LACMA’s Michael Govan finds great character in museum’s collection

Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Times art critic Christopher Knight recently sat down with the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, to talk about the institution’s collection. Knight had just selected 50 masterpieces at LACMA for a story connected to the museum’s 50th anniversary as an independent institution. For Govan, the collection is the focus of the anniversary celebration — showcasing it, adding to it, increasing its visibility. The museum will open an exhibition April 26, “50 for 50,” of recent gifts.


LACMA exhibition: An April 12 article about Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan said that the museum’s “50 for 50” exhibition would open April 20. It will open April 26. —

Generally speaking, the quality of a collection is how we tend to rank long-term significance in cultural organizations. How would you characterize LACMA’s collection?


I would characterize it as very good and growing and getting better all the time. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary — that’s a short time to build a huge collection compared to some of those big East Coast museums who had more than a century of working on it. The character of the collection is also different because of when it was collected. That character is really important because that is what makes a museum great — in the sense that people want to go to a museum for the character of the collection, what is special, what can they see there that they can’t see anywhere else? I think the beautiful thing is with the 50th anniversary and with recent gifts, you see a collection that continues to grow and change in its character as well as its size.

You mention when the bulk of the collection was put together, which was the last 50 years, distinguishes the shape of the collection in certain ways. Can you explain that?

Tastes are always changing. We value things differently at different times. Fifty years ago — and I just read the oral history of Kenneth Donahue [LACMA’s second director] — there was a discussion of a 350-work collection. We have 120,000 works now and counting, which is small, actually, by big museum standards. I think you can characterize the beginnings, in the ‘60s, as being more of an example of East Coast museums with a traditional sensibility. But in the 1960s, contemporary art in Los Angeles was raging. ... Ed Ruscha was making some amazing paintings. There was no contemporary art museum; LACMA was the contemporary art museum of record. Those artists were showing, [Ed Kienholz’s] “Backseat Dodge” was shown at LACMA. So there is a contemporary collection that is started at the founding of the museum. I think that does characterize LACMA as a very up-to-date museum.

What do you think are the strongest areas?

One of the strongest areas in this museum is ancient American or pre-Columbian art. It’s an area that usually museums that were founded in the 19th century didn’t even collect, and when they did, it’s kind of in the back left corner. At LACMA it has always been given privilege or given more privilege in exhibitions and collections. And what’s interesting about our collections is that even opposed to a museum in Mexico, which would have a largely Olmec Mayan Mexican ancient collection, we have Central American Mexican, Peruvian textiles, we have Mayan Olmec ... we’re actually a study center in the way that there aren’t many collections in the world that have the ancient American art which you can find at LACMA in its breadth and depth.

You’ve talked a bit about the Latin American and Korean art in the collection; as little as a decade ago, there was next to nothing. The growth of those areas do correspond with the rise of the Latino population and the Korean population in the region. So I assume the push in those collecting areas has been intentional. Why is it important to have a collection that is in some fundamental way reflective of the civic population?


History has to be relevant to the present and future. The general museum of all these cultures can have a new relevance for a city like Los Angeles — it’s extremely intentional, extremely strategic to see that the identity of the institution be one with the identity of Los Angeles. It’s not just that a Korean person will want to see Korean art, or that a Latin American person will see want to see Latin American art. The idea is that the identity of the institution has a quality of Latin America or Korea, or Asia, in order to make it feel comfortable for that community to come in and see other things. Our Latin American audience doesn’t only want to see Latin American art, but they want to feel that the institution has a sense of their identity, an interest, a respect for that culture.