Michael Govan, who just completed his second full year as chief executive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has presided over a busy period for the institution. It has seen the construction of a new entrance plaza and the opening of the $56 million Broad Contemporary Art Museum designed by famed architect Renzo Piano all part of a master-planned makeover for the 20-acre campus. But the 44-year-old also weathered some setbacks, the most high profile being the decision by billionaire Eli Broad not to will his vast modern art collection to the museum. Govan, who grew up in Washington, D.C., cut his teeth in the art world with stints including serving as deputy director of New York City's Guggenheim Museum at just 25 years of age. Later, he headed the Dia Foundation, a multidisciplinary arts organization. Recently, Govan sat down with the Business Journal in LACMA's sleek boardroom, adorned with whimsical wallpaper of freeways left over from a recent Magritte exhibit. In the wide-ranging interview, Govan spoke of his childhood love of art, his relationship with Broad and the future of the museum he runs. He believes Los Angeles has reached a critical cultural mass.
Question: Between relocating from New York and presiding over the opening of the Broad Contemporary, the last two years must have gone by in a blur.
Answer: Some days it feels like it's been just two weeks and other days it feels like a decade. The interesting thing was arriving as construction (of BCAM) was already beginning. It set a very, very fast pace to everything. Decisions had to be made the second I walked in the door.
Q: What sort of decisions?
A: I spent the first day of my tenure in Renzo Piano's office in Paris, rethinking the master plan a little bit and asking for a few changes. The pace has been very fast and very interesting in that sense. Even at a very fast pace, to do all that we want to do to really transform the whole museum, we are talking a decade.
Q: Your career also has progressed at a very fast pace. How have you managed it?
A: Well, I didn't go to management school. After a while it seemed very unnecessary. You have to come up with creative ideas and make it all work. I was deputy director of the Guggenheim when I was 25, and I was acting curator of the Williams Art Museum. I did a lot of administration and helped manage the building program there when I was still an undergraduate. It's on-the-job training. So you burn out or find you have a knack for it.
Q: But how did you manage to get such a prestigious job as deputy director of Guggenheim at only 25?
A: I didn't want it; that's the quickest way to get a job. I was working with (Guggenheim Director) Tom Krens when he was at Williams College he was director at the Williams Art Museum and was doing a lot of work for him there. I wanted to go back to art school and then when he went to the Guggenheim he asked me to come help him. It wasn't my first priority. He convinced me to leave graduate school in midstream.
Q: Have you been involved with art your entire life? Did you paint as a child?
A: As a kid, yes, all the time. I designed buildings (for fun) when I was a kid. I was trained as an artist and went to school as an artist. I took art history and fine arts in parallel at university at Williams College.
Q: I understand you also toyed with becoming a journalist.
A: When I was in college and high school I was managing editor of my newspaper. That itself is management, you have a lot of reporters.
Q: And when did you give up the journalism dream?
A: When I got into art. That's how I met Tom Krens; I was doing a magazine on the arts at Williams and I met Tom.
Q: How often do you personally interact with artists?
A: Often, since my last experience was at Dia and Dia was all about working with artists. And even when I was at the Guggenheim, what I was doing was mostly working with artists and architects, who are creative people in the same vein. I'm just very fascinated by the process of things being made and how things come into being.
Q: Is it your favorite part of the job?
A: You mean more than meeting with my board? Is that what you are asking on the record? On the record, they are equally interesting.
Q: Did any experience in the last two years set the tone for your time here?
A: A few weeks before I took the job, I did a drive, which I had done once before: You drive from downtown all the way to the beach and back again on Wilshire and you just think and look.
Q: And what did you decide regarding your vision for the museum?
A: I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I spent a year studying in Rome. (Pierre-Charles) L'Enfant's plan for Washington was based on making it a ceremonial city. New York is not a ceremonial city it grows up on the grid almost like a coral reef would grow on rock. Rome is somewhere in between. I think in a way a museum has that function in our society. In Europe the cathedral with the public square would be the public space, and you'd have a gallery off to the side with some shops. We don't really have the same thing. In L.A., maybe it's Disneyland or the Grove, but I'm not sure that they have quite the cultural resonance they need for that.
Q: Is the museum's recent purchase of a lot across the street from the Wilshire Boulevard campus related to this vision?
