Michael Govan: Museum piece

Once you’ve seen Michael Govan’s office, it makes perfect sense that — besides being the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — he is a pilot. The ceiling is a Gordian tangle of freeways; the floor is a perfect white-and-blue heaven of clouds. It’s the handiwork of California artist John Baldessari, and exactly the kind of tweaking of earth, horizon and sky that a pilot would appreciate. For more than four years, Govan has been sitting in LACMA’s more terrestrial cockpit, charting a new flight plan for the county institution. As LACMA stands, it is only a couple of years younger than Govan. He means to make LACMA the literal and metaphorical heart of Los Angeles, from pre-Columbian to post-Modern, with L.A.'s own Eiffel Tower, in Govan’s assessment: a 70-foot-long locomotive dangling from a 160-foot crane. It’s about thinking outside the frame.

The Resnick Pavilion opens in September; what does this mean for LACMA?

It represents nearly the completion of the [architect] Renzo Piano master plan. That building is at the heart of the [LACMA] campus, and it’s meant for art of all kinds.

You know, if you have a building that says “contemporary” or “Japanese” or this or that, it tends to select its own audience. This will be the mixing place. [For example], you’ll come for ancient Mexico and you wind up seeing the Resnick collection. That’s our mission — to expand the range of people’s appreciation of the world and its cultures.

[The pavilion] is one floor with a lot of glass and light, a real indoor-outdoor feeling. It’s one thing we have that Chicago or New York or even Paris year round doesn’t have as much — the opportunity to create more of an indoor-outdoor experience.

You’re very invested in what goes on outside the museum walls.

If you look at ancient cultures and ancient art, like the Acropolis or Chichen Itza, art came from integrating art, architecture and public spaces. People really respond to it. Having music outside, as we do on Fridays, having artists outside, making a cultural place, rather than just a box with objects in it, is really important to me.

I see “LACMA” on billboards and banners — Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a very long handle.

It’s well known [here] as LACMA. In Mexico or Europe or Asia, I like to use the full name so everybody understands we’re from L.A. Los Angeles is a very cool place and I like to promote it.

LACMA has educational outreach to public school kids and is working to restore the Watts Towers.

We are the county museum, so it’s nice to engage the outside. The towers need [an] organization that’s attuned to their being a very important art object. I’ve had trustees ask me: Why are you working in Watts? It’s for the same reason we have education programs — it’s part of our mission. It is important for us to be thinking about the larger community all the time.

Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says Angelenos will save a Warhol and the Hollywood sign but won’t step up to save people like his folks. How do you answer that?

Since humans were civilized, they have had a desire to create things. Look at the Watts Towers. Here’s Simon Rodia, who barely had two nickels, and spends every day collecting tile fragments, spending what little money he has to buy cement and steel and by himself puts up this crazy-beautiful monument. It comes from some deep inner human need, creating and then looking at the work of art. What’s your motivation to be educated? What’s your motivation to live? It’s to strive for something great and beautiful and complicated. If you take away art, you have very little; obviously, if you take away food and shelter, you have nothing. I can never see them separated. You have to live, but you have to live for something.

What is it about the American character that seems resistant to public funding for the arts?

There’s an Emersonian sense of self-reliance that we pride ourselves on. Art has thrived in America without enormous public funding; Los Angeles County is very generous to the cornerstone organizations in music, theater and art. It’s hard to compare the U.S. to countries [with] centuries if not millennia of cultural experience. You have to think of the U.S. as a very young nation culturally. I think that comes with time. People say L.A. seems so much less generous than its sister cities on the East Coast when it comes to cultural philanthropy, but most of those museums have a half-century if not a century head-start on us. I’m always impressed with the generosity by [people like] the Ahmansons, the Resnicks, the Broads.

Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, created the museum blockbuster — big-name shows, big ticket sales. What’s become of that?

Tom Hoving figured the museum should be open to everyone and, to do that, he had to do spectacular exhibitions. Spectacular exhibitions helped to fuel the art market and that fueled the cost of insurance and shipping, and now the cost is prohibitive. So maybe it’s run its course. We’re finding audiences for different kinds of things. Ten years ago you’d barely have an audience at a photography show; now you can have huge audiences. I welcome the waning of the blockbuster. People came for the spectacle; it became a few brand names, whether it was King Tut or Van Gogh. The diversity of artistic production is much greater.

