To understand what Michael Govan is doing in Los Angeles, you need to know what he did to get here. Twenty years ago, Govan, now the CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the L.A. County Museum of Art, was an art student at UC San Diego. He was also an art-history student at Williams College — at the same time. Well, two weeks in San Diego, then two weeks in Massachusetts. He’d begun at Williams, known for its strong art-history program.
“As a freshman I was taking graduate programs,” says Govan. “I was just really hungry for art and images.”
Then an arts magazine he put together caught the eye of Thomas Krens, director of the Williams College Museum of Art and the future director of the Guggenheim. In Govan, Krens found not only a serious student of art but someone who had a facility with graphics, with architecture, and also happened to have some experience editing film. So when Krens went off to Yale, he put his student in charge of the Williams museum. Govan at this point was all of 21 or 22.
“I was helping him manage a building project, helping manage exhibitions, helping to deal with staff,” Govan says. “And you just kind of get used to it. You don’t think you’re going to keep doing it.”
You see where this is going. But first there was school to finish, and there was the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. When Krens came up with the idea of creating a large contemporary exhibition space in a former factory, Govan was the one he sent to plot out what would become Mass MOCA.
“I made all the drawings,” Govan says. “I actually did all the first designs for galleries. So it’s sort of designing the museum. And I guess that’s how it started to blend, this idea that the museum could be something you make.”
Around this time, the influential artist and theorist Allan Kaprow came to Williams and wooed Govan to UCSD, where Kaprow was teaching. One of Kaprow’s ideas was that the museum could be an artwork.
“So he thought it would be a great idea if I kept a foot in the museum world while I went to school as an artist,” Govan says. “It was a really schizophrenic existence, because I went for two weeks of school in San Diego and then would be traveling working for the museum for two weeks. What the year taught me is that you can’t do both. One requires so much of your energy to be about facilitating. And the other requires so much of your energy to be by yourself and, you know, you need a healthy amount of boredom to be an artist. I never finished the degree. I decided to go to New York.”
Krens, who had moved on to the Guggenheim by now, asked Govan to join him there as assistant (and later deputy) director, so at 24, Govan was working on restoring the original uptown building as well as working with architect Arata Isozaki on the museum’s Soho space, and with Frank Gehry on the Bilbao project. He was also learning by studying museums, and alternative museums like Donald Judd’s ranch in Marfa, Texas. And then, in 1994, Govan was hired to run Dia Art Foundation, renowned for sponsoring site-specific installations, including large outdoor works such as Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Dia was not financially strong when he took over, but Govan conceived of a large space similar to Mass MOCA. In fact, he found another old factory to house the new museum when he was on the way to Mass MOCA — in a plane . . . that he was flying at the time. Yeah, he does that too.
Govan’s Nabisco box factory held 240,000 square feet of exhibition space on the Hudson River, near the town of Beacon, some 60 miles north of Manhattan. In 2003, he opened Dia:Beacon, the new home to works by a number of major contemporary artists, including Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys, Sol LeWitt, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter. Govan was exactly where he trained and wanted to be.
Then, a year ago, LACMA's trustees wooed him west again. Former LACMA director Andrea Rich had discussed such a move with Govan 10 years earlier — as did Barry Munitz at the Getty.
“I remember thinking that Dia needed a lot of work — that was where my heart was,” Govan says now. “Also, I never thought I’d live anywhere but New York. But 10 years later, you look at Los Angeles and a lot’s happened.”
A few days before the opening at LACMA of the Dan Flavin retrospective, which Govan co-curated, Govan and I sit down in his trapezoidal office. The room is filled with light from the Wilshire side, and by a 13-by-5-foot photograph by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan of a replica of the Hollywood Sign he had constructed in Sicily. Govan, 43, speaks with enthusiasm, and it is not difficult to imagine the industrious and spirited student he once was. He can slip into wonky art history with ease — into the link between Bernini and Robert Irwin, for instance — or scale back if he senses a lack of complete comprehension in his visitor. These are valuable qualities for a man in his position, bridging, as he must, not just the museum’s past, present and future, but, truly, the city’s as well.