NEAR FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA — The big gala is approaching, but Michael Govan is a long way from his Hollywood tuxedo. He’s in an SUV, blazing down a dusty desert road approaching the dormant volcanic crater on which pioneering light artist James Turrell has spent four decades and more than $15 million. It’s a Sunday, and they’re meeting to plot out the next phase for “Roden Crater,” a series of man-made tunnels and naturally lit chambers carved in a 400,000-year-old cinder cone. It is a beautiful place, almost indescribable, yet so far from being done and open to the public. A wave of guilt washes over Govan.
“I think about it all the time,” he says. “I feel like I’m often failing. That we haven’t gotten it done yet.”
It’s a rare downbeat for Govan who, approaching a decade as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has developed a reputation for taking on projects that many would deem undoable. Before heading west, he helped convert a former Nabisco factory in the Hudson River Valley into Dia: Beacon, focused on 20th-century artists that include Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, and Michael Heizer. Earlier this year, Govan headed to the White House with Heizer, posing with President Obama as he signed a proclamation forever protecting “City,” the aging cowboy artist’s monumental work in the Nevada desert. On Nov. 7, Govan will be at LACMA’s “Art + Film Gala,” honoring Turrell, whose admirers range from art professors to Drake, at an event co-chaired by Leonardo DiCaprio.
T Bone Burnett, the Grammy-winning producer who will introduce the artist that night, says that Govan has made LACMA an essential stop for the city’s burgeoning population of creative types.
“It’s been transformed,” he says, praising recent shows on Turrell, sculptor Ken Price and director Stanley Kubrick. “He’s a brilliant curator and a great fit for this town.”
“He has such a vision, endless ideas and he just makes everything happen,” says Viveca Paulin, auctioneer, wife of actor Will Ferrell and one of the 39 (of 53) LACMA trustees added since Govan arrived. “I don’t know how he does it. He seems like a magician.”
Many consider Govan even more.
“I view him as the czar of culture of South California,” says Bobby Kotick, the Activision chief executive officer and LACMA trustee who worked hard in 2005 to recruit a reluctant Govan to leave New York for Los Angeles.
Govan, 52, is often described as having “movie star” looks. It’s that easy smile, full head of hair and slim-cut suits, not to be taken for granted in a job heavy on dinner-schmoozing.
The “czar” is no publicity hound but he’s also not press-shy. He will talk endlessly if the subject is LACMA, “City,” or “Roden Crater.” And as much as he sits at the center of so many ideas — including the museum’s proposed $650 million expansion, to be designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor — Govan tends to play down his significance.
“The good thing about being the museum director is that you’ll eventually be forgotten,” he says. “You can take risks. So if you succeed, if you fail, it’s not really a big deal in history. It’s the artists who are going to be remembered.”
Funny thing is, Govan started out as an artist. Growing up in Northern Virginia, he won a middle school contest for a charcoal drawing of astronaut Neil Armstrong. His portfolio entering ninth grade at the Sidwell Friends School, in 1977, made a strong impression on art teacher Jay Roudebush.
“The draftsmanship was quite superb,” he says. “The other thing was just his nature. Thoughtful, perceptive, quiet but he really paid attention to things in a way that kids his age typically don’t.”
In 1981, Govan headed to Williams College in Western Massachusetts, where he would work on the school paper and volunteer for the hard-driving head of the college art museum, Tom Krens. He also developed his own art.
For his senior thesis, Govan created a conceptual exhibition in which he reversed the dynamic of paintings and catalogue. Visitors were offered a free, intricately designed catalogue with words, drawings and photographs. This was the object. On the walls of the gallery hung a series of large black and white paintings on cheap cardboard that were copies of the pages of the book.
“It was brilliant,” Williams art professor Ed Epping says today. “I’ve been there for 38 years and it’s still probably the single best honors show I’ve ever seen.”
Govan didn’t decide to stop being an artist. But in 1988, Krens left Williams to direct the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. He would become famous and controversial for building an international network of museums and organizing crowd-pleasing shows like “The Art of the Motorcycle.” For now, Krens needed a No. 2. He called Govan, then a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, and offered him a job. At 25, Govan quit school to become the Guggenheim Museum’s deputy director.
Their personalities are certainly different. Krens is an agitator, often cranky and unafraid of confrontation. Govan, in contrast, cringes when he senses tension in the room. But Govan, who spent six years at the Guggenheim before heading to Dia, remembers lessons learned from Krens.
“Persistence,” says Govan. “This idea of doing and keep doing. He would go to a city across the world for one day. I thought that was strange until I realized he had this sense, one, of being present. You don’t just write letters and sit at your desk. And Tom never took anything as given. Nothing. Any question could be opened — the structure of museums, what business could be — and he thought in these huge arcs of time.”
Krens, who left the Guggenheim in 2008, recognizes that final quality in Govan’s focus on the desert works.
“The point is that to take on quixotic projects because they’re huge is one of the things you can do when you have a certain amount of power,” says Krens. “It doesn’t always have to be a linear line where you can say this work is going to end up in the museum. The museums are already full.”
