LACMA director Govan ’85 shares art savvy at Clark

Attention good-looking, successful, suave art history majors: are you a future member of the art mafia? The possibility certainly exists, as evidenced by the latest installation of the Clark Museum’s “Director’s Perspective” series that welcomed Michael Govan ’85, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), to speak about his experiences in the art museum world.

Govan moved across the country from New York in 2006 to take the position of Wallis Annenberg Director at LACMA and since then has played an irreplaceable role in revitalizing L.A.’s cultural scene. “The idea was to create a sense of place,” he said. “Until then, Los Angeles had been running to catch up with New York and Chicago.” His innovative approach to the museum’s built environment and rapid expansion of its facilities has earned him positive attention from the media and beyond. Stylish as they come and exceedingly urbane, Govan is no newcomer to the public eye. The 44-year-old has been featured as one of Vogue magazine’s “American Visionaries.”

After graduating from Williams in 1985 with a B.A. in art history and studio art, Govan took the position of working curator at the Williams College Museum of Art. There, he met director Thomas Krens, who spearheaded the birth of Mass MoCA, the nation’s largest contemporary art center, at the former Sprague Electric building in North Adams. When Krens later became the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, he took Govan along with him. After a six-year stint as deputy director there, Govan became president and director of the Dia Arts Foundation, a non-profit institution dedicated to the support and preservation of artistic projects. While at Dia, Govan undertook the monumental job of launching Dia:Beacon, a museum which houses the works of progressive artists ranging from the late sixties to the present time. It is now a linchpin of the Dia Foundation and rivals Mass MoCA in its size and collection of contemporary art.

His work with the artists at Dia:Beacon, a factory-turned-art-museum in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley, emphasized the importance of the container in context with the object, as well as deep involvement of the artists in the presentation of their work. Govan worked with artists such as Dan Flavin, mastermind of fluorescent light fixtures, to reorganize the museum space and harness their creativity. “Artists bring a very fresh perspective; they are, after all, involved in the business of how to see the world,” Govan said.

The move to LACMA has presented major challenges which transcend the proverbial East Coast-West Coast differences. Working with 30 different curators to present works while constantly being in the public eye has been no piece of cake, but Govan says that he loves the problems. He calls upon his liberal arts background to solve problems, hearkening back to his experiences while at Williams, which involved working as editor of the Record.

“It’s about finding a balance inside and outside of academia,” he said. “Working at the Record involved often taking the outside perspective; likewise, I often need to be able to see from a public view when confronting obligations at the Museum.” He explained that he had met Thomas Krens while doing a publication for the Record, and noted that it is these fantastic accidents that result from Williams’ position as an incubator of interests.

Aside from the average difficulties posed from turning a tired institution into the art mecca of the West Coast, Govan has had to deal with tricky issues such as ambiguous donors. When asked to speak about his perspective on private collectors, doubtlessly a reference to the recent disappointment posed by wealthy philanthropist Eli Broad’s refusal to permanently house his collection in LACMA, Govan’s diplomatic reply was that American museums are made of these donors, and that they are often what keeps the system going. “Besides,” he said with an devilishly polished grin, “the Medicis weren’t so democratic either.”

Mixed in with the challenges, though, is enjoyment and pleasure. “The fun of being in an encyclopedic museum is hard to describe,” Govan said. He spoke of the museum’s unconventional approach to presenting its work, starting from the most modern and traveling back in time to the ancient. “The idea is to reconsider history in modern terms.”