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The Interview

Mr Michael Govan: LACMA’s $650m Man

Meet the art-world power broker putting LA in the frame

Mr Michael Govan, the director for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is on his phone discussing large sums of money. He apparently does this a lot. “That’s twenty million, plus the seven million that’s already been raised,” he says, pacing around his office. “It’s doable!” He hangs up and an assistant hands him an apple. “Lunch,” he explains, smiling. “I hope you don’t mind.” It’s 6.00pm. Straight after this interview, he has to press the flesh at a private opening of a new LACMA exhibition on the Dwan Gallery, the New York and LA galleries created by art dealer Ms Virginia Dwan, which defined the postwar era.

LA, you may have heard, is in the throes of a renaissance, and Mr Govan is at its epicentre, both geographically and logistically. As the driving force behind LACMA’s $650m new building, which will transform the centre of the city, he’s in constant motion between artists and city planners, movie stars and the mayor, academics and Las Vegas billionaires. He’s a new kind of museum director, dapper and tireless, with perfect manners. He always wears a suit – Prada, Tom Ford or Boglioli – with R.M.Williams Chelsea boots. He’s often seen at The Tower Bar, the West Hollywood hotspot for LA’s elite, or posing for pictures with Messrs Leonardo DiCaprio and Kanye West at one of his star-studded fundraisers. In a city of celebrities, Mr Govan has become one. He and his elegant wife, Ms Katherine Ross, a luxury brand consultant, are red-carpet regulars at the Oscars and beyond.

“People ask when I’m going to move back to New York, but why would I?” he smiles. “I love it here.” While New Yorkers often sneer at LA as a crass commercial cousin of their soaring metropolis, Mr Govan thinks the opposite. He was wooed here in 2006, having cut his teeth at The Guggenheim and the Dia Art Foundation, and has since become its biggest fan – an LA evangelist.

“There’s this perception that it’s simplistic and selfish, which goes with celebrity and the movie industry,” he says. “But it’s the complexity that you move here for. It’s so big and chaotic, and certainly the most diverse. There are more creative people here than anywhere – not just artists but songwriters, movie producers. It’s a soup. And relative to the East Coast, I actually find a lot of generosity and openness here, a good-natured spirit. People are genuinely trying to make the world a better place.” And yet we also have TMZ. “That’s the cool thing. It all exists simultaneously here.”

Mr Govan arrived as part of a mass migration of talent to LA from all over the country, which continues to this day. Every creative sphere is covered – fashion, tech, food. But art led the charge, and it is big business. To date, LA’s museum boom includes The Broad Downtown (opened September 2015) and the Marciano Art Foundation, soon to be opened by the Guess co-founders and art aficionados, Messrs Paul and Maurice Marciano, with three huge projects in the pipeline: a $400m Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in the works (currently set for 2019) and Mr George Lucas’s $1bn Museum of Narrative Art (in 2021). But the centerpiece will be Mr Govan’s LACMA (in 2023).

“The reason everyone’s moving is the dynamism, the flux,” he says. “Very few places see this rate of change. So yeah, it was always the future, but it really is now. We’ve reached a critical mass.”

There are large forces at work here, Mr Govan says. Just as New York became a cultural melting pot after WWII, because of the refugees arriving by sea from Europe, LA is poised to dominate the 21st century. “Eighty years ago, we had the sense that Europe was fantastic and developed, but New York was where the change was. Now LA is the new frontier. Think about the near future of the world – Asia and Latin America are exerting enormous cultural and economic influence. And that’s LA. It’ll be over half Latino by 2020.” He also points to LA’s Korean population, which numbers hundreds of thousands, making it the biggest in the US. “That Pacific outlook attracts people.”

Another factor is LA’s own maturity as a city. The young metropolis is all grown up. “It’s amazing what’s happened very recently,” he says. “The last two elections have included taxes that people have imposed on themselves with a two-thirds majority, to build the transit system and eradicate homelessness. That kind of civic engagement and activism reflects a community that wants to make LA a beautiful environment to live in.” A case in point: Mr DiCaprio, one of LA’s most famous sons and one of Govan’s many A-list pals. “He has an environmental foundation, he’s made gifts to the movie museum, and he visits the Natural History Museum regularly because they’re doing cutting edge research on climate change. You have these exceptionally engaged citizens.”

When LACMA is complete in 2023, it promises to be a defining landmark. The radical new building by Mr Peter Zumthor will float over Wilshire Boulevard, displaying the art to drivers as well as museumgoers. And it all depends on “The Govanor”, who is out six nights a week raising money for it. “I’d rather be curating the Picasso and Rivera show,” he says. “But it’s not that bad. These patrons become your partners in the end and they often have fantastic ideas. We did the Stanley Kubrick show because one of our trustees had connections to him.”

One wouldn’t bet against Mr Govan. He can talk all day about LA, the bold new city that’s emerging. He’s bullish about the art scene here and reels off names to watch out for “like Diana Thater, Thomas Houseago, Mary Weatherford… I could go on.” What’s more, he’s utterly confident. He’s already raised $300m and created two blockbuster landmarks at LACMA – the late Mr Chris Burden’s “Urban Light”, an instant icon of the city, and “Levitated Mass”, a 340-ton hunk of granite by Mr Michael Heizer, that he transported 106 miles over 11 days, to much fanfare. That’s the Govan style – go big or go home.

“I wasn’t aiming for sensation,” he says. “That’s not why you move a huge rock a hundred miles. If you want real gravitas, you look at ancient cultures – they moved rocks, built pyramids, obelisks. It’s just that when you do big things that are meant to last, they’re intense and they generate a lot of energy and interest.”

The new LACMA is meant to last, though how it will fit into LA in 50 years, say, is almost impossible to say. “That’s the risk. No one can know if it’s of lasting value. It’s dependent on a point of view that hasn’t evolved yet. So you take a leap of faith, knowing that it would be horrifying if we didn’t use this opportunity to advance civilisation in some way. No one should be happy taking the easy path.”

Mr Govan’s office expresses his approach. At first glance, it’s strictly business, a surprisingly humble space on the ground floor – no soaring views here. But also no traditional desk. Mr Govan doesn’t seem to work from behind a computer. He’s mobile, he’s face to face. And the art speaks volumes – subversive, funny and bold. On the back wall is a photograph by Mr Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist/prankster who installed the gold toilet at The Guggenheim – a replica of the Hollywood sign that he’d installed in a landfill in Sicily, shot from behind. “It’s an icon of performance and glamour in the most unglamorous place,” says Mr Govan, eyes sparkling. “A wonderful double-take on Hollywood!”

An assistant hovers. Mr Govan is late for that opening. He’s being pulled back into his life, but not just yet. He wants to tell me about the ceiling and carpet, a work by his friend Mr John Baldessari, one of LA’s most revered artists. “This was one of my first things,” he explains. “I wanted to bring artists in to help shape the museum, and John created this for an exhibition on Magritte – he proposed the entire gallery be carpeted in sky and clouds, and the ceiling be covered in a wallpaper of LA freeways.” 

After the exhibition, Mr Govan could install the piece anywhere – a conference room, the gift shop. He chose his office. “It was a wonderful gesture by John. Here I was, new to LA, looking to stir things up and provoke. And he said, ‘OK, Michael. Then the world’s upside down and you’re walking on clouds!’”

With that, he collects his phone, and cloud by cloud, walks to the door. His evening is just getting started.