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This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Seven years after he took over as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan has transformed it from an also-ran to downtown’s more glamorous Museum of Contemporary Art into Southern California’s dominant cultural organization. Annual attendance has doubled to 1.2 million since his arrival, and during his tenure the museum has added more than 14,000 works to its collection. He has enlarged the LACMA board to include Barbra Streisand, producer Brian Grazer and such Hollywood execs as former Warner Bros. chairman Terry Semel, CAA’s Bryan Lourd and Paramount’s Brad Grey, connecting the local industry to the fine arts in a way few L.A. cultural institutions previously had.
If Govan has his way, it’s only the start of an ambitious reinvention of LACMA. Earlier this year, he unveiled plans for a $400 million to $450 million facility designed by renowned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. His flowing, glass-walled structure — dubbed “the black flower” — would replace four existing buildings. Govan intends to raise another $200 million to help run and maintain the new building while paying off the institution’s debt. Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is raising $300 million for its own museum, to be housed in LACMA’s unused former May Co. building and slated to open in 2017.
Govan, who earned an art history degree at Williams College, spent 12 years overseeing the Dia Art Foundation in New York City before moving to L.A. He lives in Hancock Park with his wife, Katherine Ross, a former executive at luxury firm LVMH, and their 9-year-old daughter, Gabrielle (he has another daughter, Ariana, 18, from his first marriage). Govan, 50, met with THR in early October in his first-floor office overlooking Wilshire Boulevard.
Have you been surprised by any reactions to LACMA’s proposed new design?
I expected it to be much more controversial. I think a lot of people sometimes think: “Well, art is traditional. We should have a traditional architecture.” But it has to be a 21st century Los Angeles museum. It has to embody the present time with a global consciousness as well as a Los Angeles consciousness.
L.A. is a city that can be surprisingly resistant to embracing new ideas.
Well, I would just say to date. One of the things I’ve counted on is right time, right place.
You’ve been highly successful at bringing the entertainment industry into the process and making it excited and committed.
I will acknowledge there’s still a big separation between the art world and the film world in L.A. And I noticed that people didn’t interact as commonly as I would have thought because they’re all creative people, and the differences aren’t so great in the craft — maybe the end result, it’s a little different. That was why I asked the trustees if I could establish an annual fundraiser and call it “Art & Film” [the 2013 Art+Film Gala on Nov. 2 will honor director Martin Scorsese and artist David Hockney]. Because it seemed to me, not only would it distinguish it from other art fundraising events, it actually had a more civic community idea. That was the idea behind naming a filmmaker and an artist together.
How have you overcome that separation?
It was so easy. Terry Semel I knew because he was on the board at the Guggenheim in the early ’90s, when I worked there. So with [the late LACMA board chair] Nancy Daly‘s help, we called him.
Why hadn’t people in your position done that?
You have to reach out and communicate. But for the record, I found no barriers. I also ended up talking to Michael Lynton; he’s super-well-read, knows about art and is one of the smartest people I know. Steve Tisch — I know his cousins in New York. He’s a collector. It just didn’t even seem a barrier at all.
Were you surprised by the uproar when you killed off LACMA’s film series in 2009?
It created a kind of soul-searching. Previous to that, I had no problem talking to heads of studios about art — but I’d always had trouble talking to them about film at LACMA. It was a little bit like: “You’re the art guy. I want to talk to you about art, and we do film at the office.” And I said, “No, you have to integrate film into the museum.” I got called a lot of names, which, you know, it was OK. I knew what I was doing.
You ended up creating a new program with Film Independent.
The great thing about the financial crisis was that everybody’s ego was checked a little bit, including ours, and the idea of collaboration increased. So, well, why don’t we collaborate with Film Independent? They have an audience; we have a theater.
Martin Scorsese’s letter in the Los Angeles Times excoriating your decision was pretty tough.
Which was fitting because he hadn’t been to LACMA since 1977. I happened to be in New York when he wrote it. I hustled over to his brownstone in Manhattan, and I said, “Listen, we’ve got to do something bigger and better.” In one second, he’s like, “Yeah, I’ll help you.”
What will LACMA’s involvement be with the Academy museum?
Advisory and assistance. We’ll coordinate marketing and ticketing. And we have offered any support, but they make every decision.
Now your challenge is to raise millions of dollars to build and operate your new facility.
I am super-optimistic. You’ve got art and film and television and design and architecture here, all thriving. You’ve got a multicultural community. What you need is that sense of making history — and I feel it. My dream plan is, we’re building by 2017 and open by 2022 or ’23, to correspond with the subway opening.
Last topic: Is any prospect of a partnership or merger with MOCA off the table, as you and LACMA proposed this year?
The thing is, we did our civic duty. Everybody thinks we were in it to take over MOCA — MOCA was at the bottom. I think of it the other way: How could we not offer?
Were you surprised by Eli Broad’s move to block it?
If our intervention yielded a renewed energy to raise money for contemporary art in Los Angeles, then we’re excited and I’m excited.
Not to put you on the spot, but is he ultimately a force for good for culture in Los Angeles?
Or does Broad’s reputed desire for control make collaborating with him too problematic?
He’s been really great. He gave us one of the most beautiful buildings; he’s given us a lot of art. But the thing is, it’s cumulative. I noticed the difference in other cities is that, in the more mature cities, there’s just more — there’s more.
As in, there’s not one person who dominates the scene in that way.
There’s just more. I think you’re seeing that at LACMA: We’re getting more and more and more. Anybody with too much focus on any single patron in any place is a complicated proposition. These are civic institutions; they need diversified investments.
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