Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, crouched in the pit of a stone quarry in Riverside. Wearing black jeans and a brown sports coat, he dragged a finger through the sandy floor to draw the northern edge of the LACMA campus.
On a key spot in his ad hoc map, he placed a granite stone the size of an orange, meant to represent a rugged 340-ton boulder standing in the quarry behind him. If all goes according to plan, that boulder will make a seven-day journey in August from the quarry to the museum’s Miracle Mile location on a specially designed 200-wheel truck. There, it will rest on two concrete rails lining a 15-foot-deep trough, as the museum’s newest sculpture: “Levitated Mass” by Michael Heizer, a famously reclusive artist who has devoted decades to building a “city” of earthworks in the Nevada desert that few outsiders are allowed to visit.
LACMA’s director describes the boulder -- which visitors will be able to walk under as though it were levitating -- as simultaneously contemporary and timeless. “It’s ultramodern because it’s self-referential and it’s about the viewer’s experience -- it doesn’t represent some god,” he says. “Yet it has the timeless, ancient overtones of cultures that moved monoliths, like the Egyptians, Syrians and Olmecs.”
To hear Govan talk so passionately about this artwork, which is after all one big rock, is to get some sense of what makes him a powerful advocate for artists, an effective fundraiser and an increasingly influential cultural leader in Los Angeles.
“He is a great communicator who makes his ideas and vision for the museum almost infectious,” says Ari Wiseman, deputy director of the Guggenheim in New York, who used to hold a similar museum post in L.A.
“I think Michael is to LACMA what Dudamel is to the Philharmonic and Placido Domingo is to the Opera,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, the L.A. County supervisor for the district that includes LACMA. “He might not have that kind of celebrity, but he has the same ability to move and inspire people, even people who don’t think they’re interested in art.” Yaroslavsky counts himself among the converts, saying he’s become “a nut for these big outdoor pieces of art” under Govan’s influence.
Five years into his stewardship of LACMA, having just signed a contract for five more, Govan, 47, has transformed the museum and its reputation. He has overseen the completion of two sleek new exhibition halls by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, expanded the collection by about 12,000 objects and helped boost annual attendance by more than 40%.
But LACMA has also transformed Govan. When he arrived at the museum, some viewed him rather reductively as an empire builder: the ambitious, fast-talking protege of his onetime boss Thomas Krens, the controversial Guggenheim Museum director known for trying to go global by opening branches around the world. But by now it’s clear that Govan’s vision for LACMA is not just to make it bigger and better a la Krens.
It’s a museum offering a little something for everyone: art from many centuries inside the galleries and a mix of architectural styles and large-scale artworks like the Heizer outdoors. He has made a point of partnering with other nonprofits in the L.A. film community, art world and beyond, and sees LACMA as an anchor -- geographically and intellectually -- for the region’s growing cultural community. These days, he is constructing alliances as well as buildings.
“LACMA by its nature could be a great collaborator. We’re in the middle of things, we’re multidisciplinary, we’re multicultural, we’re a general art museum,” Govan says, “so by definition we can encompass almost everything culturally.”
Govan is a “visionary” with a difference, says the artist Jeff Koons, describing realpolitik skills that help the museum leader adapt to economic necessity. “He bridges the impractical and the practical -- bringing these vast or grand gestures into the world through his understanding of institutions and the support of businesspeople.”
Tests and triumphs
Those skills are also evident in Govan’s ability to bounce back from adversity. In what surely ranks as his single biggest setback to date, LACMA’s most generous and powerful donor, art patron and philanthropist Eli Broad, announced in 2008 that he would not, after funding a building in his name at LACMA, bequeath his billion-dollar art collection to the museum. Later that year, Broad rode to the rescue of the near-bankrupt downtown Museum of Contemporary Art with a $30-million pledge. Broad’s dramatic gesture helped quash a proposal to merge MOCA into Govan’s museum.
Govan has responded to his frayed relationship with Broad (each man declines to speak on the record about the other) by carefully cultivating other sources of patronage. Most prominently, there is longtime LACMA board member Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, owners of a sprawling agribusiness empire. Govan secured a $45-million cash gift from the Resnicks to finance a LACMA building bearing their name, which opened last year with a show featuring art from their personal collection.
He has also helped recruit dozens of new trustees, including jet-setting art collector Nicolas Berggruen, Russian designer/tastemaker Dasha Zhukova, entertainer Barbra Streisand and filmmaker Brian Grazer. (Field trips to break up the boardroom routine are a draw, says former Warner Bros. chieftain and LACMA board co-chair Terry Semel, who has visited Heizer’s “city,” among other places. “Michael knows we’re not all art critics. So our idea is let’s get outside. Let’s learn more about the art world.”)
“Michael has galvanized a new generation of trustees,” says Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lowry calls LACMA’s collection and programs “measurably better today” than in years past.
Govan similarly recovered from the controversy spawned by his abrupt 2009 announcement that he was laying off film department head Ian Birnie and suspending LACMA’s long-running screening program. The decision provoked outrage in the movie industry, notably from director Martin Scorsese, an influential figure in film preservation circles who publicly blasted the announcement. Govan initially backpedaled, extending the screening program and keeping Birnie in place. Then last month he unveiled a new partnership with Film Independent, producer of the Los Angeles Film Festival, to reinvent the museum’s film program, minus Birnie.
