I once impetuously declared that Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 2006, was “worth a million bucks.” But the shocking images of the demolition of four buildings from a museum that I’ve admired and enjoyed during my visits to LA over several decades jolted me out of the trance that had kept me under the influence of LACMA’s charismatic provocateur. Michael’s great talent, as I’ve experienced firsthand in conversations spread over many years, was anticipating, understanding and addressing my concerns as a critic, even before I had fully articulated them.
That same empathetic imagination—the hallmark of a master salesman—undoubtedly came in handy when pitching his far-reaching expansion plans to mega-donors like David Geffen and Eli Broad—both keen on enhancing the cultural life of their community.
Even Jeremy Strick, whose 2008 departure from the directorship at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was a consequence of its financial shortfalls during his tenure there (which coincided with the beginning of Govan’s LACMA directorship), graciously paid tribute to his rival’s unrivaled fundraising abilities: In a candid conversation with me, Strick (who in 2009 assumed the directorship of the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, which he still leads) acknowledged that “Michael has raised the bar for philanthropy in the arts in a way that’s been beneficial to all of us.”
That said, the doubts engendered in me by the shifting ground (related to the proximity to the La Brea Tar Pits) under the cranes being used for construction of LACMA’s new Geffen Galleries caused me to reflect back on Govan’s spotty track record for delivering on his ambitious, provocative proposals. Addressing the pit problem, a museum spokesperson assured me that the need to switch out the original cranes for temporary mobile cranes was not cause for serious concern about the whether LACMA’s capital plans could be realized.
Maybe so. But this temporary setback called to mind other half-baked notions promoted by Govan (rhymes with “oven”) that never got fully cooked. I’ve followed his career from the Guggenheim Museum (where he was deputy director under Thomas Krens), to the directorship from 1994 to 2006 of the Dia Art Foundation, to his current West Coast professional home, which he now intends to entirely overhaul.
As someone who imbibed Michael Govan’s Kool-Aid over the course of many years, I now see him in the tradition of of his mentor, Krens, who always seemed to me more delusionary than “visionary” (the word most frequently used to describe the former Guggenheim director). Krens’ one enduring, undeniable triumph, among his many failed or unrealized projects, was the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao.
Similarly, Govan’s one brilliant, enduring accomplishment was masterminding the repurposing of a former Nabisco box-printing factory as the Dia Beacon (now directed by Jessica Morgan, former curator for international art at Tate Modern in London). The Dia Art Foundation’s upstate outpost (which for a while became its sole museum facility) provides an ideal venue for Govan’s art-historical sweet spot: Minimalism, post-Minimalism, Conceptual art, and a variety of monumental paintings and sculptures.
In December 2019, during one of my last (pre-pandemic) museum visits, I had the great pleasure of revisiting its airy, sunlit spaces and catching up on new installations:
But as it was with Krens, so it was with Govan: His most ambitious projects were, for the most part, unrealized pipe dreams that consumed a great deal of institutional time, energy and money. Even his success in Beacon was accomplished at the expense of DIA’s Manhattan headquarters on 22nd Street in Chelsea, which was controversially closed on Govan’s watch—a loss remedied only recently.
Among Michael’s highly touted but unaccomplished schemes:
—A formal proposal for LACMA to acquire the financially struggling Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which resisted the takeover and maintained its independence.
—A plan to repurpose as “LACMA West” the dilapidated former May department store, adjoining the museum’s land and acquired by it in 1995. When I saw it during BCAM’s press preview, it was being used by the museum as a children’s space.
Govan had then told me how excited he was by the prospect of upgrading the building: As described in the press release, the “complete rehabilitation of LACMA West” would entail “creat[ing] galleries, public amenities [restaurant, retail space, bookstore], administrative offices and space for additional educational and public programming.”
