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Michael Govan And Affinity Groups: He’s Right to Raise Fees

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has been taking heat in the last few days about his decision to increase the membership dues for various art groups at the museum. I think he’s right to do so…though I am not sure he and the museum have put forth their entire case.

The outcry began last week, when the museum hiked yearly dues for members of 10 support councils to $1,000, plus a $250level museum membership they must now buy. In the past, the dues for these groups, organized around art categories, like photography, decorative arts, European art, etc., were as low as $400 a year. The new fee was long overdue, Govan told the Los Angeles Times, adding: “This change will bring us more in line with other museums nationally,” he said, citing higher dues at other museums in Los Angeles, Boston and New York. “To have an affinity group that has direct access to curators and artists, even at the new number, you could call it a bargain.”

Members begged to differ. One interpreted the increase as a play to only large donors on the part of the museum, whereas Govan reportedly said at a meeting that “the changes [are] part of a larger rethinking of the role of these groups. They were instrumental in fundraising in the museum’s early years before it even had a development office. Now, he said, it was important to make the system ‘simpler’ and ‘more professional.’ ” The article continued:

The plan includes dismantling the boards of the councils, leaving only a chairperson in place to help the department curator and development staff organize events. He also described a change in what the councils would do: organizing public events instead of private parties and focusing “more on education and the sharing of enthusiasm than acquisitions.”

The next day, the LATimes reported that “Diana Gutman, chairwoman of the Art Museum Council at LACMA, says the group’s 40-member board has voted unanimously to stop volunteering at the museum next year” because of the change. And, the story said:

Founded in 1952 before LACMA even had its Wilshire campus, the Art Museum Council is LACMA’s oldest support group. Early on it acquired major paintings by Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian and Stuart Davis. It also commissioned an Alexander Calder mobile for the LACMA campus — called “Hello Girls” as a nod to the women on the council. One of its leading fundraisers was a yearly “Art and Architecture” tour taking visitors into collectors’ home.

Gutman ended her email by saying, “Our group is determined to stay together and to find another avenue that will allow us to continue to support emerging artists, beginning collectors and the art community at large. Our 60-year legacy of service to LACMA [can be] seen in the massive number of works we purchased that hang on the museum walls and the magnificent Calder mobile that cheerfully greets visitors.”

Govan has a PR problem on his hands, and he needs to take care of it. I think he may need to expand on his reasons — the idea of professionalizing development (Arnold Lehman at the Brooklyn Museum did something similar, you’ll recall) — may be true, but there’s a more compelling rationale, I am guessing.

My discussions with other museum directors suggests that these affinity groups — with internal parties and behind-the-scenes events, among other things — cost the museum more than they bring in. They require the time of curators. In the end, the museum ends up subsidizing them, rather than the other way around. Yet these members are better-heeled than the general public; they shouldn’t be getting the subsidy.

Govan may have to share more numbers with the public to make that case convincingly, and he may be reluctant to do it. Too bad.





  1. I believe that there is also another reason for shaking up these groups. It is a way of bringing in new blood. Too often these groups not only get stuck in a rut but they do not allow for others not part of the same clique to join in. If some of those current members would either put up or … then there would be room to bring in some new blood with the old rather than all having a revolution on their hands.

  2. Lynne Hiller says:

    The members of Art Museum Council currently pay $450 dues, and as it is a working council, the members then volunteered hundreds of hours planning the Art +Architecture Tour, running the Art Rental & Sales Gallery, and planning our own educational events. Our treasury currently has over $300,000 earmarked for museum acguisitions. Many of our members belong to AMC because they can’t write a check for $1250 as Mr. Govan proposes, but they can give their time and talents toward fundraising activities. This hands-on approach has built a strong sense of community and friendship within the Council as we worked towards common goals. We don’t want our group split between the members who can pay the new fees and those who can’t.
    We also have a very active new membership committee for recruiting “new blood” and we add members every year.

    • Thanks for your comment — and you are appreciated. Nonetheless, anyone can volunteer without paying any membership dues:

      And there are costs involved with the councils as well.

      • Lynne Hiller says:

        You are right about volunteering for Docent Council and Service Council with minimal or no costs involved, however Art Museum Council, which is also listed as a volunteer organization, has dues of $450 a year, which Mr. Govan wants to raise to $1250.

        • I understand – but you raised the point that council members contributed hundreds of hours, and they can do that without being members of the council. So if it’s about volunteering… it’s not, it’s about something else.

  3. Jim VanKirk says:

    I’d like you to speak to Max Anderson Director of the DMA for a perspective that feels better to me than LACMA’s.
    As I see it museums have sacrificed their public audience with their support of the (Act Up ) arrogance and in your face hostility of the NYC Art scene of the past 20 years. As far as I know the DMA is the first institution to take a step back and attempt to recapture the interest of their own Art community. They recently announced that as of the 1st of next year admission will revert to free and they will be establishing a free museum membership level as well. We all know what a disaster museo-economics have become. I’d appreciate it if you would at least listening to a different long-term viewpoint presented by a battle hardened survivor of the Whitney directorship.

    • Well, you misjudge me. I certainly have spoken to Max. The issue here is not the same as free admission at all. It’s an entirely different animal. In fact, these groups receive privileges for their contributions that are part of the issue: they cost more than they contribute.

      Nor is the DMA the first to revert to free admission. Check out the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, to name one. The Detroit Institute of Arts moved to free admission for the residents of three surrounding counties this summer, following passage of a millage tax.

      And btw one can listen to whomever and still have a different opinion.

  4. Jim VanKirk says:

    “And btw one can listen to whomever and still have a different opinion.”
    Yes, I know that’s where the phrase came from ” Shooting yourself in the foot.”

    What you describe is perhaps more the effect of poor management than a cause of poor performance of the part of members.
    It can easily be shown that these institutions have actively LOST the enthusiasm of both members and their audience. I have myself canceled memberships in the DMA and SDMA within the past 10 years because of what I saw as member neglect and poor curatorial-administrative decisions that allow for no membership input.
    If you take the time to look at the client list on my website you’ll see that I have extensive familiarity with the inner workings of museums.

    Out of respect this is my last word, I don’t want to be seen as hypercritical of your good work.

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