It has become customary in the world of politics (with one glaring exception) for voters to elect leaders who are reasonably good looking, comfortable in their own skin, and well dressed. France has recently provided us with such an example.
Michael Govan (born in 1963) could be a successful politician but chose instead to become the director of the largest museum in Los Angeles, a museum whose mission is encyclopaedic in scope: the Lacma.
This would suggest that he is good looking and that he’s a good speaker.
He doesn’t let his feelings show. He is highly articulate yet also quite inscrutable. It is still the case that his charm doesn’t do him any disservice in the global capital of glamour.
Nor indeed does he lack courage. At the time of my visit to California his museum was showing an exhibition of Iranian contemporary art in dialogue with the establishment’s Persian collections.
It will have escaped no one that choosing such a theme while the president of the United States is blocking trade with Iran resembles a political statement of sorts.
But as one observer recently put it: “with Trump in power the directors of American museums are forced to have a political programme”.
Regarding the choice of such an exhibition, Govan himself retorts that “controversy involves discussions and discussions make people more curious. That can encourage them to come and see it.” Michael Govan has the art of keeping everyone happy. During my visit to Los Angeles in August, for instance, you could go and see a very specific “classical art”-type exhibition at Lacma dedicated to chiaroscuro woodcuts from Renaissance Italy. But the same museum was also hosting an exhibition within its walls of a series of large-scale drawings by an American-born artist who currently has the wind in his sails on the art market, Mark Grotjahn. The record price for this artist, who is on Gagosian’s roster and seems both likeable and obsessive, reached 16.7 million dollars in 2017. This is too much for a creation that is inventing nothing new. But Grotjahn is in fashion right now.
Like all the good directors of American museums, Govan has a bold and far-reaching vision.
Bold because he has planned an extension of the museum by Peter Zumthor. The project’s design is due to be publicly approved by the end of 2018. The budget for this project is set at 650 million dollars. He claims to have already successfully raised 550 million. Far-reaching because he has also planned the installation of a satellite museum in South Los Angeles, a 40-minute drive from Lacma, in an 84,000-square-foot former bus depot due to open in 2023.
And even more far-reaching because he is entering into a partnership (the details of which still seem hazy) with the Chinese collector Budi Tek from Shanghai to promote the sustainability of the institution and to establish ties with China. “Let’s protect the collection available in China. The advantage for us is to learn more about this country. There will be no immediate gain.”
Like all good politicians, Michael Govan thinks in the long term.
Govan, who is a reader of JBH Reports, willingly agreed to submit to the 5 questions exercise during a previous meeting while he was in Paris taking part in a conference at the Vuitton Foundation.
You began your career at institutions like MassMoca, the Guggenheim, the Dia Foundation. What big changes have you seen in the museum world since you started?
Lacma is situated in the capital of glamour. Does this present an obstacle to displaying art in a serious and in-depth way?
Is there a war within the art world between New York and Los Angeles?
What do you dream of doing next?
What do you want people to remember about you?