The following story appeared in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press 70th Anniversary issue, published April 21. To view the entire issue, click here.
Michael Govan’s office at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looks onto Wilshire Boulevard. Every day, the museum director can see the proverbial obstacle that he plans to hurdle with an ambitious renovation project. Since Govan can’t part the sea of traffic, LACMA will bridge the museum over the iconic corridor to the south side of the street.
It will cap a decade of massive reimagining for Museum Row and the Miracle Mile, following the Petersen Automotive Museum’s $90 million renovation, the addition of the Academy Museum and the Metro Purple Line Extension set to open at the same time that LACMA reopens in 2023. All of which is at or near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.
But Govan knows that expanding this art museum means more than a new look for the corridor. The changes will mean as much to the city’s art and culture status as they will to the Miracle Mile.
Sixteen years after a renovation attempt failed due to lack of funding, the conditions and details of LACMA’s plans have changed as much as the city’s reputation for producing, preserving and developing art. While it may have been inaccurate to call Los Angeles an art destination decades ago, Govan and LACMA are improving that reputation as much as their buildings. And the renovation may be may be the city’s magnum opus and help secure its distinction as an art capital of the world.
After talking for a few minutes with Govan – a 52-year-old Hancock Park resident – it is clear that he wants to create something remarkable for Los Angeles that will reinvent the museum experience. But if you talked to the same man a few decades ago, that would not have been the case.
“Since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist, so I would draw and paint all the time, and I always thought that that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I would visit museums – it was funny – I liked art but I didn’t like museums. I always thought that some of the big museums were stuffy and unfriendly, like a lot of people do. But I liked art so I had a lot of exposure to art and museums.”
Govan studied art at Williams College in Massachusetts – often considered the best liberal arts college in the country. He worked at the Williams College Museum of Art “doing everything from screwing in light bulbs, to making and curating exhibitions, to helping oversee a building [redevelopment] project.”
“Once you have that experience … that’s kind of how I got into museums,” he said.
Govan attended graduate school in San Diego and became acquainted with Los Angeles when he visited art exhibitions and galleries. In 1986, LACMA opened the Art of the Americas Building on the southeast side of its campus – which currently houses Govan’s office.
“I remember when this building opened,” he said. “I did not like it. I thought it was not a wholly conceived project. I only learned later from (former LACMA director) Rusty Powell that the project here was never even finished.”
Powell left to direct of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. before the project was complete.
“It seemed out of date already,” he said. “It was a practical issue of the museum of that time, but it needed more space and there was no space to build because of the Tar Pits, Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Drive. So the only place they could build is right where we’re sitting. …The circumstances that they had to expand weren’t ideal.”
Govan left San Diego when he was offered a job as a deputy director to help renovate the The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, or The Guggenheim, in New York City. During his time there, Govan had a lot of exposure to Los Angeles thanks to his work with legendary architect Frank Gehry on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain – one of the most architecturally stunning museums in the world.
In 1994, Govan moved to the Dia Art Foundation where he led the creation of Dia:Beacon – a modern art museum on the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. During Govan’s 12 years as director and president of Dia, the museum’s collection doubled in size.
Govan was very happy in New York. He was planning a new museum where the Whitney Museum of American Art is now in Manhattan when Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of former Mayor Richard Riordan, and other LACMA trustees were “insistent” that Govan consider L.A. first.
Govan initially balked at the opportunity. He didn’t want to take the job, but he promised he would consider the “big, big, big risk.”
“I think the common perspective was that Los Angeles – it has a lot of artists – but the feeling was there wasn’t a lot of cultural philanthropy,” Govan said. “There was this question about whether L.A. had the wherewithal.”
He pointed to fundraising efforts for projects like MOCA and Walt Disney Concert Hall that “really struggled” to raise enough money. And when LACMA planned to rebuild the campus in 2000, the project failed due to lack of funding.
But after three “really painful” months of consideration, Govan decided to take the cross-country leap for “the same thing that gets everybody to L.A.”
“It’s the city of the future,” he said. “It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can be.”
And what it is now is not too bad either, he said, because despite a lack of philanthropy, the city was and is an incredibly diverse art community.
“L.A. is the most multicultural city on the planet. And that is our raison d’etre. Our reason for being is to be, to have culture from everywhere. Not to be one culture.”
Govan was also attracted to make the move because LACMA – which celebrated its 50th birthday last year – and Los Angeles are very young when compared to cities like New York or London and the art institutions there.