Instead, the property was leased to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and absorbed into the new Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (which last month announced the postponement of its opening to September 2021, due to the pandemic):
—Jeff Koons‘ planned (but not realized by LACMA) $25-million, 161-foot-tall “Train”—a crane-suspended replica of a 1940s locomotive, which would have been “visible from virtually all corners of LA,” according to the museum’s description. As I wrote here, that “seemed like a preposterously extravagant project even in the best of times. Now [in 2009, during the economic downturn brought on by the implosion of Lehman Brothers] it seems like an unfortunate symbol for the out-of-commission economic engine”:
—Perhaps Govan’s most conspicuous, embarrassing stumble was his failure to consummate a deal whereby Eli Broad would donate his prize collection of contemporary art to LACMA, where it would be housed in the new 72,000-square-foot Broad Contemporary Art Museum (which retains his name, if not his collection). The eponymous collector had donated entire $56 million cost for the new building and kicked in an additional $10 million for acquisitions. So this episode was a “win-lose” for LACMA.
As I reported in my Wall Street Journal review, Broad rained on Govan’s parade by announcing a month before BCAM’S opening that he had changed his mind about donating his artworks to the new facility.
The rest is history—Eli’s oversight of the construction of a new Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed museum in downtown LA, The Broad, which opened in 2015 to showcase his collection. He “let it be known that, contrary to his own previously published comments, he would not donate his or his foundation’s artworks to LACMA’s eponymous new facility. He would merely dispatch rotating loans,” as I wrote in the WSJ. Although the collection had not been formally promised, Govan had confidently predicted to me that once Broad saw his treasures shown off to such good advantage in the new building, he would want them to remain there.
A LACMA spokesperson recently gave me this update on the Broad loans: “The Broad Foundation, as well as Mr. Broad personally, have lent very generously to LACMA in an ongoing and rotating manner since the opening of BCAM.”
All of which is to say that Michael Govan has made a lot of high-profile bets that didn’t fully pay off, and the current LACMA upheaval is his biggest gamble yet—the demolition of “four aging buildings” (the description of the Ahmanson, Hammer, Art of the Americas and Bing structures on the capital project’s FAQs page), to make way for the architecturally and programmatically controversial Peter Zumthor-designed Geffen Galleries, projected to open in 2024. Only the Renzo Piano-designed BCAM and his Resnick Pavilion (both added to LACMA’s sprawling campus on Govan’s watch) and the distinctive Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art, which opened in 1988 (and itself is now undergoing an upheaval), now remain of the original gallery buildings.
This spring, the museum plans to install in BCAM works from its modern collection (a step back in time from the building’s “Contemporary” nomenclature)—European and American art from 1905 to the 1960s, including the Janice and Henri Lazarof Collection and works by Picasso, Giacometti, German Expressionists, Diego Rivera and Sonia Delaunay. Curated by Stephanie Barron, those galleries “are being completely redesigned with the collaboration of Frank Gehry and Associates,” according to the above-linked announcement. Gehry and Barron previously collaborated on the acclaimed Calder and Abstraction show, which I had admired in 2014 in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion.
Here they are in New York in 2013, collaborating on another project:
But back to Zumthor: His new facility for galleries, retail, restaurants, a theater and public and education programs is expected to cost some $650 million. The total fundraising campaign goal is $750 million, of which $125 million is coming from the county; $625 million from private donations. Some $655 million is said to have been raised. The project will receive financing from a $300-million county bond issue, with the debt service to be repaid from private pledge payments to Museum Associates, the nonprofit public benefit corporation that manages, operates and maintains LACMA.
Whatever happens, there’s been one dramatic addition to LACMA’s campus under Govan that’s been an unqualified popular success:
Many critics—most notably Christopher Knight and Joseph Giovannini—have raised forceful objections to architectural and programmatic aspects of LACMA’s reinvention plans. In the future, I hope to grapple with those (including the installation issues embodied in the photo at the end of my last post). For now, I thought it more important to provide a perspective unique to my long, checkered history of lovin’ Govan.
When and if the dust has settled and the transformed LACMA has its grand opening, I’ll be glad to eat my hat (slathered with some La Brea tar) and admit that my misgivings were mistaken. Until then, it’s wait and see…
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