Last February, lots of people were talking about Michael Govan, CEO and Wallis Annenberg director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The new Broad Contemporary Art Museum wing of LACMA had just been dedicated, and gossip focused on Govan’s reaction to patron Eli Broad’s last-minute decision that he would not be donating his collection to the institution. The rumor mill also fixated on whether Govan -- who arrived at LACMA in April 2006 after running the Dia Art Foundation in New York -- was a dark horse contender in the race to be named the next director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Amidst all this institutional gossip, some of the more subtle aspects of what it means to be responsible for one of the nation’s largest encyclopedic museums gets lost. It was in this spirit that I set out to talk to him.
This interview was conducted in March 2008.
Phyllis Tuchman: What’s it like being at LACMA?
Michael Govan: It’s extremely rewarding for many reasons. For one, it’s great watching the public take pleasure and learn about art. At LACMA, which is an encyclopedic museum, it’s been a thrill to work with and learn from specialists in so many areas. It’s like being back in graduate school.
PT: You seem to enjoy working with artists, too.
MG: A lot of people think I put artists first because I’m interested in contemporary art. But it’s much more than that. For me, working with artists elucidates all of art history. I’m fascinated by the question, “How do things get made?” In all sorts of cultures, for example, you can ask, “How do creative acts change things?” In that sense, beauty alone has never been the paramount criterion for an artwork. When you’re working with artists, you realize the creative process hasn’t changed all that much over time. An encyclopedic museum is a great place to experience that truth.
PT: Is running a museum as corporate as some say?
MG: A museum director’s job is multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary. You’re dealing with everything from investments to the many constituencies that the museum serves. Fund-raising has become an ever-larger percentage of the work one does. It can become a real struggle to keep art first and foremost.
PT: Is there one aspect of being a museum director that sets the tone for everything else?
MG: Working with patrons, creative people of all kinds, a bureaucracy, and experts in many fields, you try to create direction and orchestrate a set of principles. Establishing a sense of purpose is critical. This often involves making the past relevant for both the present and the future. Over the last decade, being a museum director has become a very complicated job -- to the point that it’s also become a slightly undesirable occupation.
PT: Is there a big difference between contemporary art and Old Master painting, especially when it comes to installing them in a museum?
MG: The giant Tony Smith or Richard Serra sculptures here at LACMA may suggest that more recent art can outgrow the museum. Yet, is there that much difference between hanging an Old Master painting or a contemporary one? You have the same need for good light conditions. A video installation may be different because it involves sound and darkness. But today we can allow ourselves to see a Minimal painting in an ornate space or a Baroque painting in a minimalist space. Context is much more varied. Certain art may require ambient light or a large door to bring it in the museum. You need to think about these things when working with a Serra, but also, with a Brazilian 18th century altarpiece -- to note two recent installations at LACMA.
PT: Lighting is that critical?
MG: Ambient light, not spotlights, is a key to displaying large artworks. I far prefer natural light for art in almost every case. I first saw our new Jacques Louis David painting in Paris in daylight near a window. It was subtle in that environment. Most museum lighting has become very mechanized. We’ve just opened up an entire glass wall of our classical galleries in the Ahmanson building that was closed off since 1967. It’s made a huge difference. We have nearly Roman light in L.A., which appropriately illuminates the marble sculpture and ceramics. Plus it’s good to see Wilshire Boulevard from the gallery to know you’re not in Rome.
PT: Does experience trump enthusiasm these days?
MG: An interesting thing happened to me on the way to LACMA. Usually you build one museum or wing, occasionally two. I’ve been involved with many museum planning and building projects: the Williams College Museum of Art, Mass MOCA, the Guggenheims Uptown and Downtown, the Guggenheims in Bilbao, Venice and Salzburg (a failed project), Dia:Beacon, and now LACMA. Much of that of course is due to working with Tom Krens for many years. In any case, I’ve found myself always in construction. It’s a hands-on experience. And like anything, it takes practice.
In any field, experience counts. For many directors and architects, building new museums or wings is a first-time effort. For architects, too. For example, Renzo Piano understands the floor/wall/ceiling equation in a gallery better than almost anyone else, largely because he’s designed more galleries than almost anyone else. The practice side of it is something that’s little appreciated. Much of all creativity is practice.
PT: You’re an advocate of the importance of education, aren’t you?
MG: I believe a lot of what you do as a museum director has to do with education, and opening doors to many people about the pleasure of being involved in art. That’s one of the best parts of my job, as is learning from the many kinds of visitors to the museum.
PT: Are art lessons important?
MG: As a kid I drew all the time. I still do. I can teach figure drawing as well as academic drawing. I was interested in art when I entered Williams College as a freshman and trained as an artist with concurrent interests in architecture and art history. I certainly never planned on being a museum director. Some days I still don’t. Culture is its own language. It matters to most everyone in some way.
PT: How critical is education?
MG: I’ve been amazed by the divisions in museums between curatorial and education departments. The benefits of specialization lead to some problems. Bottom line, what we do is educate. I don’t see it as a separate activity. Art is education. It’s a big problem when you drift away from what I see as a holistic mission. Curation, education, marketing: I see them all as one enterprise. I want to hire fundraisers and accountants who know about art. If you have a strong feeling for art, you should be able to do anything. Yet during the last decade, much of the museum world has gone in the opposite direction. I feel there’s no hierarchy when it comes to fundraising or hanging the art. My big mission is holistic.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Bloomberg News, Town & Country and other journals.