“In 2020, I think the Metropolitan Museum in New York will celebrate its 150th birthday. So you think about a century and how much happens in a century and how young this place is,” Govan said. “The thrill was that it’s a young place and its future is open. I think that’s what brings everybody to L.A. There’s a lot of creative people who are very invested in the future, not in prestige for the sake of it, but for what can be done.”
Govan also learned to love LACMA’s location.
“I remember wandering around, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is right in the middle of this giant metropolis. This location is awesome, just being equidistant from Hollywood and the 10 Freeway between downtown and the Westside. It’s kind of right in the middle of everything,” Govan said. “So I know L.A. has no center, but if it were to, metaphorically and physically, this is where it should be located. And that was before I knew the subway would stop here.”
He admitted it may sound like heresy to some Angelenos, but he found Los Angeles to be very similar to New York City.
“These are two big, giant, multicultural, complicated cities filled with artists and ambitious people. One’s the gateway to Europe, one’s the gateway to the West. In some ways they function for the nation like bookends to two worlds – one more to the past and to the power of Europe and sort of 18th and 19th century perspectives, and then one that is clearly this side, clearly oriented toward the new world.”
Govan said when he moved to L.A. in 2006, LACMA was an underutilized resource. But added space and architecture have allowed the museum to bring in much higher quality art exhibitions. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum added 60,000 square feet of gallery space to the campus in 2008. The Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, an open-plan building designed to adapt to a rotating slate of exhibitions, added another 40,000 square feet in 2010. The open air BP Grand Entrance hosts Ray’s and Stark Bar at the center of the museum’s campus.
Monumental works of art that have been added, such as Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” Robert Irwin’s “Palm Gardens,” Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled,” and Tony Smith’s “Smoke” have become iconic.
Govan said it’s only now, three decades after Rusty Powell’s expansion, after the removal of Ogden Drive and the 1994 acquisition of the May Company Building, that LACMA has created a campus plan “that really works.”
“We’re in between now,” he said.” I think we’re in this growth and change mode because we have done a lot of work, we have opened the exterior, the plazas, the gardens, the large sculpture. We’ve worked very hard to make it friendlier, easier, more integrated with the park and public space.”
LACMA also reversed a trend under Govan’s direction by producing more exhibitions than it takes in.
“We’re trying to, in a way, export the California perspective and the Los Angeles perspective by designing and organizing more shows here and traveling them throughout the world rather than be a venue for shows from elsewhere,” Govan said. “So we can create not just a brand but a point of view and an intellectual point of view of what it means to look at the art history from Los Angeles.”
He said part of that L.A. brand will come from creating a view that is distinctive from other museums in other cities to produce an identity that’s appropriate to Angelenos.
“Los Angeles is a powerful, creative place,” Govan said. “It shouldn’t be making apologies to any other city in terms of its creative energy, the art that’s made here and the way we look at the world.”
LACMA emphasizes California artists, and its commitment to Asian and Korean art has more than quadrupled since Govan’s arrival. The museum has also expanded exhibition space for movies and film.
“One of our most landmark shows was ‘California Design.’ Before we did that show, everybody said, ‘What’s California Design? Is that even a category?’” Govan said. “And thanks to Wendy Kaplan and that team and that show, it’s a category now. And that show has traveled the world now. Now everybody knows what California Design is. There’s a lot of pride in that.”
Govan’s and LACMA’s success over the past 10 years is unmistakable and indisputable. Since he took over in 2006, attendance and gallery space have doubled, and the museum added 30,000 new works of art to its collection. He has built a reputation as one of the city’s best fundraisers, and his name is often paired in headlines with celebrities, world-renowned art directors, artists or architects.
But the next 10 years are “the big 10 years,” he said, as the museum takes on the task of replacing its four buildings with one state-of-the-art facility by 2023.
Whether the new museum makes the cultural statement that LACMA is aiming for may be debatable, but a need to renovate the existing campus is not, Govan said.
“With the current facilities, it’s really immaterial whether you like them or not,” Govan said. “It’s not even a debating point. These things are about to fall apart. We’ve had skylights fall in and we have had leaks. We closed many galleries and storage spaces when it rained the other week. These facilities are dead. They really need to be replaced as soon as possible for the protection and accessibility of the collections.”
