In reshaping LACMA, Michael Govan sets his sights on a new L.A.

In reshaping LACMA, Michael Govan sets his sights on a new L.A.
Director of the Los Angeles County Museum Michael Govan. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Michael Govan's field of dreams stretches far beyond the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which he wants to radically remake over the coming nine years.

In a visit to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, the museum director outlined what he and LACMA's board aim to accomplish, how it might be done, and what some of the obstacles might be as they pursue plans to tear down four of the museum's seven buildings and replace them with one massive new one, an innovative one-level structure elevated by what Govan called five "legs of glass."


Raising a 410,000-square-foot landmark building to propel LACMA through the 21st century would require an unprecedented new level of cultural commitment for Los Angeles — an estimated $750 million to $1 billion. Govan said about half the sum would be needed for construction and the rest to secure LACMA's future financial security.

Pulling it off, he suggested, would not just add a striking museum to the cityscape, but would signal a new sense of confidence and accomplishment as a creative center for the city as a whole.

"I think if we could do this project it would change what's possible in L.A.," he said of the broader implications for the city's cultural maturation.

LACMA aims for a 2023 opening of the building, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and timed to coincide with the opening of a subway beneath Wilshire Boulevard that will have a stop at the museum.

The opening would come 20 years after the 2003 arrival of the $284-million Walt Disney Concert Hall. Govan said LACMA would be continuing the "movement" that the acclaimed concert hall launched. The new LACMA would show that L.A. was, in effect, not a one-hit wonder, but a city capable of charting an ambitious, ongoing course of increasing and revitalizing its cultural offerings.

The building would not drastically increase the space LACMA has for showing art — "it's a replacement with a modest expansion" totaling about 50,000 square feet, Govan said — but he thinks a building with one floor will be more inviting than the three high-rises (plus a theater) that will be torn down.

"It's a giant opportunity to reconsider what museums are and how they function," including exploring whether to dispense with traditional written labels on walls and in display cases, he said, and go whole-hog with smartphone technology.

The building's shape aims to avoid massive facades that have a standoffish effect, Govan said, and take a cue from storefront retailers by giving passersby a glimpse inside. He said the goal is to create "a non-hierarchical space for culture."

Among the selling points Govan laid out were thrift: He said studies show it would cost $317 million just to repair the existing buildings, which are starting to suffer major malfunctions such as leaks in gallery ceilings. He cast it as a good deal for the county government, which owns the targeted old buildings and would likewise own the new one.

The museum director's wide-ranging discussion with Times cultural writers and editors was the latest step along the uncommonly open path he and the LACMA board are taking with the Zumthor plan. Cultural institutions typically unveil such plans only when they've already secured much of the funding and can make success seem inevitable as they roll out a big capital campaign, hoping to generate a bandwagon effect.

LACMA itself took that approach in 2005, the year before Govan's arrival, when it announced a three-phase "transformation" campaign, with $156 million to fully fund the first phase already in hand. The recession stopped the campaign about $100 million short of the announced $450-million goal.

The museum's current approach, which included unveiling Zumthor's initial design in an exhibition last year, essentially means that the project will grow up in public, or fail in public.

"I have a great belief that if you put something big and beautiful out there people will support it. You don't have to do it in secret," Govan said. "L.A.'s a big, beautiful place with so many people who can contribute."

LACMA will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Wilshire next spring. Govan said its board has decided to mark the milestone by raising $100 million — not for the Zumthor project, but for the museum's existing needs.


Since becoming LACMA's director in 2006, Govan said, one of his priorities has been "building a cohesive board that could climb the small mountains and now try to climb the big mountain."

Money isn't the only challenge facing LACMA's hopes for a makeover. Zumthor has already redone his plan in response to complaints that it would impinge upon the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits.

Zumthor's new plan slides the building away from the tar pits, aiming to achieve the same amount of gallery space by having it span Wilshire Boulevard with a combination walkway and gallery, with galleries and possibly a new theater on the opposite side from the main campus.

Govan put a positive spin on the forced revision, echoing the old show biz adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity: getting unstuck from a potential conflict with the tar pits at least got people talking about LACMA's big plans.

Among those talking is Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who has criticized the bridge idea and suggested that a smaller building on the existing campus would be better.

Govan said the bridge meets his plan of keeping the gallery space unchanged and avoiding high-rise buildings that would defeat his aim of an open campus with broad sight lines. He said the cost of putting galleries underground would be too high.

In any case, Govan said, the museum board seems gung-ho on the bridge. "The board was unanimous, and they were more excited to give money" for the revised plan.

One of the project's biggest hurdles would be securing public funding to cover a share of the cost, which Govan thinks is only fair because the new building would be owned by Los Angeles County. He said it also would get the county "off the hook" from potentially mounting repair costs for the older buildings.

He suggested a ratio of one dollar in government construction funds for every four privately-generated dollars spent — about $100 million from taxpayers toward a $500-million building.

Another issue could be the name game: three of the four buildings to be torn down under the Zumthor plan are named for their keystone donors: the Hammer and Ahmanson gallery buildings and the Bing Center, which houses the museum's 600-seat theater. Govan acknowledged that this could be a sensitive matter.

"The names will not disappear," he said. They'll be reassigned to some of the new building's features. His message to the potentially displaced honorees, he said, has been "we can do it even better."

"I'm not going to say everyone's going to be happy," he added. "It's a conundrum" facing many institutions that replace old buildings with new ones.


Historic preservation could be an obstacle as well if fans of architect William Pereira's three original 1965 buildings and the mid-1980s Art of the Americas building try to block their destruction with arguments that they're historically significant. "Of course I'm worried about it," Govan said. "People can make a case and hold us up. I hope they don't."

His counter-argument is that there's nothing all that historic to preserve, because the site has been altered so much over the years, including the paving over of distinctive reflecting pools with fountains that had leakage problems.