressed with him. I think he will bring a lot of energy and creativity to LACMA and make it relevant for all the people of Los Angeles County.”
Govan also won praise from museum directors in Los Angeles.
“He is terrific,” said Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum. “It’s a major coup. He is just a consummate pro, a complete art lover and artist-oriented person who has incredible management and fundraising skills. He is one of the most respected museum directors in the country.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Govan is a graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, known for educating many prominent museum directors. In college, he became a protege of Thomas Krens, an art world luminary who directed the gallery on campus. Krens, Govan and curator Joe Thompson conceived Mass MOCA, a huge museum established in a former industrial complex in North Adams, Mass. Krens soon went on to direct the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and made Govan his deputy director. In 1994, after six years at the Guggenheim, Govan became director of Dia.
In its early days, the Dia Foundation was known for supporting projects of unprecedented size and scope, such as Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field,” an installation of 400 steel poles on a mile-long stretch of remote land in New Mexico, and James Turrell’s “Roden Crater,” a perceptual environment carved out of a dormant volcano in northern Arizona.
During his time at Dia, Govan is credited with overseeing a $50-million campaign to convert an old Nabisco factory in Beacon into a huge exhibition space for the foundation’s art holdings. Dia:Beacon opened in 2003 with extensive installations of works by 24 artists, including Richard Serra, Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer and Andy Warhol.
At LACMA, Govan will take charge of a 40-year-old institution that has embarked on an ambitious effort to transform itself, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The project encompasses the addition of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and a grand entrance pavilion named for donors Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Plans also call for a central concourse to unify the campus, renovation of the Ahmanson Building, a complete reorganization of the museum’s collection and refurbishment of LACMA West, a former May Co. department store, to accommodate more galleries and offices.
Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, said that Govan has proved himself capable of fulfilling his vision by helping to create “a new kind of art institution at Dia. I would look to him to effect the same kind of innovation and transformation at LACMA.”
Govan’s specialization in contemporary art is of “limited relevance,” Strick said, “but there is no doubt he will bring a new level of commitment to and knowledge of contemporary art to the museum.”
Broad, who has known Govan for many years and has contributed to projects at Dia, said that it took several months to persuade him to take the job.
“I have been so invested in my work at Dia that it was hard to think about anything else,” Govan said, “but trustees and others insisted that I take a look at LACMA. There’s a renewed energy there developing philanthropy. They now have multiple generations of trustees working together. Los Angeles is a relatively young city, but when that happened in New York, things took off.”
He said that working with strong personalities on the board of trustees is not a daunting prospect. “When people give to the museum, it enriches their lives,” he said. “It’s already happening in L.A. I think it’s about to happen on a larger scale.”
“Just like New York, there’s no one L.A.,” he said. “But you can’t transfer New York experience directly. I have a lot of learning to do.”