A: Across the street, there was an opportunity to buy it. The best time to buy it is when you don't need it. You can always negotiate the best deal in those cases. And I think by the same token there are probably 10 ideas that I have for how to deploy that property both for ourselves and for related institutions. There are so many opportunities for growth and development and consolidating activities here, particularly if the subway comes. Imagine the cultural opportunities, imagine the business opportunities. Wilshire Boulevard is L.A.'s downtown.
Q: With the opening of the Broad Contemporary, how does LACMA compare to other big city museums?
A: LACMA suffers in comparison to the other big organizations partly just due to time; LACMA wasn't in its own building until 1964 the other institutions pretty much have a 70-year head start. One also has to see the facts: It isn't just a question of scale, it is a question of attitude.
A: There are many ways to judge a prestigious cultural organization. One way is simply scale of its collections, and you can say we will not rival the Met for many centuries or even Philly or Boston or Chicago. In individual departments we would and we do, and we can claim we have the best of this or the second best of that. But I think what will be most telling in Los Angeles is that we have a slightly different attitude.
Q: And what is that?
A: I really do think it's often more open and it can be experimental. More things go, like inviting (artist) John Baldessari to do an installation for the Magritte exhibit. We've talked about contemporary art playing a major role in a historical museum; it is usually the opposite.
Q: What makes this such an L.A. idea?
A: I think you have to see culturally. Los Angeles is a young city. It is just a matter of time partly and critical mass. The exciting thing about being in Los Angeles right now, it feels like there is a kind of critical mass that has been achieved.
Q: Tell us about your love of big pieces of art, such as the recent Richard Serra installations at the Broad Contemporary.
A: The current thinking in designing museums is you build a big box that is architectural and has flair to it, and you find some small sculptures relative to the building to decorate it. I think the idea is to flip that on its head and have the artworks as the main markers of your experience.
Q: Eli Broad has played a very important role in expanding the museum with his $60 million donation for the new contemporary building. How do you get along?
A: We have a really serious business relationship. He is no-nonsense; he runs meetings with an agenda and expects the same kind of no-nonsense answers from whomever he is working with. It is very intense. That said, I've also traveled with him to an art fair and in those contexts he is a very nice person.
Q: How often do you talk to Eli Broad?
A: Twice a week or once a week it depends on travel and everything else. This week, five times a week.
Q: Some people say he exerts too much influence on the museum. Do you agree?
A: It's not like he's calling to order me around. It's, "I just had dinner with XYZ. We were talking about this, here's an idea for you, call me back tomorrow or the next day." That is true with other trustees, too.
Q: When you first came to L.A. you asked that the director's residence in Hancock Park be sold. That drew some press attention. Tell me about that.
A: They've always had a house in Hancock Park, and they always bought a new house (for each new director). I wasn't asking for something unreasonable. I live in Hancock Park in a house the museum found. It is a simple thing; I have kids and that (old) house had a wet bar in the hallway, so it wasn't conducive to kids.
Q: Even without the hallway wet bar, I imagine you still entertain quite a bit?
A: We have many, many, many cocktail parties.
Q: How do you make time for your kids?
A: It is always busy. But, we are going on vacation for a month. My daughters are 3-and-a-half and 13. I have a daughter here and a daughter in New York (from a previous marriage). We are all one big, happy family.
Q: What does your wife do?
A: She's a senior vice president of communication for the LVMH Group (the luxury conglomerate that includes Louis Vuitton).
Q: Does she have an appreciation for art?
A: She worked at Sotheby's for 15 years before she got into the fashion business. We met a long time ago when she worked at Sotheby's.
Q: I know you are an avid pilot. Do you still have time to fly your own plane?
A: Yes, I will fly to Seattle next weekend to give a talk. It is a 1970s airplane, an old airplane with a single engine, with a rubber band (laughing). You wind it.
Q: Single-engine old plane? That would make me nervous.
A: No, no. They are taken care of. I've flown 1940s airplanes.
Q: There has been some speculation that you could soon leave this job for another opportunity. Is that possible?
A: I have a contract to be here, and we are having way too much fun to go anywhere else.
Job Title: Chief Executive Officer and Director
Organization: Los Angeles County Museum
Born: 1963; Washington, D.C.
Education: B.A., art history, Williams College (Massachusetts)
Most Influential Person: Avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp
Personal: Lives in Hancock Park with wife Katherine Ross, a business executive; and
daughters Arianna and Gabriella
Hobbies: Flies an airplane
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