2017-01-18 08:51:11
Is This L.A.’s $600 Million Man?

LOS ANGELES — Michael Govan stood in a third-floor gallery scattered with paintings and crates at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his arms gesturing at blank white walls, his face furled in thought. Mr. Govan is the director of the museum, but on this bright morning, he was focused on one single project: the installation of an exhibition of paintings by Agnes Martin. No detail was too small for Mr. Govan as he squinted his eyes and directed two workers, hoisting a framed canvas against a wall.

“Two inches higher,” Mr. Govan said. Still not right. “A little to the left.” Finally, Mr. Govan nodded his approval as the work was positioned into place. “Awesome.’’

Mr. Govan could not have been more intricately involved in the details of this retrospective, as he is with pretty much everything that happens on the museum campus on Wilshire Boulevard. He knew Ms. Martin before her death in 2004 and has long adored her work. He spent months visiting collectors at their homes, explaining why they should lend their Martins to this public exhibition — fixating on such details as his insistence that paintings not be put under glass, which, he is quick to tell you, obscures the fine lines of her art. (“Agnes Martin would be horrified to see her work under glass,” he said. “Horrified.”) Mr. Govan curated the exhibition, which closed after a successful run in the fall, right down to the last caption and light fixture.

Mr. Govan needed the diversion. As this new year begins, he is consumed with an even more urgent and consequential campaign, one that could help define not only Los Angeles’s position on the world’s art stage but Mr. Govan’s standing in his adopted city: a $600 million reconstruction of Lacma. It is as ambitious in its architectural aspirations as in its cost.

The project, a decidedly disruptive and not entirely admired design by the architect Peter Zumthor, is testing all the social, political and fund-raising skills that Mr. Govan has acquired after 10 years of maneuvering in a West Coast caldron of art collectors, wealthy patrons, celebrities and government officials.

Los Angeles can be a tough place to rally civic and philanthropic support. Walt Disney Concert Hall, the glistening, now acclaimed Frank Gehry building, was almost never built. Mr. Govan was reminded of that when, days before he triumphantly unveiled $75 million in donations to his project last spring, one of this city’s most wealthy benefactors, David Geffen, announced he had given $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art — in New York City. (Mr. Geffen, who has not given any money to Mr. Govan’s project, declined a request to comment for this article.) Still, Mr. Govan has gathered about $300 million in commitments, with more on the way. He said he needs to raise another $150 million by the end of 2017 for the project to continue.

“It’s a big project for L.A., and there’s been a little lack of confidence that the money will be raised,” Mr. Govan said last month. “But I think just getting close to the halfway point, I’ve sensed a change in my trustees and supporters. There’s this strong sense with them that this is likely to happen.”

“I will tell you just that it is going to happen,” he said.

At 53, Mr. Govan is the kind of arts executive who could probably exist only in Los Angeles. He is a celebrity in a world of celebrities, with the looks of a movie star; a regular at the Tower Bar on Sunset Boulevard, its tables crowded with agents and actors; and someone who, naturally enough, was a guest at last year’s Academy Awards. Mr. Govan seems as comfortable describing, with the air of a senior faculty member at a fine arts college, the latest catalog of acquisitions before an audience of donors as he is posing for the snap-snap-snapping paparazzi at Lacma fund-raisers attended by Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Kanye West.

Mr. Govan breaks rules and celebrates the unconventional in a way that, if nothing else, draws attention to the museum and its director. What other museum director would orchestrate the crowd-pleasing spectacle of moving a 340-ton boulder through the streets of Los Angeles at night before installing it on the museum grounds as “Levitated Mass,” a work by Michael Heizer? He has had exhibitions devoted to Tim Burton, Mr. Gehry and Robert Mapplethorpe. Average attendance has doubled since 2007, to 1.6 million people.

“I’m a provocateur,” Mr. Govan said.

Sheila Kuehl, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, said Mr. Govan had changed the way people viewed this museum and the city. “People like to be part of something that looks to be new and the place to be,” she said. “And that’s what he has done with Lacma and L.A. He brings — the way Gustavo Dudamel does — excitement with him.”

