Los Angeles County Museum of Art Goes for Splash and Experimentation

LACMA’s proposed new building looks like a spaceship on a movie set — and that’s a good thing.

A tsunami of criticism has crashed upon the shores of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and its director, Michael Govan. Museum lovers and taxpayers — it’s a government-owned museum — just learned that the imperially expensive new building that Govan and the museum board want offers less, not more, space for the display of art. This is, as critics correctly note, unprecedented. It will also have little back-of-house space for offices and storage, meaning that the curators and art not on view will go to parts unknown but not in the museum’s main building on Wilshire Boulevard. Many claim that Govan and the trustees will wreck the museum.

Well, that’s always been the point.

Govan has been the director for twelve years. Yes, LACMA long aspired to become an encyclopedic big-city museum like the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It aspired to a comprehensive collection of great things from all media, cultures, and periods, housed in a single giant palace with departments of curators busily researching in their silos like professors in great universities. It aspired to be the powerhouse of scholarship and leadership in the visual arts for the West Coast.

It aspired, and it fell short. Not a Myra Breckenridge–type flop, but a chronic disappointment. As a consolation, It’s  a Wonderful Life more than disappointed. It was a box-office flop.

Having known all of its many directors from the past, say, 40 years and many of its curators, I can say with confidence that it’s always been dysfunctional. It belongs to Los Angeles County, and why should anything there be better run than any other government agency? The land of Tinsel Town and the Beach Boys seems to promise nothing but a supporting part for an art museum, under any circumstances. It’s a place where people want to be outside, unless they’re seeing a movie. Its rich people are more often than not stingy, narcissistic, and demanding. Couth isn’t a native species. It’s hard to nourish a museum where tradition is devalued, where the new is prized above all else, where so much is fake, and where nothing is permanent.

In the face of these headwinds, LACMA has built an impressive collection. The museum was never an exhibition or scholarly giant, though. It’s not an egghead place. As a big player, it just never got traction. The Getty Center plays the starring role in that production. LACMA has many good curators. It seems, though, that whenever it does a really great show, most of the time it comes from someplace else. The museum has always been on the fringe. I think a big, Met-style museum in Los Angeles is culturally counterintuitive, and I mean the civic culture. In L.A. style, it’s time to do something fresh.

I like Govan. He’s a Williams man, as am I, and part of the famous “Williams Mafia” of directors and curators, as was I. Williams aside, or possibly via Williams, he’s smooth, classy, smart, and he has good taste. He was hired to break the long cycle of dysfunction and redevelop the museum in a way that both befits a great city and fits this particular city’s zeitgeist.

The board and Govan champion a new building designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. I think it will be beautiful, distinctive, and a destination. It’s tranquil, even mystical, and yes, looks like a Hollywood movie set with a modernized art deco feel. It looks like a massive spaceship, too, streamlined like the ones in the Star Wars movies, flying cities among the stars. It belongs in L.A. — odd since the architect lives in the Alps. It’s so sleek that it’s ironic beyond delicious that it’s landing next to the La Brea tarpits. That’s where dinosaurs roamed, and there’s another irony. Zumthor’s building will replace four of LACMA’s current old, outdated buildings, from the ’60s through the ’80s.

I like these buildings, too. The LACMA campus is nice, neo-Neutra, with lovely outdoor spaces. It feels quaint. Govan and the board think that they’re tear-downs and will cost so much to renovate and retrofit for earthquakes that it makes more sense to start afresh. I don’t buy this, but my Vermont “making do” mania, for once, seems irrelevant. This is L.A. “Making do” Yankee-style is about as attractive as mud season. Everything there gets trashed sooner or later.

Over the last few years, LACMA tried to make the former May Department Store into a museum annex. It’s an attractive, workable art deco building on the next block. When the board hired Govan, they had to know he wouldn’t be happy with this solution, and neither would glitzy, rich L.A. types. Donna Reed and Celeste Holm were attractive and workable. Lana Turner was fabulous. L.A. will always crave fabulous.

The Zumthor project will cost a fortune. Will LACMA do deeply into debt? Probably. Will the total project cost more than $650 million? Of course! Govan’s masters in county government will soon be tethered to the project. They’ve approved it, and once there’s a hole in the ground, there’s no retreat. They will find the money to finish it. LACMA has been trying to build a new campus for 20 years. It’s gone through one iteration after another, each a painful flop. There’s something to be said for a “let’s just do it” spirit of Mickey Rooney when he played Andy Hardy.

