MORE

The Encyclopedic City

LACMA director Michael Govan with Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Robert, Joe and Michael) (1975–81). (Photos by Kevin Scanlon)

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.

 


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.


You hope to install Jeff Koons’ gigantic train hanging from a crane. Obviously, that would be very cool, but besides that, what would it do for us?

Why make such a big statement or investment? Again, there are 10 reasons. But one is that everybody is building signature buildings that are like sculpture, right? Why not reverse the order and have art first? Why not hire a sculptor — they make really good sculpture. [Laughs.] Not that I don’t like architects. Frank Gehry is an artist, sculptor, architect, and he literally changed the fortunes of Bilbao. I was just thinking that occasionally you can hire a sculptor to do that. And it’s rare to find somebody who can make really iconic images. There are very few artists who are really good at it, and Jeff Koons is one.

What about the sculpture? Well, it’s tall, and there’s a long ancient history of tall sculptures marking important spaces — the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman obelisks. So you see a yellow crane with a red top and you can see it from [all over], so all of a sudden you have a mental place for LACMA. And then it’s obviously a very 21st-century sculpture, taking into account a kind of pop aesthetic. It’s literally hanging an artifact of the industrial age, after the fact, as a museum piece. And that train is the greatest statement of power, the apotheosis of the industrial age. It’s the vehicle that traverses the nation and offers the growth that we know as our cities and everything else. The crane is a fantastic symbol for a museum because it’s as if something’s always being built. And, you know, it’s Los Angeles. It’s the end of the line, and [Koons] was interested in the pop sense of things being big enough to be seen from a distance — the Hollywood Sign.

 

 

Dan Flavin, untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), 1973
(Courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA)

 

So what needs to happen now?

 

We need to do a lot of engineering, which they’re working on, and then fund-raising. We have supporters like Wallis Annenberg, who gave the first grant just like that. I presented 10 projects to her, and she said, “That makes me smile.”


You have some other outdoor projects in mind?

Robert Irwin is working on a palm garden, and Michael Heizer is working on a monolithic sculpture. It’ll be one of the largest monolithic stones ever moved, since Egyptian times. It’s a California rock, a beautiful, beautiful rock. From Riverside. It’s not going to be carved, it’s going to be a raw object. He’s done many, many works with raw rocks. It’s been a trademark for him.

Part of what we’re doing, part of the idea of the ton-square metaphor, is the park-museum thing, the inside-outside quality notion, like a 17th-century garden where you have follies. And you’d walk through the gardens to these big follies.


So like Dia:Beacon, it’s a place people are drawn to.

You know, Jeff Koons is not a Dia kind of artist. Let’s say that it’s not the Dia aesthetic. Just to be clear, that’s not the objective. [The objective is] a destination shaped by art and by artists.


What about your first year here met your expectations, and what surprised you?

 

In museum time, nothing pans out in a year. Museum time is very slow. It’s a 10-year proposition to do anything in the museum world. I haven’t been disappointed by anything — nothing is what I didn’t expect in that sense. Maybe I did expect a little bit more common feeling from everybody that this is a moment to pull together.


Do you mean city leaders?

City leaders, philanthropists, people with money. I don’t think philanthropy is a weird word, but you’ll find people will only use the word investment. They don’t like the idea of just giving away things. But on the other hand, a lot of people invest in their museums and in their cities on that level, I think largely for themselves. I mean for their sense of self, because your sense of self is that you come from and inhabit a great city. And they contribute to it so that they can share in the pleasure of it.


It’s not so easy here.

It’s not so easy here.


Why is that?

I don’t know. In New York, they’ll tell me, “Oh, L.A. can never be a New York and can never be a great cultural capital because it’s not like New York and it’s all spread out.” How many times do you hear that?


Once a day.

Once a day. Well, as far as I can see, cities have often changed their compositions over many ancient centuries to the present. And there’s always been culture and great cities, and it’s taken different forms depending on the kind of shape the city took. So let’s say all the future cities look like L.A. New York looks like Europe, but [what] was the last city you saw that was like New York? Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, Seoul — they all look like L.A. And so there’s going to be a different model. We’re just going to be part of that.

Another thing you hear is “Well, you can’t have that kind of attendance because [LACMA] is too hard to get to.” I hear that all the time. And every Saturday I walk over to the Grove with my 21?2-year-old daughter. Eighteen million people or something like that went to the Grove last year.

 

 

Dan Flavin, untitled (to my dear bitch, Airily), 1981
(Courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA)

 

More than Disneyland, right?

Yeah, so it’s two blocks away. So now I look at people and say, “Okay, now tell me again you can’t get here.” Then they say, “People aren’t generous enough.” In terms of giving. I actually argue from what I can see in the last 15 years, in the fields of medicine, increasingly in education, L.A. is catching up with all the big cities. And so it lags in art. So then you would say it’s just a matter of time and maturity.


But why do we still have this embarrassing problem of people like Edward Broida giving their art collections to MoMA? That’s obviously something that has to change.