Mr. Govan’s reputation is such that in the gossipy world of high-end museums and galleries, his name circulates as someone who might be summoned back to New York one day, where he served for 11 years as director of the Dia Art Foundation, perhaps to run the Museum of Modern Art, should that position ever open. Mr. Govan scrunched up his face at the suggestion as he sat on a gallery bench last month at the press preview of an exhibition devoted to the works of Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera.

“Why would you leave this?” Mr. Govan said, pointing first toward the bustling exhibition and then through glass doors revealing the glorious sunshine and crisp blue skies of a typical December day in Los Angeles. “To go back to Trump Tower traffic? What exactly would be the incentive? The point of this project is to make my successor feel that this is the prestigious job.”

And there may be no better example of Govan-as-provocateur than the Zumthor building. Next to the La Brea Tar Pits, it has been likened to a blob, a smoky gray, elevated amoeba-like swirl of galleries resting on eight pillars that would cross over Wilshire Boulevard. Joseph Giovannini, an architecture critic, has repeatedly belittled it as Lacma’s “folly” in The Los Angeles Review of Books, a barrage of particularly stinging criticism that certainly has not made Mr. Govan’s fund-raising task any easier.

“Why are we even seriously considering this misguided proposition?” Mr. Giovannini demanded in one essay, adding: “This ain’t no Rialto Bridge. It’s recycled, low-grade avant-gardism pumped up to monumental scale.”

It is, as Mr. Govan is quick to acknowledge, a controversial design by Mr. Zumthor, a widely admired architect. It involves tearing down three buildings from the ’60s and one from the ’80s that critics say could be rehabilitated. Mr. Govan rejects that idea, saying they are beyond repair and exults over the ambition and imagination of the design. Other people are coming around to Mr. Zumthor’s vision as it goes through its various iterations. “I didn’t like it at first, but it grew on me,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Board of Supervisors who was instrumental in getting the county to contribute $125 million to the building. “It’s an architectural statement whether he wants it to be or not. There are some people who don’t like Zumthor or his design. It’s going to be talked about. It’s controversial. Most great buildings are controversial.”

These kinds of ambitious projects, with their attendant fund-raising campaigns and architectural debates, may be familiar in more established cities like New York or San Francisco. (The expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened last spring, raised $610 million in its capital campaign, easily covering the $305 million cost of its building expansion.) But for all the growing vibrancy of its arts scene, Los Angeles still suffers a bit of a reputation as a place where there is more interest in Hollywood than Hockney, whose wealthy citizens can be stingy, and where great works of art are hidden in mansions in Malibu and Bel Air.

“L.A. is a place where everything is somewhat discounted and diffuse: To get the energy to come together, to make something kind of happen for the entire city and the entire community is not so easy,” said Nicolas Berggruen, a trustee of the museum who is building a new think tank, the Berggruen Institute.

For Mr. Govan’s project, an environmental quality study is underway, and plans are for demolition to begin at the end of 2018. The new museum would open in 2023, coinciding with the completion of an extension of a subway line that runs under Wilshire Boulevard, which will have a stop for the museum.

All that is contingent on fund-raising continuing apace.

“If we stall next year, and we don’t continue to raise money, we would be in bad shape,” Mr. Govan said in December. But, he added: “Failure is not an option. The old buildings are literally coming to the end of their natural life.”

From the start, Mr. Govan has been persistent and uncompromisingly confident.

“I can’t say it strongly enough: It’s not a question of whether there’s money in L.A for such a project: There is,” Mr. Govan said, sitting in his expansive ground-floor office with a view of Wilshire Boulevard, where workers were cutting down palm trees to make way for the subway line. “The question is, will people decide that’s what they want to do with it.”

“If they do this” — at this, Mr. Govan paused to amend his remarks – “when they do this, not if — it will be a new high-water mark for collective action, for achievement in the cultural space and in the philanthropic space of Los Angeles. It is not a large goal. We’re going to do it. They are going to write the checks. And they are going to be happy to do it.”

There is a sort of cautious optimism here that Mr. Govan will be able to wrangle his money, all the more so since he announced the latest $75 million, including $50 million from Elaine Wynn, an art collector who is the co-chair of the museum, and $25 million from A. Jerrold Perenchio, a former Univision chairman who has bequeathed the bulk of his art estate to the new museum. “I think the old days of the claim that perhaps L.A. was not — and more specifically, Lacma was not — a target of sustained contribution are increasingly behind us,” said Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the county Board of Supervisors.

The optimism reflects a growing self-confidence about this city’s cultural status, but also the skills and personal force that Mr. Govan — with an intensity belied by an easygoing smile — has brought with him from New York.

“It’s going to take a couple of very significant donors to get this over the hump,” said David C. Bohnett, a wealthy philanthropist and board trustee. He added, “It would be much harder if there wasn’t the enthusiasm and the unanimous support of the board.”

A conversation with Mr. Govan can be an exhausting torrent of ideas and provocations, from his proclamation that the city’s homeless crisis could be solved, given the wealth and intellectual capital here, to what seemed an almost offhand idea of building a Frank Gehry skyscraper across from the museum, which would tower over a charming, low-lying neighborhood of mission revival homes.

“There’s not a city in America that will look as different in 30 years as L.A. will look,” Mr. Govan said. “They are tearing down whole city blocks as we are speaking. I love it.”

“It’s changing,” he said. “Don’t you see it before your eyes? Out your window? Since it’s going to change, what’s it going to change into? I’m not sure I know. I am certainly drawn to the fact that each of us is going to have a little impact on it.”

Members of his Board of Trustees say meetings with Mr. Govan veer into tutorials on the history of art. “Whenever we are together, it’s like after we finish doing our Lacma business, he gets this drug dealer look in his eyes and is like, ‘You want to go so see some art?’” Ms. Wynn said. “I think what’s driving him is this sense of history and timing. Michael accurately perceives that the pulse of newness and creativity is happening in L.A. now.”

Mr. Govan is clearly an admirer of Los Angeles, even as he acknowledges its challenges.

“When I moved here, people in New York said to me, ‘L.A. is self-centered and everybody does their own thing; it’s not a good place to do a public big museum,’” he said. “There was this rap on L.A. — and I think some of this is true — that it is a wonderful place to be a creative individual. You have tremendous freedom to work on your own, you can be anonymous, and you can be eccentric. But what L.A. has not done well is the collective of people working together for public goals. The museum world is just a reflection of that. It’s mostly been people doing things on their own.”

Mr. Govan’s campaign comes as the Los Angeles art world is churning. The Broad Museum, exhibiting Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection of modern art, opened downtown in 2015, and on the other side of the cultural tracks, Hauser & Wirth took over a sprawling old flour mill in the Arts District, turning it into a museum-scale gallery that is already crowded on weekends. This city is awaiting the April opening of a private art museum from Maurice and Paul Marciano, Guess co-founders, in a renovated Masonic Temple in Koreatown. The Santa Monica Museum of Art is moving to the downtown Arts District this fall, with a new name: the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. And George Lucas, the filmmaker, after years of “site wars,” recently announced he would bring his Museum of Narrative Art to Exposition Park and fund the project — about $1 billion — himself.

“There’s no question that the art scene in Los Angeles has become dramatically elevated on the global stage,” said Casey Wasserman, an entertainment executive and museum trustee. “It’s our time.”

Mr. Govan said that Los Angeles stood out today as a city where art is being made — as artists flock here to take advantage of the light and the space — rather than a place where it is being shared with the public. “You could argue that there is no city that is more vibrant,” he said. “You may argue there are cities as vibrant — Berlin is very vibrant; New York City outside of Manhattan is very vibrant.”

But he said that alone does not make Los Angeles the cultural capital it aspires to be. “I say this to my board: ‘You can’t just be boastful and say L.A. is going to be one of the greatest cultural cities on earth. That’s not a forgone conclusion. Even with all the artists. You can’t sit back and watch. That’s why the museum is important.’”

There are few people who would quarrel with his record so far. “His vision has been to turn the Lacma campus into a center for L.A. and it’s working,” Mr. Yaroslavsky said. “It has indeed become L.A.’s living room, a magnet. And when the Zumthor museum opens, it will exponentially increase the power of that magnet.”

Mr. Bohnett said that Mr. Govan has “deep and established East Coast roots” but that no matter the temptation of working in a place like New York, he could not see him leaving.

“Where is the place he can make his biggest mark?” Mr. Bohnett said. “It’s Los Angeles.”