I think a single credential on Govan’s résumé explains why LACMA is where it is. He’s a protégé of Tom Krens. Krens was the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York for many years. He is a museum entrepreneur. He gave us the Guggenheim in Bilbao and was the father of Mass MoCA, which I love. He made the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice a place that combines style and scholarship. Govan was the deputy director of the Guggenheim during the Bilbao project. He then went to the Dia Foundation. There, he directed the museum when he moved to a massive, repurposed factory in Beacon, N.Y. Like Krens, he believes that bold statement architecture brings people in the door.

Krens pioneered and then refined the concept of museum branding and museum spawning, making the Guggenheim an international name. The Guggenheim’s motorcycle show was controversial in stuffy circles. It was flashy and brought in crowds. The day I went, the Devil Dolls, Hell’s Belles, and Badass Babes were waiting to visit, their motorcycles parked wherever-they-damn-well-pleased. Krens and Govan want to market art to a wide audience, and that’s fine, too. Bilbao is great. Some of Krens’s projects flopped, but when you dream big dreams, that happens. Why the Guggenheim is collaborating with the United Arab Emirates on a museum project in Abu Dhabi is beyond me, since they throw gay people off the roof, work foreign laborers like slaves, and treat women only a little better than in A Thousand and One Nights. I wouldn’t work for Krens because I’m too much of a traditionalist, but I admire his egalitarian vision. He brought a corporate-style flair and opportunism to the museum world, and this isn’t all bad.

Govan has brought his own vision to LACMA, and that vision descends from Krens and then from Williams, where art history emphasized aesthetics and accessibility. It’s not “accessibility” in terms of equity, inclusion, and diversity piffle. It’s scrutability — the idea that art provides sensual pleasure, that a work of art isn’t a Social Warrior Action Figure or an illustration but a thing of beauty and refinement anyone with a brain and eyes can savor. “The Williams Way” saw art more in terms of experience, aesthetics, and craftsmanship than according to school, medium, chronology, and other classifications, or, worse, a cudgel for class struggle.

Govan, like Krens, is more about the big splash than anyone at Williams ever was, but to paraphrase Dorothy, “he’s not at Williams anymore.” He’s in Los Angeles. They’re getting what they want. I won’t comment on whether they’re getting what they deserve.

Govan’s plan limits spaces devoted to specific departments. We’re not likely to see “print galleries” or “Asian wings” or period rooms. This isn’t for everyone, and it’s not for everywhere, thank God, but it offers an eclecticism that seems right for Los Angeles. Zumthor’s building will be mostly used for rotating temporary and permanent collections show, with the emphasis on “rotating,” and that means “always new and fresh.” The fat’s in the fire on this point. Govan has hired curators who share his philosophy. They’re doing good, provocative shows. The Old Guard is gone.

My biggest concern is that the permanent collection will lose its place of privilege. Govan and the board need to make the baby LACMAs in the neighborhoods a place where the collection can shine. Under Govan, the collection has gotten some very fine new things. He’s not forgetting what the museum owns.

I read an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books by the dogged, perceptive, and brave Joseph Giovannini. It skewers the LACMA plan. I disagree with his bottom line — he recommends canceling the project — but it’s a brilliant, scorching piece. He did a space audit, which uncovered the incredible shrinking museum as a news story, and then presented the plan in depth. Govan wanted the article squashed. Zumthor, however great an architect he is, has never worked on this scale and has a history of cost overruns in his projects. There was no search, but as bad as this almost always is, L.A. isn’t a convene-a-committee place, and its last architect search was a fiasco.

Giovannini and others observe that the Zumthor plan functionally precludes a future on-site expansion. It eats all of LACMA’s land. This is true, but that’s the plan. It forces LACMA to open branches throughout the county, much as the Guggenheim has Guggenheim babies. Los Angeles County is the size of Connecticut. It’s big and diffuse. One giant, central, all-encompassing civic museum won’t grab local hearts and minds the way it would in Philadelphia, Chicago, or a dozen smaller cities where a big museum would be icon of civic identity and pride.

We’re blessed the American museum system is so decentralized and so open to what is, at LACMA, now a start-up. Like the Guggenheim, it’s a multigenerational project and a fascinating experiment. I hope Los Angeles County sticks with it, and I hope Govan stays there to finish it.



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