John Bowsher dies at 62; local art world figure helped open MOCA in 1980s


John Bowsher, vice president of museum infrastructure at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a local art world figure who helped open the Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 1980s, died Monday morning at his home in Hancock Park. He was 62.

Bowsher died after a more than two-year battle with lung cancer, said LACMA director Michael Govan.

A longtime close friend of Govan’s, Bowsher had been at LACMA since 2007 and specialized in installing large and complicated artworks. He was known for keen analytic and planning skills while working closely with dozens of artists over the years, including Chris Burden on the museum’s “Urban Light,” Walter De Maria on “The 2000 Sculpture” at the Resnick Pavilion, Robert Irwin on his Palm Gardens at LACMA and James Turrell on his 2013 retrospective, among others, as well as on the renovation of the Cantor Rodin Garden.




John Bowsher: A news obituary in the Dec. 30 California section of John Bowsher, vice president of museum infrastructure at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, incorrectly spelled his mother’s last name in the list of surviving family members. Her name is Martha Hafner, not Hasner. The list also omitted his son, Morgan William Bowsher.


No project was too unwieldy for Bowsher, not even a 340-ton granite boulder traveling about 85 miles on city roads and freeways. Bowsher was instrumental in guiding artist Michael Heizer’s “big rock,” as it was dubbed, on its 11-night journey from a remote Riverside quarry to the Mid-Wilshire LACMA campus in order to install the 2011 sculpture, “Levitated Mass.” The artwork, with the boulder at its center, now presides over the museum grounds north of the Resnick Pavilion.

“I don’t see dangers, just logistical challenges,” Bowsher said of the project when interviewed by The Times in 2011 in anticipation of the boulder’s journey. “Turning [while on the road] is an enormous effort, for example. To turn something 200 feet long — you don’t take those turns at 30 miles an hour like we do.”

“He was kind of legendary for his even-tempered competence in facilitating the most complex artistic endeavors,” Govan said. “He had a quiet passion that drove him to work so well and so hard. He had a real passion for art and artists, especially large-scale work and permanent work that would affect many generations.”


John William Bowsher was born April 14, 1952, in Terre Haute, Ind. He studied art at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, but never practiced professionally. He got his start in the museum world at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, before moving to Los Angeles in 1981 to work with Richard Koshalek installing exhibitions at the just-opened MOCA. He later worked with Govan for eight years at Dia Art Foundation in New York.

Govan says he might not have come to L.A. were it not for Bowsher. “He encouraged me to move here,” Govan said. “We were in New York. He said: ‘Go to Los Angeles, drive Wilshire Boulevard from downtown to the ocean and back.’ And I did — that was my decisive experience.”

One of the last projects Bowsher worked on with Govan was Robert Irwin and James Turrell’s joint exhibition, “AISTHESIS – the origin of sensations,” at Villa Panza in Varese, Italy, which opened in fall 2013. He wrote an essay about the experience in a subsequent book, published in 2014, “Robert Irwin, James Turrell: Villa Panza.”

Irwin says he trusted Bowsher, more than nearly anyone else, to install his work.

“I first met him at MOCA over 30 years ago,” Irwin said. “I was the first artist on the board there. He was a consummate pro, and he knew it, and he could put exhibitions together with that grace and easy attitude. Back when it started, [MOCA] was wild and woolly and he was the chief honcho in getting it all done.”

Bowsher is survived by his mother, Martha A. Hasner, who lives in Terre Haute; his brother, Jim Bowsher, of San Francisco; and his daughter, Willa Day Overland, of Billings, Mont.


Twitter: @debvankin