Behind Michael Govan’s almost $1-million LACMA salary
In the museum world, there are any number of ways to spend $1 million.
That’s nearly as much as Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will earn this year in salary, deferred compensation and benefits.
That also happens to be how much LACMA’s film program lost over the last decade -- a big part of the reason that Govan recently laid off the program’s director and cut the weekend screening series, provoking an outcry from hundreds of cinéastes.
In good times, eyebrows might be raised over whether $1 million a year is a fair wage for a director of a nonprofit museum. But in the midst of a recession that has forced budget cuts and layoffs at museums around the country, the issue becomes more loaded.
“Every dollar you give in compensation is a dollar you can’t spend on programs and curatorial work,” said Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin.
The question may be particularly relevant at LACMA, because it gets more public funding than many museums: About a quarter of its $74-million operating budget came from L.A. County in 2008, including $201,432 toward Govan’s salary and benefits.
LACMA has avoided widespread layoffs common at other museums. But it has canceled two exhibitions and abandoned negotiations for a third. Several curatorial positions remain open amid a hiring freeze, though one key spot was filled last week. Govan says he is seeking donor support to create a new film program.
In an interview this month, Govan said his pay was commensurate with the demands of his job, which requires him to be out “five or six nights a week” raising money -- a task at which he has excelled.
“Do you have any idea how much that costs in baby- sitting?” the 46-year-old director, who lives with his wife and their young daughter, said jokingly.
If the museum decided to cut salaries, “I’d be first in line,” he said, adding that he decided to forgo a bonus and raise this year.
Still, Govan, a rising star when he was hired in early 2006, is on pace to collect $6 million over the course of his five-year contract, according to a copy of the agreement recently obtained by The Times, as well as details subsequently provided by the museum.
His compensation, about a 50% increase over that of his predecessor, places him in an elite group of art museum directors who for the most part preside over institutions more prestigious and many times richer than LACMA.
They include the heads of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, according to the most recently available tax filings. After three decades, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York topped $1 million in his last year because of deferred compensation paid upon his retirement.
The director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles made $929,000 in 2008, while the top two executives at the Getty Trust, which funds the museum, made $1.1 million each.
“The art world is so polluted with money, these extraordinary sums being paid for contemporary art, that it really has a distorting effect on the whole system,” said Bruce Robertson, an art history professor at UC Santa Barbara who served as LACMA deputy director before Govan arrived.
“Michael shouldn’t be singled out,” Robertson said. “He is part of a pattern.”
One reason the LACMA board of trustees decided to pay top dollar for a director is that it wanted somebody to raise the museum’s profile.
“The reputation of LACMA was not a good one,” said Bobby Kotick, a trustee who heads the company Activision Blizzard, maker of the video game Guitar Hero. “There was definitely skepticism whether L.A. was committed to building a cultural institution that would be on par with the Met and MOMA. . . . Compensation was one way to overcome that.”
Govan said he accepted the offer without much negotiation. It included a starting base salary of $600,000, the opportunity for bonuses and raises, rent-free living in a museum-owned house, a car allowance and $1 million in deferred compensation if he stays five years.
His only request, he said, was a bigger relocation and signing bonus to ease his family’s transition from New York, where he ran the Dia Art Foundation. That amounted to $350,000.
Museum officials said they came up with one additional perk: offering Govan $1,000 a night to stay in his own New York condominium while there on museum business. The deal, which ended in June when a tenant moved in, paid Govan $103,000 over three years.
He and his family now live for free in a $5-million house in Hancock Park -- a benefit worth $126,500 a year, according to tax filings.
Asked if he would have taken the job for less money, Govan, whose ex-wife and teenage daughter live in New York, said: “I couldn’t have, because of my family situation and my living situation.”
Arts experts said that running museums has become an increasingly complicated venture -- and that allows top directors to command big pay. Fund-raising has become a dominant part of the job, and museum directors must be able to navigate the egos of billionaires on the boards.
“You’re expected to go on vacation where those people vacation and drive the kinds of cars those people drive,” said Bolton Colburn, who earns less than $100,000 a year as director of the comparatively tiny Laguna Art Museum.
From a fund-raising standpoint, Govan has earned his million dollars many times over.
In his first three full years, the museum raised $251 million -- about $100 million more than it collected during the three years before he arrived.
And during his tenure the museum has purchased more than $100 million in art to improve its collection -- a dramatic increase in the buying rate.
“Since Michael Govan came, there seems to be much more positive energy and attention focused on LACMA,” said Bruce Altshuler, the director of museum studies at New York University.
Govan said it could take years or decades to achieve his ultimate vision of making LACMA a major tourist attraction -- “first on anybody’s list.”
“There’s no limit on the amount of work I’m willing to do to make this a success,” he said.
Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said the ultimate measure of a nonprofit institution should be its value to the public. His museum eliminated admissions fees three years ago to boost attendance.
LACMA raised its general admission from $9 to $12 last year.
Vikan, who was making $381,000 in pay and benefits before taking a one-month furlough this year, dismissed the common refrain in the art world that museum director jobs are particularly stressful.
“This is not the ER we’re in,” he said. “This is not life and death.”
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