INterVIEW with LACMA Director Michael Govan [Part 2]: On New Media, Redefining Contemporary Art, and the Convergence of Film and Art in L.A.

LACMA Director Michael Govan on New Media, Contemporary Art, and the Convergence of Film and Art in L.A..

One of the persistent features of the Los Angeles cultural scene has been the divide between Hollywood culture and the city’s visual arts institutions. LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan sees the parallel universes coming together. The rise of do-it-yourself digital filmmaking and Youtube broadcasting are part of what he sees as the dominance of moving images in recent art. This has led him to incorporate film and new media into a more interdisciplinary notion of contemporary art. Whether or not this will result in LACMA tapping Hollywood wealth remains to be seen. But it is one of many ways Govan is refreshing the museum. Others include redefining the contemporary department to begin with work from 1968, bringing in a new team of young curators, and beginning to rethink the traditional compartmentalization of other areas of the permanent collections.

LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan.

The buzz when he took over in 2006 was that he would be one of the first directors to bring a contemporary-art sensibility to the leadership of an encyclopedic museum. He came from Dia, a one-curator institution with work by a couple of dozen postwar artists in its collection; and his major publications were about fluorescent-light artist Dan Flavin. His resume made him a likely candidate to head a museum of modern and contemporary art like LAMOCA or SFMOMA. Now he would have an opportunity to integrate contemporary art into a museum whose collections span millennia.

Encyclopedic museums have ramped up efforts to attract a youthful demographic more interested in the work of their peers than in the Old Masters. Govan’s appointment represented an acknowledgement that the next generations are the future audience of museums. It also responded to the reality that wealthy potential patrons tend to amass collections of contemporary art rather than older works that are in ever shorter supply. With the Broad Contemporary Art Museum about to open at LACMA, and LAMOCA drawing crowds across town, LACMA’s board gambled that Govan would get them in the game. And in that respect they seem to have made a good bet.

Govan has refreshed the institution with a number of initiatives involving contemporary art – asking John Baldessari to design a Magritte exhibition and Jorge Pardo to install the pre-Columbian galleries, hiring Robert Irwin to plan the landscaping, and commissioning outdoor pieces by Chris Burden, Michael Heizer, and others. More generally, he has invigorated the museum with an intellectual alertness that comes across in the second part of our interview.

[Part 1 click here.]

Jason Kaufman: I am on a panel at the 2010 01SJ Biennial http://01sj.org/ of new-media art and technology that takes place in San Jose in September. The panel is about the challenges of collecting new-media art. Is LACMA interested in digital art and new media?

Michael Govan: Yes, very much. I’ve been pushing it. Obviously I see that a lot of the great work happening in the last several years is increasingly media, digital, film, photography-based into new media. So we have been having big discussions about that.

What’s interesting for me is the convergence of film and art, partly through digital media, because of the way artists are now trained. You study videos, film, filmic language, time-based expression. And I think with more and more digital technologists making independent film, and more individuals being able to make movies, there is a moment for potential convergence again, like the beginnings of film when it was painters making film and the technology was so simple and raw and physical. In L.A. I’ve been talking about this more and more and what I want to do in part with the program is see the meeting of film and the traditional collections through media as a great topic for Los Angeles. So we are pushing that. We are collecting more, thinking about it more.

Do you have a department or curator devoted to new media?

No. If you start to set up departments then you end up putting the work “in a department” whereas we are living in an era where there is more crossover than ever. We just combined several areas — I hired Britt Salvesen [formerly director and chief curator of the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson] as a new head of photography, prints and drawings in part because a print is a photograph now. Without film, and with digital printers, film will become not unlike lithography and etching. It will be an old art that is preserved in the context of artists who want to use old technologies for their beauty.

But photography, printmaking – it’s kind of the same thing now. I don’t see any real difference between printmaking and photography in this world we are living in. There’s no distinction. It used to be works on paper – why you had prints and drawings in the same department. You had similar conservation issues. Even now with new media and new drawings and new photography the whole paper printing equation is different as well. So part of her job is to sort that out.

And new media is part of the contemporary art department generally?

Yes. What I did do is made a change in what is the definition of contemporary because we have been hanging around with this postwar distinction just because 1945 was a big political moment. 1968 is the next.

If you look at the way exhibitions are structured and what happened in ‘67 and ’68, the explosion of installation art and other things, I thought it was a good political date and everyone loved that date. And it gives around a 40-year frame. When you think about the establishment of contemporary departments, a lot were established in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a 40-year frame.

If you see what we did in the rehanging [of the permanent collection] it seems to me that Rothko looks better in the continuum with early modernism than next to Jeff Koons. Right? And if you go to those galleries now and go from German Expressionism through Paris, Picasso, Giacometti, Surrealism and then move into mid-century painters it makes sense to me. They’re still painting on canvas, traditional media, whereas then you go into the Broad building where you have video projection and a bigger disjunction, it seems to me, in the late ‘60s. Obviously the seeds of it are in the early ‘60s, but ‘68 is a nice political boundary. Video begins to emerge as a strong force. That was for me the most important conceptual change rather than are we going to establish a new media department, because by my definition the emergence of single-channel video, and that as a way of working, with installation and video, starts then.

MoMA hired Klaus Biesenbach as a new media specialist, then he became director of PS1. But they did create a separate department.

They are rethinking it too, but they have a huge tradition in film because of their film archives, because of their strong film/moving-image history. I think they are rethinking it themselves, though. When half the artists are using new media and video, why would you have a new media department and a contemporary art department? It makes no sense. Moving images are dominating a lot of what contemporary art is. To see film as a separate discipline is not exactly appropriate in a digital media age where films are on computers, Youtube generation, you’ve got artists working in film and video.

One reason would be if the medium itself requires certain physical demands.

Those for me would be conservation-departmental issues, which you never lose. We always have conservation divided into physical specialties because it’s science, whereas curators these days, with professional conservation labs, are now dealing with interpretation, situation, context.

I have a whole new team. I promoted Rita Gonzalez who did the “Phantom Sightings” show that’s at the Museo del Barrio, and hired Christine Kim who used to work at the Studio Museum in Harlem for six years; she moved to LA. And I hired Franklin Sirmans as head of department who was in New York and the Menil. And then I changed the date to ‘68. Because even if you look at the ages of those curators – Rothko was long dead when they were born! Not long dead, but…. So it’s a youngish team, and given their track records they have a very different outlook.

What is their brief?

I have given them this brief to move the boundary and start to reconsider these issues of what contemporary is across media in particular. It’s interesting that the discussions we’re having now are about how much sense do those 18th-century categories make? Why does American art end in 1914? What logic is there to that when a young American curator now is thinking of the trajectory of themes in American art that they can pull out of the “American Stories” show [of pre-Modern genre painting] — themes of narrative which they can easily weave into contemporary color photography?

I think we live in this era of interest in these content and interpretive issues, thematic considerations, lines of inquiry that really cut across media and departments. Our old museums were established around time, geography, and media and those things are quickly breaking down.

Find Part 3 of the interview tomorrow IN VIEW.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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