But Govan has always been interested in the broader field of visual art and architecture, and has built a reputation as someone with outside-the-box, or outside-the-frame interests. From the installation of “Levitated Mass” along Sixth Street to the acquisition of a John Lautner-designed home earlier this year, Govan has spearheaded dozens of larger, experience-based installations and architecture projects that go well beyond paint on a canvas, and are not limited to any genre. Similarly, he plans to go beyond a typical brick-and-mortar institution and expand the function and definition of a museum.
“It comes from an interest in ancient art when architecture and art were a part of the same sphere,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to constrain a museum to a box that you place art inside of.”
The new plans to transform LACMA’s campus come from Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The major feat, of course, is the plan to have one structure straddle Wilshire Boulevard. It will bridge the museum’s main building to LACMA-owned property at the corner of Wilshire and Spaulding Avenue.
Crews will remove 100,000 square feet of space from the current campus and put it on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard. That will free up about two acres on the north side. The bridge-section of the building over Wilshire Boulevard will display exhibits and artwork and offer views of the boulevard in both directions.
The new building will cost much less to operate than the existing campus. At approximately 400,000 square feet, Zumthor’s building will contain roughly the same overall size as the four structures it will replace – but will make twice as much art accessible to visitors.
“It’s the largest public cultural project ever attempted in Los Angeles. The current budget over 10 years, inclusive of everything, is $600 million currently,” Govan said.
Los Angeles County has already given its full support to the redesign, and will commit approximately $125 million, or one fifth of the total goal. But soon, Govan will change hats – from art director to private fundraiser.
One of the primary goals of the plan for the new museum is to reshape and set a new standard for an individual’s experience at a museum. When it comes to shaping something as abstract as a person’s experience, Govan said he will use a combination of the best aspects from his past. For example, the Guggenheim is a well-known institution with a large budget and as many employees as LACMA. It has a more “retail” experience, and boasts impressive attendance rates, where people can walk in off the street in New York.
“It was quality not quantity [at the Dia], and the Guggenheim was always after quantity,” Govan explained. “In some sense this seemed to be an opportunity [at LACMA] to blend the two experiences – to create a museum that was big and public but with a very special and immersive quality. The idea is to have your cake and eat it too.”
That strategy has already been a success at LACMA, where larger audiences are attracted to public artworks like “Urban Light” on the sidewalk in front of the campus which produces a “cacophony of energy” with a steady flow of Instagrammers and wedding photographers. And Angelenos can visit “Levitated Mass” for free from Sixth Street. These exhibits draw visitors in, and once they are inside the experience becomes quieter and more intimate throughout the gallery space.
“My view is that museums don’t have to be one or the other,” he said. “If designed properly, they can be as open and accessible as a public plaza, and as intimate and intellectually spiritual and personal as a single encounter with a work of art. That’s really what we’re going for here in the new building.”
To increase accessibility, Zumthor’s designs include a transparent exterior and open plaza.
“And sort of step-by-step you remove yourself from the energy of the city into a quiet contemplative experience, but you’re not more than a few steps from looking out a window onto Wilshire Boulevard. That’s the idea,” Govan said.
Since the existing campus was built “little pieces at a time,” Govan said it created a “Swiss cheese” effect where escalators, elevators, staircases, doorways and entrances seem disconnected and aren’t integrated together, making it difficult to navigate.
“It’s not designed as a whole,” he said. “So the new building will be designed for much easier accessibility, orientation and security. The environment for art, the light and shadow, the doorways into galleries, everything will look much better. And all the galleries are on the main floor so rather than going up and down escalators and elevators and staircases you’ll just have this easy flow like walking through a park.”
You can see the excitement on Govan’s face and hear the enthusiasm in his voice when he talks about the new plans. But when asked what aspect or feature he is most excited about, he paused.
“Everything,” he said after a beat. “I mean, every museum should be glass on the outside. You should be able to look in. And I think it’s fantastic to look out. And I love natural light. And every museum should be solar-powered. The best galleries are the ones that are easy to rearrange or when they’re horizontal and you can really keep developing an approach to the collection that isn’t hindered by little boxes that are fixed to the floor.”
The new and improved LACMA is scheduled to open in 2023 – right when the Purple Line Extension station opens near Fairfax Avenue.
“I would say the time is right now,” Govan said. “The board is fully excited and prepared. The community is much more mature in terms of the acknowledgement of the role of the museum.
“And I think we’re going to be successful… I know we’ll be successful.”
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