INterVIEW with LACMA Director Michael Govan [Part 3]: The Resnick Pavilion, Transforming the Campus, Rethinking Traditional Curatorial Departments, and Hot Topics in Art History

LACMA Director Michael Govan on Rethinking Traditional Curatorial Departments, Hot Topics in Art History, and Expanding the Museum.

In October the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens the $54 million Resnick Pavilion for temporary exhibitions, designed by Renzo Piano and named after trustee Lynda Resnick who with her husband Stewart donated $45 million for construction. On June 10 the museum offered visitors a one-day sneak preview of the space with a Walter de Maria floor piece installed. (image below) LACMA’s director and CEO Michael Govan considers the building a crucial step in his long-range plan to enhance the museum’s campus and programs. In this third and final part of our interview, we discuss upcoming shows, the museum’s budget, sculpture commissions, architectural planning, LACMA’s future  subway stop (yes, Los Angeles has a subway), and Govan’s interest in reimagining art history to better integrate Latin American art into the European and American collections.

[Part 1 click here, Part 2 click here.]

LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion interior with Walter de Maria’s 2000 Sculpture.

Jason Kaufman: I want to talk about your plans for the campus. Tell me about your new Resnick Pavilion for temporary exhibitions opening in October.

Michael Govan: The cool thing about the building is that all the gallery space is on one floor. No stairs, no elevators or escalators. It’s about 45,000 square feet on one floor, so it’s a pretty extraordinary horizontal space. It’s covered by one flat open expanse with skylights, and it has no fixed walls. It’s a kind of perfect light box and you can arrange it as you want. There’s a little bit of the flexibility of his Centre Pompidou combined with the quality of light of his new buildings like the Nasher Sculpture Center. It’s a beautiful stylish space, and it has glass that’s open to the park.

Part of the idea is to have a large open floor plate where you can have a number of programs that reflect the encyclopedic nature of the museum. So audiences that come for Olmec ancient sculpture can end up seeing 19th-century costumes, and vice versa. For me it’s as much about mixing audiences as mixing artworks.

The opening program will be the ancient Mexican Olmec exhibition, a show that’s never been mounted, definitive with monumental sculpture, partly timed to the Mexican bicentennial. There’s also a show of the Resnick collection, which goes from Renaissance sculpture all the way to Art Deco and has never been seen in public. And we’re showing our new 18th– and 19th-century costume collection, so there’s nice back and forth. Part of the idea is to make presentations of the collection as special exhibitions.

The costume collection has not been shown?

That’s right, it’s brand new. We made a major acquisition of over 800 objects that almost brings us to the level of the Met in terms of European costume. This will be its debut. Both the Resnick and costume shows are being designed by opera-set designer Pier Luigi Pizzi, so there is a kind of flare to it.

What’s the next round of shows?

The next highlights include a David Smith show [considering his use of geometry across media], and [decorative arts curator] Wendy Kaplan’s definitive Southern California design show called “Living in a Modern Way,” part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time presentations [an initiative supporting research and shows on postwar SoCal art and design]. They have been helping to sponsor it. We also have a big show called “Gifts of the Sultan,” masterpieces of Islamic art of the Middle East. Another long-range highlight is a Kenny Price retrospective curated by [senior curator of modern and contemporary art] Stephanie Barron and designed by Frank Gehry.

Financial Snapshot and Plans for the Campus

How will BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion affect the annual operating budget, and how will you get the additional funds?

Each building from an operating perspective is adding about $2 to $3 million. The operating budget for 2007 was $45 million and we were hoping to be at about $60m for the Broad opening year 2008. In the old economy we projected the operating budget after Resnick would be more in the $65 million range, but in the recession we cut back 15% of operating budget, and continued to cut. For this current fiscal year [2010-2011] the budget is $59 million.

But we already opened the Broad pavilion, we changed the perimeter of the campus [acquired new land], we have the new entrance, new parking lot operating — all those expenses are sunk. The marginal additional cost of the new building is about one million from an operating perspective. That doesn’t include the programs, but we’d be running those programs in other spaces.

You ask about the justification. It’s a massive expansion of square footage and a great, great quality improvement in terms of the visitor experience relative to the expenditure. So I feel it’s a tremendous value.

Still, it’s a bad time to be opening something that will cost more money when people don’t have more to pay. Are you anticipating running a deficit for a while?