Govan was 9 years old when Heizer bought land in the Nevada desert and began moving mounds of dirt and rock into what would become his monumental shadow burg. It wasn’t until 1994 that Govan, then the newly appointed Dia president, visited “City” and signed on.
The project needed help. Unfinished work the artist had done decades ago was deteriorating. Millions of dollars needed to be raised and seemingly endless advocacy was required. Govan worked closely with the Lannan Foundation and his Dia board to raise cash. He drew on memories of his childhood for the latter. Jim and Emilia Govan, his parents, were leaders in the more than decade-long fight against what would become the Interstate 66 connector between Northern Virginia and the District. Though the highway was eventually built, their effort cut the roadway down from eight proposed lanes to four.
Govan remembered their commitment as he worked to protect “City” from plans to build a rail line to haul nuclear waste just past the project’s property line. He forged relationships with preservationists and, after several invitations, coaxed Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to visit Heizer. This summer, the long process reached a successful conclusion, with Govan and Heizer at the White House as Obama declared the 704,000 acres of desert surrounding “City” a national monument. Heizer’s life’s work, now more than a mile long, could open within five years.
The long view separates Govan from others, says Ann Tenenbaum, a former Dia trustee who now sits on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has donated more than $1 million to “City” and hundreds of thousands to “Roden Crater.”
“For me, Michael has an entrepreneurial spirit that I’m not sure I’ve really encountered in any other museum director,” she says.
Plenty of directors make studio visits and are devoted to artists.
“What is uncommon about Michael,” says Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “is that you have to get in a plane and fly into the desert to connect with those artists.”
He did not come west easily. Dia: Beacon had just opened in 2003. Govan, once divorced, had married Katherine Ross, whose position as a senior vice president at Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton required frequent trips to Paris. (They had also recently had a baby, Gabrielle.) Many on the East Coast viewed LACMA as irrelevant. Turrell, for one, worried about what would happen to “Roden Crater,” so generously supported through Dia.
“We all begged him not to take the job because it’s a job that kills everything,” says Turrell. “L.A.’s an entertainment town. There’s also what we call ‘scared money.’ In the film industry, you’ve had all this success and made it once. You have no idea if you can make it again.”
Govan first told LACMA he wasn’t interested. But the trustees wanted him and closed the deal by promising to help with “City” and “Roden Crater.” The move began to make sense.
“It was a deeply undervalued institution, a mess architecturally, byzantine in its curatorial organization,” says Joe Thompson, the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and a friend dating back to their time working under Krens at Williams. “In other words, it was ripe for a major reconceptualization.”
The numbers tell part of that story. Over Govan’s tenure, LACMA’s annual attendance has doubled, from roughly 600,000 to 1.2 million visitors, as has its private fundraising, from $41 million a year on average to $80 million. Additions to the collection have been equally dramatic. Earlier this year, at the museum’s 50th-anniversary gala, Govan unveiled art donations valued at $675 million. Gifts ranged from a John Singer Sargent painting by Barbra Streisand to a towering, wooden surfboard once used by the famed Duke Kahanamoku.
The acquisitions were a perfect example, Govan says, of the relatively open playing field at LACMA.
And his most dramatic acquisitions are a series of monumental works installed on the campus. These include Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” rows of restored, antique street lamps installed near the entrance on Wilshire Boulevard to serve as both a meeting place and a beacon, and Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” a 340-ton boulder that rests on a specially designed concrete ramp in the museum’s back yard.
Buying and moving the rock cost $10 million and created a considerable buzz, with crowds gathering as the boulder slowly crawled across the state.
Jarl Mohn, a museum supporter and National Public Radio’s chief executive officer, said he found Govan’s passion for the piece inspiring. That’s why he donated more than $100,000 for “Levitated Mass.”
“It’s not l ike going to Christie’s in London and raising your paddle to bring back something that you hang in the museum.”
The sun is descending over the desert. Govan’s Sunday afternoon meeting with Turrell went well, as the two reviewed plans to create a new model of “Roden Crater” to help explain the next phase to prospective donors.
Now he’s heading back, on his single-engine plane, to Los Angeles for a dinner with artist Cathy Opie. Govan learned to fly in New York, buying a tiny Piper Cherokee 140 in 1997 largely, he says, to deal with the stress of his Dia gig. He bought the larger 1979 Beechcraft Bonanza in 2002. The plane allows him to stop in unexpected places, whether to see trustees in Aspen or to check out hidden jewels such as the Buffalo Bill Museum in Wyoming.
Up here, 5,000 feet above the desert floor, Govan reminisces about getting to know the legendary artists who, some of them now gone, he would champion. Donald Judd, the notorious museum-hater in Marfa, Tex. Dan Flavin, sick with diabetes, in East Hampton. Richard Serra. Agnes Martin. Robert Irwin.
The Beechcraft glides over the mountains, the symphony of lights that’s Los Angeles shifting into view.
It is here that Govan is pressed, once more, about why he has devoted so much time, so much effort to a volcanic crater in the middle of the desert. For the first time, he almost sounds impatient. It’s so obvious.
“What are we here to do? We’re here to enhance humanity and culture. Why would we do less than we can do? Why would you sit back for 10 minutes? Why not push the edge of the envelope? Right? What else is there to do?”