That is hugely embarrassing. And it should be the headline: “Why?” We have people on our board who have given more to the National Gallery [of Art] than to LACMA. One person has given more to the Museum of Modern Art than to LACMA. You know why.


It’s prestige.

Right. Until you reach a critical mass of prestige, you don’t get there. And that’s continuously eluded this museum in particular, and other museums in the sense that Broida could have given his collection to MOCA too, but we just don’t have the prestige that the Museum of Modern Art has. Now, we’re not going to get it instantly. You’re going to have to build it over time. It’s just a matter of investment. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem.

If everyone with a good art collection in L.A. donated their art collection here, for example, critical mass would be instant. I’m not saying that’s going to happen tomorrow, but what you can see increasingly, given the interest in art collectors growing here, is that you don’t have to go far.


Is there a danger in giving Eli Broad so much name recognition that you scare other people away?

It shouldn’t, because this is a huge museum. The collections here dwarf his, and people have to get a perspective on it. It’s 60,000 square feet. We could be 300,000 square feet of exhibition space in the future. But, you know, L.A. has also suffered from that not-working-together problem. That probably is the one true thing you can say. From my experience in New York, to build museums you need an incredible amount of teamwork.


New Yorkers love New York.

They love New York, and they’re so jammed together that there is a kind of forced teamwork that you have to get used to — being around people you may or may not love but you can work with. And now in L.A., I don’t know. You know, there’s a bad history — Norton Simon, Armand Hammer. The place is littered with stories of people taking their marbles and going off somewhere else. There are two reasons: One, it’s somehow inherent in the place, its separateness and all that. The other is that there hasn’t really been a good enough idea to rally around. You know, a contemporary art museum is a great thing, but not everyone loves contemporary art. So MOCA has done a great job in collecting energy; people have worked together. And here [at LACMA] we have incredible things — the Carter Collection of Dutch paintings, which is world-class, and the [Robert Gore] Rifkind Center for German Expressionism, which is probably the center for German expressionist works on paper, certainly in the nation and for a large part of the world. So we have these amazing resources. I think the thing that it’s lacked is the working together to build a great museum. That’s the key, working together.

 

Every big city has a museum, and most of the encyclopedic museums have an audience that’s 40 percent regional and 60 percent tourists. That’s the standard. In some places, [the tourist percentage] is higher, say 85 percent, and in some places it’s maybe 55 percent. Here it’s 15 percent tourists. What does that mean? It means you’re not on the map. The city is, but the museum isn’t.

 

 

Dan Flavin, untitled (to a man, George McGovern) 2, 1972
(Courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA)

 

How large is LACMA’s membership?

It’s over 65,000 people — one of the largest in the nation. We have Next Gen, which is kids under 17, and then they can bring an adult with them for free. We have 40,000 of those. The education programs are among the best in the nation. We’re on the map regionally, we have a really good and, I think, fairly loyal audience. And we have great resources. We just haven’t leveraged that into visibility.


Do you think the name has something to do with it? Is that the worst name for a museum in the country — or the world?

The name is tough.


The name is tough and the acronym is worse.

The funny thing is, Los Angeles has to be the most beautifully named city in the world. It just speaks of light.


What do you do with that?

We’re proud to be a county museum because the county has really been supportive. So that’s the hard part — there is one too many words. You can’t leave out “Los.” “Angeles” you can’t leave out. You can maybe leave “art” out, but that doesn’t help. And it has too many abbreviations — L.A. County, County Museum, the museum near the tar pits. It’s too long in the age of Internet searches. I’ll tell you what, if you come up with it . . .


And so we left off. As it happens, an associate of mine at the Weekly sent the recording of Govan’s interview to a service that outsources the transcribing to India. It is easy, quick and inexpensive, I was told, and while I can attest to that, I can also say that audio doesn’t always translate well to people who don’t know our local culture. The results were sometimes puzzling and often amusing. The strangely named figure Migetti was, of course, The Getty, while and four halls turned out to be Andy Warhol. Gentler pipe stood in for gentrified. And when Govan used the expression a pig in a poke, it was translated as the rather wonderful A Pagan of Poke.

But my favorite misspelling was for Eli Broad, who, as everyone knows, is no Eli Broke. Occasionally, the transcriber miswrote but was nevertheless correct, as when Govan noted that the museum had invited John Baldessari to install the Magritte show, and it was transcribed as invited John Balthazar to install them a great show.

Finally, the Indian transcriber had his own idea of what LACMA should be: Gluckman. Well, why not, New York has its Guggenheim. Unfortunately, Cal State L.A. already has the Luckman Fine Arts Complex. So my suggestion for Govan and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is to take that beautifully named city a step further back in time as well as into the future, to El Museo de Arte de Los Angeles. The El, people could call it, which would tie right in with that Koons train (sort of). And MALA has a certain edginess to it, in spite of its literal translation. Think wicked good. Do you have a better idea? If so, e-mail us at feedbackLACMA@laweekly.com. We’ll share the results with Michael Govan.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >