Michael Govan and the Art of Change

Michael Govan may hesitate to call himself a good leader, but his record speaks for itself.

Since Govan first took the reins at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), he’s seen yearly attendance numbers double at the once-sleepy institution, increased its profile through a series of bold programming decisions, and begun planning for an ambitious reimagining of the LACMA campus.

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Michael Govan, guest speaker at the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader series

Govan’s brand of visionary leadership has played a powerful role in forging partnerships across sectors and industries in the city, enshrining LACMA as an essential civic pillar and cultural resource for Los Angeles. On March 5th, as part of the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader speaker series, Govan spoke about the governance challenges for an internationally acclaimed museum, his ideas on how to reshape the museum experience for a multicultural city in the 21st century, and the silver lining of the recent financial crisis and recession.

While leadership at a museum is a much different landscape than the political world, Govan deals with some similar governance issues, thanks to LACMA’s unique position at the intersection of philanthropy, local government, and the arts. Like many leaders and reformers, he is driven by a strong passion to make change across the organization, even if LACMA has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years.

“Success can hinder the ability to change with times, because if you have a very big ocean liner that’s cruising very well and it’s very comfortable, it may be difficult to change course,” Govan said. “Now you may not need to change course but I would argue that the world around us is changing quite rapidly and the environment around what I know of as our museums has changed super radically.”

During his tenure at LACMA, Govan has assessed many different parts of the museum experience, from the re-thinking different ideas about what an entrance to a museum should look like with the installation of Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculpture to a visionary plan from architect Peter Zumthor for the future of LACMA’s campus.

“The museum needs to be flipped upside down,” Govan said. “There’s a lot that I think needs to be really reconsidered about these organizations, and Los Angeles was the only place you could do that. We live in a globalized society, multicultural society, and Los Angeles is probably the best representative of that. If you want people to understand each other and the world, you want a museum that would deal with the environment, the cultural questions, the points of view, the time we live in.”

Unlike other leaders, the director of a museum deals in a different time span to achieve his mandate. With his ambitious plans for LACMA, Govan knew his tenure could be short.

“When I got here I said I’ll either be the shortest term director, which I know is going to be a feat since there was one museum director that lasted eight months, or the longest term director, because as companies like to think in quarters, museums need a quarter century to get anything done,” he said.

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Though once reluctant to head out to the relative anonymity of Los Angeles from the high-profile New York art world, Govan has thrived here, aided in no small part by a unique arrangement with the County of Los Angeles. The county provides about one-third of LACMA’s operating budget on an annual basis, but the lion’s share of capital and art acquisitions comes from private sources. Govan must answer to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, but he is also responsible to the museum’s Board of Trustees, which includes community members and philanthropic interests. While the hybrid nature of this arrangement can be complex, it has also helped the museum in recent years.

“The key to survival and success for me is diverse sources of support,” Govan said. “Having county support as well as private adds a diversity. So when the 2008 crisis came, I couldn’t get a capital gift for 36 months, but county money kept coming in and kept us going. Meanwhile, county money doesn’t go up a lot. So if I need to build a big building or anything, or we need to make major infrastructural changes, I’m not going to be able to go to the county for that.”

While many American art museums saw significant development due to private philanthropy over the past 30 years, LACMA experienced more modest growth, thanks to fiscally conservative county oversight. Govan set out to build the endowment and provide for other costs by boosting philanthropic giving and expanding the involvement of new groups, leading to nearly half a billion of dollars for capital expenses and art acquisitions over the past five years. Govan’s leadership has been marked by collaboration, including a much-lauded partnership with the Getty Museum to acquire the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe and working with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts to strengthen a film program that had been hit hard during the recession.

“There’s a mentality of art institutions that is not unlike sports teams,” Govan said. “And fund-raising goes like that. Are you on MOCA’s team? Are you on the Hammer’s team? You’re supposed to have team allegiance, and it’s a very distressing thing because that system is quite inefficient. But I think that when resources are less available, people will drop ‘our team or your team’ mentality and work together.

“You know that saying, ‘never let a crisis go to waste’? Our work with the Academy is a great example. That could never have happened if it were not for the 2008 economic crisis. The economic crisis had enormous potential and the enormous potential was for collaboration.”

Govan’s recent $650 million plan to remodel LACMA’s Hancock Park campus will require working closely with the county, stakeholders, and philanthropists. In moving toward a new type of museum, Govan hopes to provide greater access and engagement for city residents.

“In a complicated big multicultural city like Los Angeles, the museum can play a very civic role,” he said. “What I’m doing right now is asking a lot of people a lot of questions because we are now in uncharted territory. No one has ever rebuilt a museum on this scale. Because we’re not just rebuilding our building; we’re rebuilding the entire system of our collections and how we can present them.”