By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
L.A. WEEKLY:So a year ago you’re at Dia:Beacon, on top of a certain part of the art world, and you decide to take the job you weren’t ready for 10 years earlier. What made the difference?
MICHAEL GOVAN:Fifteen years ago, when I was going to school here, I talked to John Baldessari and he told his students to go to New York. But eight years ago, he said, “Don’t go to New York.” That’s it in a nutshell. There are a thousand factors — critical mass, or New York’s demise as the place for artists due to expensive real estate — but I don’t think that’s why John said it. He said it because there’s enough energy in L.A.
The West has been growing, obviously. It’s also the generational thing. I almost think Los Angeles is at the point where there’s no such thing as L.A. artists anymore. Like New York, there was a point when there were New York artists, then all of a sudden it was just artists. I feel like that’s starting to happen here. Doing an L.A. show now would be almost a nonstarter, I think, because of the diversity of practices and the number of artists.
Also, the fact that L.A. hasn’t yet hit critical mass attracts somebody like me because the museums are behind, like way behind.
You just look at L.A. and you start thinking, it’s going to catch up, right? How could it not — there’s not been a city in history that hasn’t had personal wealth, ethnic diversity, thriving business and good geopolitical location that hasn’t competed on that level.
The energy generated by a community of working artists — why is that important to the director of a big, encyclopedic museum?
For a thousand reasons. One, if you want to go back to ancient times, concentrations of artists and artisans are always harbingers of incredible cultural growth. All the great cultural capitals have had concentrations of artists — Paris and Moscow at the beginning of the century, New York for a thousand reasons, including people fleeing Europe. And we’re talking serious concentration here. L.A. is crawling with artists. And if you extend the boundary of what an artist is, to what’s happening in film and photography and advertising, and you think of it as creative visual arts, man, this place is rocking. There are probably more images coming out of Los Angeles, visual images, than any place in the world.
So then you start to think, okay, a museum has two functions. One is to be a library to learn. Everybody needs one. And then the second function a museum has is to be part of expressing the culture at large and helping to facilitate the making of culture, or point of view. You know, the Met is a point of view for New York, even if it’s largely a Eurocentric point of view. And so artists play a big role in thinking about the growth and future potential of the city.
But an encyclopedic museum, what is it? It’s a library of all these objects from all time and all places. You know, critical theory over the last 20 years has dismantled the notion of the real encyclopedia because the world is too big. And the encyclopedic museum was a bias of the French Enlightenment as it spread through Europe, and got copied by museums in America. So then you think that encyclopedic museums are outdated and outmoded. Fair enough, yet in a global world where an endless city speaks 90 languages, all of a sudden the encyclopedic museum is an interesting asset.
But, again, what is a museum? It’s a vehicle to create a worldview, right? So I figure the worldview in L.A. in the 21st century has got to be different. We’ve progressed some. Oh, I don’t know if we’ve progressed. We’ve changed.
So the growth is going to happen. The question is, How do you shape the growth? That is the huge opportunity.
Eli Broad tells you L.A. is going to be the central cultural capital and in a sense the capital for contemporary art. And then I always say, Oh, that’s great, then you can be a big chamber-of-commerce promoter, but the fact is, we’re not yet. Nobody [should] mistake all the talk for reality. We’re not [there] yet, and what I’ve said to people is that the exciting part, then, is the uncertainty, not the certainty.
What role will contemporary artists play at the museum, and how will art history inform your forward thinking?
Well, a lot of ways. What we’re not going to become is a contemporary-art museum, quite the reverse. I think there’s this kind of misperception about that. When I was hired, [people said,] “Oh, you’re going to get a contemporary guy — he likes building contemporary museums.” You know, I studied in Rome for a year, the 17th century, because I was interested in environment. It was the Baroque artists who were the closest analogue to Robert Irwin. That’s a period of history where artists shaped space. And while you had distinctions between some who were architects purely, and some who were artists or painters purely, there were a number of figures who did both — you could think about Michelangelo shaping the dome at St. Peter’s, or you could think of Bernini shaping its arms with his colonnade. Rome is a perfect city. There are just so many spaces that have fantastic precedence for what was done at Dia:Beacon and what’s done here.