A generality about art is that in other cities, collectors give their works to existing museums; here they build their own.

There’s the Norton Simon and the Hammer; [had] those collections been put together at LACMA, LACMA would have the same standards as the museums on the East Coast. But people wanted to go it alone here. I think it’s true elsewhere too. People make fortunes, they buy art; public institutions are complicated, everybody has a say. Works that collectors have given to public institutions have ended up being seen by many more people and become very famous, whereas a lot of private museums have become more niche experiences. We now have almost a million visitors a year.

So LACMA has the BCAM building thanks to Edythe and Eli Broad, but they’re also building a museum for their collection. For LACMA, isn’t that like owning the well but not the oil?

[We just had a show of] 400 works from the Broad collection, which is made up of 2,000, so there’s a lot of artwork to go around. [The Broads] have been very generous in giving us the building, and my hope is that over the long haul they will leave very significant artworks [to] this encyclopedic museum. I wouldn’t be afraid that they would like to have something more connected to the world of contemporary art, and then have masterpieces from their collection in the big general museum as well.

Do donors come to see how visitors react to works they’ve donated?

They do all the time. It’s not like buying a sports car — sports cars are beautiful, but it’s a very lasting kind of thing to make such a gift [of art], and your kids, grandkids, friends, their friends [see it].

The Met is part of the New York visitor’s experience; how do you make LACMA a destination?

The Grove mall, 2 1/2 blocks from here, [gets] 10 million people a year. So it can’t be location. The subway [stop nearby] is going to help. The museums that quote big [attendance] figures have had in today’s dollars billions and billions poured into them, building collections generation after generation.

How does LACMA fit in greater Los Angeles?

This is an enormous opportunity. We’re sitting on 24-plus acres in the middle of one of the most important cities in the world. This is a very important moment to express [L.A.'s] strength, our multiculturalism, our creativity. The museum fits the bill as that sense of center. That’s probably one of the things that drew me to this museum — this civic opportunity in this big, beautiful, complicated city. Museums need to evolve. When you make a museum out of stone, as museums are made on the East Coast, it’s hard to change. We [aren’t] locked into that. Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” and some palm trees [at] the entrance — that’s a lot more fun and interesting and a lot more part of L.A. than the Greco-Roman temple facade. In building a 21st century museum, it’s helpful not to have so much history. It’s more provocative.

“Urban Light,” that forest of street lamps, is a big hit.

People have tried to sneak in and get their wedding pictures taken there! I moved the security gate back behind it so it would be available all night long to the public. It’s worked marvelously. [There are] thousands of pictures of the lamps [online]; there are YouTube videos of people singing in front of them, dancing. I often come by [after] dinners, and there’s rarely an evening at midnight when I don’t see kids, people taking photographs. It’s great. It’s what L.A. needs more of — these kinds of landmarks.

The plan for the Jeff Koons work, a full-sized steam locomotive dangling from a crane and blowing the whistle three times a day — how is that faring?

Much more complicated than anyone imagined. We’re 2 1/2, three years on the engineering, so we know it’s safe and buildable. And we have a little hiccup in the economy.

You’ve talked about it as a kind of bell tower — does a museum need a bell tower?

The city does. We’re too decentralized for one center, but it wouldn’t be bad to have a stronger sense of centering for Los Angeles. The center would have to be kind of in the middle geographically, and it ought to represent many cultures. It would be nice if it had outdoor space; LACMA has all the ingredients. Every great city has a tall structure that marks time. A crane is a great symbol for a museum; when you see it in the distance, what do you think? Something’s being made.

Museums sometimes “deaccession” — that is, get rid of objects. Before your tenure, did LACMA get rid of anything you wish it hadn’t?

We have big discussions about this. We got rid of significant works of Latin American artists in the ‘70s, when European and American [works] were more prized, and now we’re scrambling to buy works back. Luckily, the [ Diego] Rivera portrait of an American businessman that sits at the top of our Latin American gallery — that came back to us through a patron. While there are mistakes along the way, overwhelmingly, collections have been improved and we’ve secured very significant works that would not otherwise be in the museum if it were not for this process.

For you, personally, what art wouldn’t you put on your walls?

I love most things, but Renoir is not my favorite. But so many people love it, and it’s not my job to impose my taste on the program. We did host the [Renoir] exhibition, which was so great for so many people.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Interview archive: