It’s another sunny southern California morning and Michael Govan won’t stop talking about palm trees. Sitting in his office at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he took over as director in April 2006, I try to ask him about the challenges of his first year on the job. Or get him to say something—anything—about himself.
But he keeps returning to a palm tree project he commissioned from Robert Irwin, the artist who also designed the much admired gardens at the Getty Center across town. At lacma Irwin is arranging several hundred palms of varying heights throughout the 20-acre campus. "It’s not just a matter of what the trees look like graphically with their fronds; it’s also the way the gray trunks hold the light," says Govan, pointing to a tree on Wilshire Boulevard framed by his window. Noting that the city council recently passed an ordinance limiting new plantings, he adds, "We will be an oasis preserving this tradition, a mini museum of palms."
Our conversation reveals a lot about Govan’s attention to detail, his passion for working with artists, his powers of visualization. All of which helped convince lacma’s board to hire Govan, now 44, to run the West Coast’s premier encyclopedic museum just as it was embarking on a period of unprecedented change.
lacma is undergoing a multiphase expansion based on a master plan by architect Renzo Piano. The $156 million first stage, including Irwin’s palms, is to be completed in February. The centerpiece is the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a 60,000-square-foot building that will showcase the blue-chip collection of billionaire Eli Broad. A longtime lacma board member, Broad donated $50 million for the construction and another $10 million for acquisitions.
Broad has been at the forefront of efforts to raise the profile of the city culturally, which includes transforming lacma into a more current, must-see destination. He was instrumental in hiring Govan to replace outgoing director Andrea Rich. He says that between Rusty Powell’s departure to head the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 15 years ago and Govan’s arrival, the museum "didn’t have someone with an art background who had a leadership ability."
Govan, on the other hand, is "not only very bright," Broad says, "but he also has a Bill Clinton type of personality. He’s a student of art, a serious curator, and he can relate to people on all levels. He has this ability to speak to people in their own language." It’s a skill, the collector notes, that is rare in the art world.
As the newest power player in this city’s cultural landscape, Govan is already making his mark, not least with the roster of heavy hitters who have joined the lacma board since he started: Barbra Streisand, TV journalist Willow Bay, former Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel, MySpace founder Chris DeWolfe, writer Michael Crichton, and hotel heir and venture capitalist Anthony Pritzker.
It doesn’t hurt that Govan is handsome and wears a suit as well as Pierce Brosnan (who was, fittingly, a guest at the gala for lacma’s Magritte show last fall). Adding to his dashing image, one of Govan’s favorite pastimes is flying: He pilots a single-engine Bonanza for fun and even to the occasional business meeting. His elegant wife, Katherine Ross, is a senior vice president of publicity and communications for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.
"Michael is a star," says the director of UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Ann Philbin, herself known for turning around that institution. "He’s passionate, fearless, and extremely charismatic. He has tremendous ambition for lacma and the talent set to pull it off."
Govan began his career under the tutelage of Thomas Krens, the controversial Guggenheim chief whose legendary ambition produced Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum but also a string of unrealized projects. The two met in 1983, when Govan was a student at Williams College in Massachusetts. He interviewed Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art, for an article in an admissions office magazine and they hit it off. "I really liked him," Govan says. "And he liked the fact that I had this background in art history and studio art and could draw." Krens soon hired Govan to design the museum’s posters and publications.
Five years later Krens made Govan his assistant at the Guggenheim and eventually promoted him to deputy director. But in 1994 Govan decamped to run the Dia Art Foundation, the small New York institution known for its collection of Minimalist and Conceptual art. There he spearheaded a career-making project: turning a cavernous former Nabisco box factory on the Hudson River (about an hour north of Manhattan) into an industrial jewel box for Dia’s collection. After a $32 million renovation, Dia:Beacon opened its light-filled galleries in 2003 to almost universal praise.
At Dia, Govan insisted on actively involving artists in the museum. Most notably he enlisted Irwin to design the experience at Dia:Beacon. "He thought about everything," Govan explains, "how you enter the museum, how to get you to the art, how you circulate inside." Irwin’s work extended from creating a canopy of plants for the parking lot to configuring galleries for optimal light.
"It’s an old idea to give artists, who are seers or philosophers of aesthetics, major roles in shaping an environment," Govan says. "Michelangelo did the Dome of Saint Peter’s and Bernini did the Colonnade."
For his part, Irwin credits Govan with bringing the project to life. "With most museum directors, you don’t give them too much information early on because they get locked in and won’t let you change it. Or else they don’t get it," says Irwin. "Not with Michael. His ideas are good, his observations are good."
Govan’s success with Dia:Beacon was a strong selling point for lacma, which in the past several years had commissioned and then abandoned an expansion plan by architect Rem Koolhaas that proved too costly and instead hired Renzo Piano to draw up new designs. By the time Govan started, excavation was already under way. But he is adding his own touches.
Along with Irwin’s palm garden, Govan brought in artist Chris Burden to create an installation using some 200 city lampposts, mainly from the twenties, which the artist had been stockpiling at his Topanga Canyon home. Restored and rewired, they will be clustered together in an almost architectural structure—"like a building with a roof of light," Govan explains.
Even more dramatic is the project he is discussing with Jeff Koons for the main entrance to the campus. If financing and city permits allow, Koons aims to make a 70-foot-long, 140-ton replica of an old-fashioned locomotive that would hang from a huge crane and belch steam and blow its whistle at regular intervals. The sculpture, which could take years to complete, is by no means a sure thing, but, Govan notes optimistically, the crane is already on order.
To help fund such dreams, Govan spends a lot of time on financial plans for the museum, which operates on an annual budget of $54 million. He has worked with Broad to drum up corporate support from companies such as BP Petroleum, as well as to add financial muscle to the board. As a staffer at another museum quips, "We’re chasing after the millionaires, while Michael is going after the billionaires."
Govan concedes this is no easy task in Los Angeles, where arts philanthropy is a shallow tradition. "Over half the people I talk to here have never made a major donation to a cultural institution," he says.
He is also exploring various initiatives to enhance lacma’s collection, such as acquiring homes designed by major architects. "Since I arrived here in L.A., I’ve been looking for things that are local with inter- national importance, and architecture is one of them. If we had a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Schindler house, we’d be the only museum that owned one." The idea is not to go out and buy houses but to encourage donations. So far none have rolled in. That doesn’t stop Govan from passionately discussing the idea—and other forward-looking projects. Sometimes visions are self-fulfilling. At the very least they can be contagious.
These days, as you drive past lacma’s construction site, it is tantalizing to picture Koons’s giant locomotive dangling from the sky. "When I’m on the Ten Freeway, I can see a white skyscraper across from lacma and imagine the train there," Govan says. "I see the train all the time."
For years billionaire collector Eli Broad dreamed of having a public space for his art. In February the Broad Contemporary Art Museum—BCAM, for short—opens on the lacma campus. It’s the first phase of a major multiyear expansion that will eventually include a special building for temporary shows as well.
Building Designed by Renzo Piano, the three-story, travertine-clad structure has nearly 60,000 square feet of exhibition space (New York’s Whitney Museum has a bit more than half that). Its most distinctive feature is a red escalator that runs along the exterior, whisking visitors to the third floor. lacma is making (predictable) comparisons to the Pompidou Center’s iconic escalator, which Piano designed with Richard Rogers in the seventies. There’s also a massive glass elevator offering spectacular views of the Hollywood Hills and, yes, that famous sign.
Galleries Each floor will have two 9,800-square-foot galleries, strikingly, with no internal supporting walls or columns. "Except for the Grand Palais in Paris, I can’t think of another space of this size without columns," Broad says.
Collection The first installation, on view for about a year, will showcase greatest hits from the Broad collection, including crowd-pleasers Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman. "We have been collecting Cindy Sherman for twenty-five years," Broad says. "We bought her Untitled Film Stills in the early eighties, when they were selling for $150 or $200." The ground level, meanwhile, will display a pair of Richard Serra’s huge steel sculptures from 2006.