No. We carry forward and hover $500,000 plus or minus, in that range. Not like the Met or other places.

What was LACMA’s endowment high before the buildings and what is it now?

The endowment high was $168.5 million at the end of 2007, and the last calculation in December 2009 it was $114 million.

So how will you fund the increased budget? Are you relying on trustees?

Trustee giving has gone up quite a bit as have other categories, membership, new affinities groups like the Directors Circle now is producing something like $475,000 a year. So combined increases come from all sorts of categories of giving that are still increasing. The only one that is not increasing now is corporate.

Is Eli Broad still involved in funding the museum? His loyalties now seem divided.

Eli, as you know, has supported many institutions. He loves to support many institutions and I think he prides himself on being involved in so many places. Only time will tell with his museum and his involvement in MOCA what’s going on. But we have a beautiful collection of Beuys multiples on view, his fantastic Jeff Koons collection, and Warhols…For the moment everything seems good in terms of loans. And were doing another round of loans in the fall. So that’s an only-time-will-tell answer. Obviously, I am hopeful that LACMA will continue to get first dibs on the collection.

But LACMA is still on a growth curve. There is still growth logic for L.A. and the museum campus. It was anticipated for decades and I don’t see any issues with that yet. We will continue to grow and plan. We’re going to take on the LACMA West building next. We were going to do it at the same time as Resnick. When the economy collapsed we just stopped. We said, no way, we’ll wait until we raise more money. Even though we had money to do construction, we weren’t sure we would have the long-term fundraising. That is the conservative thing to do. We put that off and we were prudent.

So you’re holding off on LACMA West. What else is coming up?

We want to finish the public sculpture. The Heizer rock probably will be installed in the fall. That goes just north of the Resnick Pavilion. Imagine a 450-foot-long slot in the ground where you walk down a ramp and at the deepest part, 15 feet, a pyramidal monolith of granite is precariously held on the edges of the two walls above. It’s called Levitated Mass because the idea is as you walk under it sort of levitates. We’re working on engineering. It’s at least 700,000 pounds. Right now it’s in Riverside, CA in the quarry. It will take a truck that’s 200 feet long with 200 wheels six to eight days traveling at night until the last day, so it can be a big public spectacle.

What about the Jeff Koons locomotive dangling from a crane?

Like most big, complicated projects, when it got started no one had any idea of how complicated the engineering and planning would be. So in a way it has been delayed much more for engineering and planning reasons than for cost reasons. We’re $2.5 million into engineering and we know that given the weight, the crane, the wind and so on, it’s safe and buildable. The next phase of planning is to develop the method by which to build.

Is all the Wallis Annenberg planning money exhausted?

Just about. So now we are in a new fundraising mode. My guess is it will take about a year and a half to complete the planning and engineering and at the end we will know what it takes.

Will it be more than $25 million, and have you raised anything towards it?

I’ll tell you, it will cost more than $25 million, but we don’t know. We have not raised money for fabrication or installation because I wanted to know what it costs.

You’ve been having discussions with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. He’s a Pritzker winner whose work I know only from photographs. What will he be doing?

We’ve been working for almost two years now to rethink the museum and the older buildings over time. We’re talking about a sort of 20-year plan. Though we’re fine now with the Modern and European galleries being renovated, those buildings – Hammer, Ahmanson and the Art of the Americas – have a limited lifespan. When the trustees worked with Rem Koolhaas on the last architectural competition, they analyzed that they might replace them rather than restore them. So there’s been a long discussion about the need to totally rebuild or replace those buildings. I engaged Peter Zumthor to think about it.

Just to be clear, Zumthor is looking not at LACMA West or the land you acquired in 2008 across Wilshire, but at the main campus?

Yes, other than the [Bruce] Goff Pavilion for Japanese art. That’s a keeper. It is just going to be restored. It’s a beautiful building. It has an incredible amount of meaning, atmosphere, sensibility; architecture students from all over come to see it. I’d like to restore the water features. There was water in the building flowing over the black rocks in channels alongside the ramps, and we can return it. And the lighting needs to be improved over time. New LED technologies as they get better could help us integrate lighting into an organic-architecture building in a way that hasn’t been possible before.

What are you going to do with the land across the street?