The announcement went smoothly, the city’s powerful film community apparently placated. Govan also stresses that the museum’s commitment to film will extend beyond screenings. He cites as examples this month’s exhibition of Tim Burton’s artwork, which drew big crowds at New York’s MoMA, and next year’s Stanley Kubrick exhibition, adapted from a show at La Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.
On other fronts, LACMA recently partnered with the epic folk-art landmark Watts Towers to help fund and oversee its conservation and with the J. Paul Getty Trust to acquire the estate of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, valued at more than $30 million.
Along with initiating the Getty alliance, Govan, knowing that LACMA did not have the facilities to handle the archival material, steered the legally complicated deal that involves shared custody of hundreds of photographs to completion at a time when the Getty Trust presidency was vacant. (The Getty announced the appointment of James Cuno to the job last week.)
“This is one thing that has evolved in my thinking about museums,” Govan says. “Collaborations can be really hard because they involve more people and more opinions. But once you’ve worked at LACMA for a while, you realize you can’t have more opinions than you do within LACMA.”
And, going forward, Govan talks of bringing another institution to the growing Mid-Wilshire cultural district. Already home to LACMA, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, the A+D museum and the Petersen Automotive Museum, the strip is expected to have a Metro station at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue by 2019.
Govan notes that the museum owns two above-ground parking lots that could be developed in any number of ways. He declined to give specifics on discussions except to say that a contemporary art institution “makes the most sense for Los Angeles.”
A director develops
Govan’s first exposure to Southern California came 25 years ago, as a graduate student in fine arts at UC San Diego. But he had already started on his path as a museum curator while an undergraduate at Williams College in Massachusetts by working at the college museum with Krens.
It was a job offer from Krens that led Govan to drop out of graduate school: He served as deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum under Krens from 1988 to 1994, a time of great expansion plans that culminated in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain.
After the Guggenheim, Govan took the helm of the Dia Art Foundation, which was also entertaining expansion fantasies.
As the now-familiar story goes, he was flying his single-engine plane -- still a favorite pastime -- over the Hudson River when he spotted a former Nabisco warehouse about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
He saw its potential to become a large, light-soaked exhibition space, ultimately transforming it into Dia: Beacon, the epicenter of certain kinds of environmental and minimal art, including work by Heizer.
It was in New York that Govan met his wife, Katherine Ross, who for years served as the vice president of public relations for the luxury goods giant LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and is now a consultant for Balenciaga. Media-savvy and camera-ready, the two quickly became a favorite subject for society columnists and photographers. The couple has one daughter, now 6.
The family decamped to L.A. in 2006 when LACMA trustees including the late Nancy Daly recruited Govan to run the museum. It was already in the throes of expansion, with preliminary plans by Renzo Piano in place.
If the Guggenheim taught Govan about destination architecture, Dia: Beacon was also a lesson in destination artworks -- using big, high-impact installations to define a sense of place and, in some cases, draw a broad audience.
At LACMA the biggest crowd-pleaser so far is Chris Burden’s “Urban Light.” Since going up in 2008, this installation of more than 200 salvaged Art Deco lampposts has become a popular meeting place, backdrop for wedding photographs and site for film shoots, as well as an all-around symbol for the museum. “The logo for the museum is an artwork, not a building,” Govan offers.
As for the boulder, Govan says he saw its potential the moment the artist called him four years ago from LAX after visiting the quarry in Riverside. Heizer called to say he’d found in a quarry he used “the most beautiful rock he’s ever seen. And he knows rocks -- he spends his life with rocks, and his grandfather was a geologist,” says Govan.
Not all of LACMA’s big projects have this momentum. Koons’ proposal to hang at LACMA’s entrance a 161-foot-tall replica of a locomotive from a crane, which Govan once compared to the Eiffel Tower and was estimated to cost more than $25 million, has languished in development for nearly four years. Govan says the train could be an “extraordinary international event” but acknowledges that he is “not completely certain” it will be built. “We don’t have a final method of construction, and I don’t have a final fundraising plan.”
Another LACMA project Govan has floated but not brought to completion is that the museum become a caretaker for significant residential architecture in the region. Many say now is a good time to do it, with houses by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright languishing on the market, but Govan says he does not yet have the needed donations, financial or architectural.
For someone who generates so many ideas, having a few go unrealized does not seem to trouble him. He has a serial entrepreneur’s equanimity about timing. What doesn’t work for LACMA now might ripen in five years, or five decades.
“Businesspeople want to know what’s your attendance this year, what’s your plan for next year. They often think in terms of quarters. Museums think in quarter-centuries,” he says.
“If you’re not dreaming in the business we’re in, the art business, then you’re not doing your job.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
5 -- Years left in Govan’s contract with LACMA
14 -- Number of books on Amazon.com that list Govan as a contributor
349 -- Employees he oversees at LACMA
12,000 -- Approximate number of artworks acquired since he started as director
637,299 -- LACMA attendance in 2006, year he started on the job
914,356 -- Museum visitorship in 2010
$915,000 -- Govan’s compensation for 2009-10 fiscal year
$1 million -- Bonus he received in 2010 for completing his first five years on the job
$148 million -- Amount of money raised for the museum’s capital campaign during Govan’s tenure
Source: Times staff reports