Michael Govan, director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), was a star even before he jumped from Dia in New York to the largest art museum in the western U.S.. Before he turned 40 he had been deputy director of the Guggenheim under Tom Krens and had overseen the creation of Dia Beacon, that Minimalist art Valhalla up the Hudson River, paid for by Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio. Never mind that they had shuttered Dia’s Manhattan quarters and left the little organization floundering financially. Govan’s arrival at LACMA in 2006 was greeted as a game changer, much as the appointment of Gustavo Dudamel as director of the L.A. Philharmonic electrified the city the following year.
Philanthropist Eli Broad had promised $50 million for a new building at LACMA to house his contemporary art collection and chose Renzo Piano to design it. It looked like he picked Govan to give LACMA a contemporary-art emphasis, and that Govan had found a new patron to bankroll his vision. But the honeymoon didn’t last.
Before the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) opened in 2008, the billionaire announced that contrary to expectations he would not donate works from his collection to LACMA. Govan deflected questions diplomatically for a while, but eventually let it be known that he was not pleased. Broad tempered his enthusiasm for LACMA’s leadership, and when the recession hit he pledged $30 million to bail out the bankrupt Museum of Contemporary Art across town. Lately, the limelight in L.A.’s museum world has skipped from Govan to Jeffrey Deitch, the New York dealer who this month became MOCA’s director.
So, what is happening at LACMA? When Govan recently came to NYC we met to discuss a range of topics, including his plans for the contemporary art department, his ideas for rethinking the permanent collection, the Resnick Pavilion for temporary exhibitions scheduled to open in September, and long-range plans for LACMA. But first, I wanted to know about his relationship with Eli Broad and the issue of whether or not the Broad collection will wind up at LACMA.
Jason Kaufman: There have been reports that since the opening of BCAM, there has been tension with Eli Broad. What is it all this about? My understanding is that he wanted a certain number of his works in BCAM at all time, that was the deal, then it wasn’t fulfilled.
Michael Govan: This agreement was negotiated before I got to LACMA. It’s a pretty clear agreement. We don’t give it out. Eli is welcome to give out the agreement.
Right now, we have the third floor pretty much devoted to his works, an exhibition of Beuys multiples from his collection [until July 6]. The Richard Serras [on the first floor] are going to stay a little while. When Don Fisher died he didn’t need his Serra piece Sequence for his museum, so we are leaving it there a little longer. And we have been using the second floor for exhibitions. We did the Korean show, German show, the Renoir show, then Baldessari. We’re still working things out with the Broads.
What is your position on that? What do you want him to do?
Frankly I think there is still some thinking that needs to go into what he wants to do. He now has over 2,000 works. We couldn’t handle them all anyway. His original assumption was that he wouldn’t build his own museum. Now he’s changing that. He’s still thinking about it. I don’t think he knows. Honestly.
He wants to have his own museum.
Yeah, I think he knows that — where it is, what it looks like, how it’s structured. Does it bother us? Not really. Because we have one floor and we have more than 400 of his works by Beuys. But what L.A. does need is more space that is endowed and supported for art. So if Broad builds more space that is endowed and supported for his collection it doesn’t bother us. There are a lot of collectors in L.A., there are a lot of artists.
But do you still want him to donate works to the museum?
I would love for him to donate or place on very, very long-term loan significant works from the collection, like the works we have on view.
He says as long as you keep them on view you can have them.
But you know there are issues with that. Some works, like the Beuys works, can’t stay up long term. You have to borrow them and take them down. If he builds his own museum obviously I would guess he wants some of the best works for his own museum. So we’ll see when that happens. That certainly is a big question.
Is there some tension between you and him?
I took him and [his wife] Edye on a tour of the museum recently and we had fun.
What was his problem with you? Did he want you to accede or support his new plan to keep his works, then to create a private museum?
I actually am not sure exactly.
He seemed to have been instrumental in getting you out there.
Actually it was [former LACMA chairwoman] Nancy Daly who was the big force there. She is no longer living. She was the heavy lifter.
I guess he wanted you to grin and bear it when he said, by the way, we are not giving any works to LACMA when BCAM opens.
I frankly think that he is a collector whose collection is growing and he continues to change his thinking about what he wants to do. It is evolving. And I think it did evolve out of giving the works all away to museums and giving to LACMA. I think he’s been changing his thinking. I honestly don’t know where it is going to go. I don’t know what the conclusion is. He is an active collector. I sort of think of him as a young man and that is how I deal with him. He doesn’t deal with me as if he’s making his last decisions. He deals with me as an active collector.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t come to LACMA for that reason. I came to LACMA because it was Los Angeles. This is one of the biggest museums in the nation, it has encyclopedic collections and a great environment for contemporary thinking about contemporary art. Broad? There are a lot of collectors. Personally, I think he would do very well to put on long-term loan or gift, major works from his collection because I personally believe we are and will continue to become one of the strongest museums in the world with one of the biggest audiences in Los Angeles. I actually think we will have the biggest audience. We are below the Getty right now but they have a limited throughput because of the parking. And also it’s a limited number of collections. They don’t have the breadth. So assume that we are going to be the biggest attraction in the western U.S. from an art perspective. So my case, and I say this to you, is this: he would do very well, it would be an honor.
But he already has the museum named after him.
But works of art are the issue. Right? People come for works of art. They don’t come for a building.
That’s true, but from his perspective he has made an imprint on that institution and given the museum access to his collection.
That’s right. And I believe it is still my job to convince him to leave, permanently, the very best works from his collection at LACMA. Which reasons? He has his name on the building. It’s a fantastic museum, and the audience is going to continue to grow.
But his argument is that the point is to show the works, and if I have this lending library of artworks and a museum to show them when they are not up at LACMA or somewhere else, rather than just give them away, why not?
That’s fine, and as long as we can borrow them, we are borrowing them.
And you have first dibs?
For the moment. You’d have to ask him when he builds his museum will we still have first dibs.
But you still think it would be better if he donated them?
I actually told him if you want to just put them on permanent loan, on long-term loan, I am not obsessive on that. I just think that major works, they should be at LACMA. If they are long-term loans, permanent loans, whatever they are. It is contemporary art. Time will sort things out.
Find Part 2 of the interview tomorrow IN VIEW.