Hold it. I have plans for the future, but here’s my perspective: the economy is down, you open the Resnick Pavilion, you get our programmatic plan in place, work with curators for ideas for shows. The subway is coming right to Fairfax and Wilshire. So the next thing is to restore the landmark of LACMA West and create a multi-use facility that includes education spaces, photography, prints, and drawing storage, offices, sculptural commissions, restaurant, shops and galleries. Then the subway comes up to it and it becomes a civic space as well as a museum space. The subway comes in 2017. That’s the plan and it’s not unrealistic because they have got a lot of the planning done and the money is allocated.

My view is what we should be doing is planning to use those next properties, and planning for ten years to be working to improve the original facilities, either through a Rem Koolhaas-like plan to reconceive the collections, or through other improvements. I think we should incorporate across the street into the long-term thinking. No urgency to do anything now.

The sketch that is being made now by Peter, and I think will be an ongoing design process for years, is how we might best utilize the park, the building the collections, maybe even a different way of organization.

Reconceiving History in a Changed World

What do you mean by a new way of organization?

That’s honestly beyond the scope of this. That’s part of what I want five, ten years to think about. I just know that art history has changed. I can give you long philosophical discussions about how Latin American and pre-Columbian art has gained in importance relative to ancient art, colonial art has a new place in art history, and the question of how you integrate that into either European or American art. Those are all questions that are very much alive. There are so many ways to reconsider these distinctions. I have put more furniture and decorative arts into galleries, I have encouraged more works on paper and photography — just general questions, and I want time to think about it. I keep joking that a down economy is a good time to think.

I am wary when I hear museum directors talk about mixing up time period and geography in the permanent collection. When the Tate installed their Modern collection they did it thematically: landscape, figure, etc.

Landscape, figure is not for me thematic. That’s subject matter, category.

I remember Rem Koolhaas’s plan for LACMA was to line up the departments longitudinally so you could walk across at one point in history from one region to another. Parallel chronologies.

I loved the building, but the problem with that is that’s a very European time-geography grid. But if you look at Asian cultures the metaphor for time, which in the West is a line, is much more circular; the metaphor of time in Olmec to Mayan preColombian culture [also is different]. The metaphor of time in Asian culture is not a line, it’s a circle. To impose a Western  grid of time on that is complicated.

But you want to be able to present the material comprehensibly to an audience. So within each section you can have an explanation of the notion of time, but the idea is to bring align objects made around the same time that ordinarily wouldn’t be juxtaposed. I like that idea.

That is a fair idea, especially when there is a reason to do it other than the coincidence of time. If you want to look at the emergence of Buddhist art you have to take into account ancient Greece. It’s because in Gandhara, because of the Silk Route and trade, there were Greek models for early Buddhist sculpture. That’s a reasonable and really interesting relationship East-West. It has to be specific.

I feel a museum has a responsibility to explain history, the history of making things to its audience. The Tate did that thematic, or subject-matter hang because it doesn’t have the collection to present a chronicle. That’s not the approach they take at Tate Britain, where the collection is comprehensive. Everyone is trying to mix things up now, but there is actually a history it seems.

Departments were developed, the lines and borders we have are fairly arbitrary, and they don’t function in today’s intellectual categories. In encyclopedic museums it’s sort of chronology, sort of geography, and sort of media.

But Europe was Europe, America was native Americans in the 15th century, so it makes sense that they would be separate categories.

What do you do with colonial? Those are the hot fields now.

In Boston the MFA is adding an Art of the Americas wing. I think other museums also want to have it in relation to later American art.

Do you put the Americas together? Because American colonial situations are very different from Latin American situations because of the massive influence of Asian cultures. These are the hot fields. I don’t have the answers. I actually think it’s a very exciting time for encyclopedic museums because of a lot of new research and reconsideration of these issues.

We just bought a fantastic colonial Mexican plate, the form doesn’t exist in Europe or Asia, the pattern is specifically influenced by Asian patterns, yet it’s made largely by European craftspeople. We’ve bought amazing things in the last three years in colonial period in Mexico and South and Central America. Each one opens up as many questions as it provides answers.

[Pre-Columbian curator] Ilona Katzew’s next show is about the persistence of pre-Colombian themes into colonial art. It’s not such a break. There’s another exhibition that is being developed about the influence between Latin America and Asia in the colonial period. It’s a fantastic topic. For me, what’s so exciting about working with all of these curators is that there is a lot to do in art history. Art history is not in any way shape or form now a closed discipline. In fact in many ways it’s reopening across these questions of history because our new global consciousness is causing us to open up.

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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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