Michael Govan is in the news today, though the dashing Angeleno is not bathed in the discreet gallery lighting directors of major art museums are accustomed to. A feature written by the L.A. Times' Alan Zarembo and Mike Boehm focuses on the indelicate matter of Govan's near-million-dollar salary from the L.A. County Museum of Art. The Times writers note that Govan's salary and benefits assume a larger shape in art-world conversations, not simply because of the recession that has dented curatorial budgets across the country, but also because LACMA is more heavily financed by taxes than most arts institutions — one-quarter of its $74 million operating expenses come from L.A. County.
Compared to salaries paid in corporate America, professional sports and the entertainment industry, Govan's salary barely raises an eyelash, let alone an eyebrow. However, in the world of art museums, whose shrinking budgets are crippling programs and acquisitions, a salary approaching $1 million stands out. Govan, for example, recently scrubbed much of LACMA's film program
— sacking its director, Ian Birnie, and ending its weekend screenings,
much to the chagrin of a town largely built by the movie industry. LACMA also raised its admission fee from $9 to $12 in 2008.
No one, including the Times writers, suggests Govan isn't good at what he does and for what he was hired — to raise money. The Times reports he's raised a quarter-billion dollars in three years at LACMA — $100 million more than it collected in the three years before his arrival. LACMA needs someone with Govan's charisma and money-raising prowess. Last year, in a brief profile on Govan, Esquire noted the historical shifts of art-world centers of power:
“Now, of course, it is Los Angeles, where the collectors are seriously
rich and seriously sophisticated, and where a sprawling museum called
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art . . . has money and ambition and expansionist plans the likes of which the museum world has rarely seen.”
Still, some of Govan's museum-supplied perks that Zarembo and Boehm uncovered do stand out: Govan was paid $103,000 just to stay at his own Manhattan condo whenever he was in New York on business, and now lives rent-free with his family in a $5 million Hancock Park home.
As the Times quotes the director of the prestigious Bolz Center for
Arts Administration, “Every dollar you give in compensation is a dollar
you can't spend on programs and curatorial work.”