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LACMA director Michael Govan on the museum's past, present and future

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, spoke with The Frame about the museum's history and its future at a live event celebrating the museum's 50th anniversary. Govan, who joined the museum in 2006, oversees its programming and the planned overhaul of the museum's 20-acre campus.

LACMA is the largest encyclopedic museum in the western United States, with a collection of more than 120,000 works spanning the history of art. Last year, the museum drew 1.23 million visitors — up 50 percent from when Govan joined as director.

The museum started as part of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, with its first artistic work, George Bellows' "Cliff Dwellers," acquired in 1916. Titans of the time, J. Paul Getty and William Randolph Hearst, donated works to the museum, but it remained small.

"As it grew, the trustees decided it was time for a real museum — its own home," Govan sais. "[They] identified the space in Hancock Park, on Wilshire Boulevard, and it was in 1960 that the decision was made."

The museum opened in 1965, which Govan says was "a great moment of pride."

"There was an incredible founding spirit then. And you can feel the spirit of Los Angeles in the '60s — there were many difficult things going on. I mean, 1965 was a tough year — you think about the Watts riots, you think about a lot of things going on at that time — but the spirit of achievement, the bright future, I think was all packed into this new art museum," Govan says.

The anniversary has helped bring up some interesting stories from its history. The art blog Los Angeles County Museum on Fire looked into what happened to what was considered the museum's most important acquisition in its early days — a Francisco Goya painting. Within 10 years of the museum's opening, Govan says, it was no longer there. Turns out the painting most likely wasn't an authentic Goya, and it ended up in the collection of Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippines' former dictator.

The museum's greatest strength when Govan came on as director, he says: "Location, location, location."

"Not only on Wilshire Boulevard in the sort-of-center of the giant metropolis of Los Angeles, but it's been the myth forever that Los Angeles is the city of the future. And the fact is, it is the city of the future. There are more artists working here today, I think, than any other city in the world, and I think that that sense of L.A. being an artistic capital is more palpable than ever."

Govan says he also believes the museum's collections are strong.

"Stronger than people think, in part because they're housed in sort of not-the-best buildings," Govan says. "And the physical plant was probably the biggest challenge — we only had 600,000 people a year coming to the museum, which is small for a big museum. And so we made it the primary goal to fix the facility, the park, the open space — and already that's resulted in doubling attendance. And you'll see in the future as we continue to develop the museum how much more accessible the collection will become."

Govan notes that the museum is still relatively young.

"We're at baby years by museum standards. The museums on the East Coast may have a hundred-plus years on us, 150 years. So, that means the shape of our collection is very different. You couldn't buy European masterworks — Caravaggios, things like that — by the time 1965 rolls around. Not that we don't have masterpieces, but it affects the collection."

The newness of the museum has helped lead to its emphasis on contemporary art, Govan says, along with L.A. being a big place for contemporary art in the '60s.

"There's a sense of youthfulness that is positive. People [on the East Coast] said when LACMA was started, It's too late to build such a museum — all the masterpieces are gone. It didn't turn out to be the case. It gives the museum a different shape, and that shape is going to become more and more important as the world keeps changing, as geopolitics shifts to Asia and Latin America," Govan says.

Govan says museums used to be evaluated based on the size of their collections, but thanks to everything from the Internet to airplane travel, it's more important today for a museum's collection to have both quality and character.

"What does the museum express of us — our time, our civilization, our place on Earth and how we view things from Los Angeles?" Govan says. "I think, in '65, the idea was to be a version of what existed and started earlier on the East Coast. Now, we're in advance thinking about the demographics of the country, investing in Latin American art more than any other museum, and it's really about shaping the program, the worldview."

The museum's current mission is not to expand, but to improve the museum's quality, accessibility and efficiency, Govan says.

"The three older buildings built in 1965, plus the building built in the '80s that comprise the biggest block of buildings, are badly in need of repair. In fact, in a few years, they won't be operable. The estimates to fix them range anywhere from 280-to-350 million dollars, without any cosmetic improvements. That's just code [upgrades]— seismic and other things," Govan says.

The way that people visit museums changes all the time, Govan says, with today bringing a more diverse group of visitors, including families.

"So to spend all that money on an old model makes no sense. Also, those buildings are very vertical, so whatever you put on the upper floors is not visited as much. So the idea that the trustees agreed to in 2001 and again now is, Why not just start from scratch?" Govan says.

The older buildings were designed by William Pereira. Govan says that while people have said they represent 1960s L.A., "the buildings aren't there. They've been mangled, eat up. The pools aren't there, the entrance is gone — the whole soul of them isn't there anymore. It's just the interiors, and the interiors were what people complained about in '65."

The plan is to keep the newest additions, the Broad Museum for Contemporary Art and the Resnick Pavilion, plus the Pavilion for Japanese Art, designed by Bruce Goff, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. Govan describes it as a "beautiful, crazy, wonderful building, that architecture students come from all around the world to see."

The older buildings are being removed, Govan says, in order to replace them with "one, simple facility." Govan has a big task ahead of him — the plans need to pass an environmental impact review, and he has to raise $475 million to make it happen.

One difficulty with being a younger museum — the lack of an acquisitions budget.

"We're one of the only large museums in that case," Govan says. "A lot of the acquisitions, endowments or budgets that were established for museums — Cleveland has many many millions every year — were established at the turn of the century, they were invested, and now they're really worth something."

LACMA has a different approach to building its permanent collection.

"Every work of art that comes into LACMA is a private donation — either a donation of artwork, or a donation of money to acquire an artwork," Govan says. "It's pretty hard, because you're always trying to talk people into supporting that museum, but there's something that's great about the honesty of the back-and-forth and needing to convince people rather than just having the chance to do it top down."

The poor condition of LACMA's buildings have made acquiring art difficult at times.

"The building's just a frame. A lot of people wouldn't put their collections in the existing facilities, for example, and one of those was Mr. [Jerrold] Perenchio, who had one of the very best collections in the United States, including Impressionist masterpieces," Govan says. "When we came forward with the idea of a building program, he said, 'Well, if LACMA's going to be serious about that, maybe I'll leave my collection here.'"

That collection includes works by Degas, Monet and Bonnard.

"That resulted in the single largest promise of art to LACMA in our history," Govan says. "The theme of the 50th anniversary for me, to try to communicate to the public [is], you can rebuild buildings — they're frames, they create accessibility, they have to be efficient. But it's about the art, and so this 50th anniversary has been about gifts of art."

The museum is also working on creating an audience as diverse as the city where it's located.

"Not every culture has museum-going as part of growing up, so you have to see that as maybe a many-generation effort. You're not going to turn on a switch and have everybody change their lifestyles, everyone of every diverse background. So it's a slow and methodical process," Govan says.

The museum has doubled its percentage of Latino visitors, Govan says, and Asian audiences are also growing.

"Part of it is programming — we have probably the most active programming in Korean art, for example, and there are hundreds of thousands of Koreans a stone's throw from LACMA. We are the most active I think today in acquisitions, and programming in Latin American art."

But there's more to reaching out to those audience than just growing those collections.

"You don't program Korean and Latin American art because you assume Koreans and Latin Americans only want to see that art," Govan says. "They want to see every kind of art, like I think we all do. But you have to create a sense of identity and comfort within the museum. If we don't show a lot of Latin American art, why go to LACMA if there's no identity built in for that culture and that thinking?"

The target for Govan's work on updating LACMA: to open the revamped museum before the new subway stop opens in front of the museum in 2023.

"That will be game changing for the entire region," Govan says, "to have that Wilshire Purple Line, and then to have a stop right at the museum makes it super accessible."

Mark your calendars now.