Art Insight #9: Michael Govan
Director of LACMA
Forward-thinking, transformative leadership
The key point of the Art + Technology Lab presented by Hyundai and LACMA is the balance between the rapidly advancing edge of technology and the elements that make us human. We endeavor to closely guard humanity, interpersonal relationships, sense of purpose, the power of imagination, and the things that cannot be controlled by technology.
For nearly half a century, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has pushed forward on its indefatigable journey of change. LACMA attracts more than 1 million visitors annually, boasting a vast collection of more than 120,000 objects dating from ancient civilizations, and a diverse collection spanning from Asia to the Americas. The museum hosts diverse events from concerts to films, bringing together tradition and innovation while presenting perspectives on regional and global relationships through contemporary art. It is recognized as the finest art museum on the Pacific. We met up with Michael Govan, the CEO and Director of LACMA. Since joining in 2006, he has worked tirelessly to take LACMA forward, turning it into the preeminent art museum of the 21st century. He has also been working with Pritzker- and RIBA-decorated starchitect Peter Zumthor to redesign the LACMA campus.
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Q. In its 50-year history, LACMA has grown into one of world’s most prominent spots for contemporary art. As the main figures spearheading changes and leading the museum to new horizons, what sets LACMA apart from other contemporary institutions?
“Forward thinking” is the expression I would choose to describe LACMA. It comes from the unique character of Los Angeles. People refer to LA as the city of the future. And I agree, because it is a very young city that is constantly changing. When we look at art that is rich with history, art that might go back thousands of years, we look at it through young eyes.
Personally, I cannot imagine a future without art. Art was present in even the earliest of civilizations. Art is an integral part of our lives. It’s spiritual and it might encompass the afterlife, and even the beforelife. Time capsules hold records; art similarly encapsulates information and identity for future generations to peruse. LACMA is pursuing and clearly accomplishing that task of revealing the role of art in our present and more importantly in our future.
Q. Throughout your career, you have accumulated experience in planning and administration that provides you a deeper and broader insight than most. What do you see as the single greatest issue of our age?
The big issue of our age is globalization. I would say Los Angeles is the embodiment of globalism, as it is a comprehensive collection of countless cultures. Art plays an important role for all these heterogeneous cultures to coexist. Imagine a future where every individual identity will need to cooperate with one another. It is directly relevant to our survival. Art museums and galleries capture each individual identity through art, making them a necessary and appropriate forum for comparing and contrasting the diverse identities while seeking knowledge and new possibilities. So in that sense, I think the most important role of art in the future is to maintain individual identities while bringing people together. “Globalization” is very relevant in the present, and will continue to be relevant as we move forward in the next several years.
Q. In addition to LACMA’s outstanding exhibitions, you organized and brought back the Art + Technology Lab, which caused quite a buzz. LACMA, in terms of scope and prestige, could have just as easily sought a collaborative relationship with a corporation to attain necessary technical support and facilities.
Artists have always needed tools in one capacity or another to best perceive humanity and to convey it. Those “tools” in the past are now better understood as “technology.” So technology is something that artists have always been familiar with. For example, industrial technology allowed oil paints to be stored in easily portable paint tubes, which allowed Monet to exit his studio to work outdoors, where he observed the phenomena of light. That was how the artist eventually developed his impressionist style. The accumulation and development of those seemingly trivial attempts allowed today’s artists to utilize diverse technologies, such as digital media, the Internet, and more recently 3D printing, to push the envelope in terms of time and space.
The key point of the Art + Technology Lab presented by Hyundai and LACMA is the balance between the rapidly advancing edge of technology and the elements that make us human. We endeavor to closely guard humanity, interpersonal relationships, sense of purpose, the power of imagination, and the things that cannot be controlled by technology. For example, tools and technology appear to be the future in them, but in actuality, are bound by present limitations. The only thing unbound by limitations, however, is imagination. There are no bounds to the imagination of artists. The Art + Technology Lab that we made does not aim to develop a particular technology or to manifest art into a particular form. It exists to humanize technology and expand the scope of imagination. Technology can be destructive at times, but it is also a means to save mankind. That is why we will use technology to ask scientists and corporations what it is that they develop and use.
Q. It seems that the future is a topic of particular interest to you. As a principle-driven person unafraid of change, what significance does that subject carry?
I like to describe the future in reference to the concept of “uncertainty.” Why even bother getting out of bed in the morning, if the future was set in stone? The future is the future because it is unpredictable, and it takes us unaware. That uncertainty, however, is not something to be anxious about. It’s just an aspect of open-endedness. In other words, it is up to us to create and make something of our future. The future is up to us. Whether our place of work is at the art museum, or is in supporting an artist in some capacity, or developing a technology, or even in distribution and logistics, we each have a role in creating the future. That is why I like “uncertain” futures. In fact, there is a certain appeal that the inherent uncertainty of future holds. Under the going concern that the future of humanity will be sustained without destruction, I have absolute faith in mankind’s ability to develop and maintain a sustainable environment. People usually expect certain things to transpire in their future. But the fact remains that whatever happens to us is in some way a result of our own doing.
Q. The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale centered on the future. The Korean Pavilion presented a futuristic video installation on time. Could you share your thoughts on the Korean Pavilion? Also, any words of advice or insights into Korea’s world of contemporary art would be welcome.
I paid particular attention to the Korean Pavilion, with its theme on the future, past and time. There have been some tremendous artists coming from Korea in the past dozen years, and it’s very impressive. At this year’s Venice Biennale, the Korean Pavilion pushed the envelope, experimented and took a chance to show the present and the future as they visualized it.
On a slightly tangential note, it is interesting that “Korea” immediately brings to mind cutting edge technology. The Korean Pavilion did a fine job of expressing technology as a facet of its national identity. The moving LED images were like windows into the future. There was a certain contradiction to the whole thing, using computer renderings to describe the future with images that are in fact from the past.
I enjoyed my visit there, and remember it as a stroll through a phantasmal dream. What I particularly enjoyed was how the events throughout day were conveyed across at least half a dozen perspectives, presenting viewers with moments that transcended space and time. Diversity of perspective was the biggest distinguishing factor that separated the exhibition from other storytelling media such as sci-fi or fantasy novels and films. The schism and obscurity of time and space were quite clearly conveyed through the work. The artists had successfully perforated the reality of the Biennale and created a virtual world within the gap, and marooned the visitors there in the temporal Galapagos.
I felt that the combined ambiguity and obscurity of time and space embodied the Korean identity quite well, because any discussion of Korean art requires an understanding of the Korean context, its history and culture. Korea has its own unique temporality. While art in Europe followed ideals and order, consistently progressing forward, art in Asia has followed a circular flow of time. Korean traditional art has epitomized this pattern by building and rebuilding temples, painting and repainting it over countless iterations. I think what we’re seeing presently is a repetition of that history in art. Perhaps that is why Korean art resembles technology, in its cycles and pendulations. Just as we saw at the Korean Pavilion, Korean art is beautiful and special, captivating the audience with its depth of time and space. Technology is always accompanied by surprises, and Korean artists innovatively accommodate those new technologies to attain a new language of aesthetics. ■ with ARTINPOST
Abraham van Beyeren <Banquet Still Life> 1667 Oil on canvas 141×121.9cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
<Aradabil Carpet> 1539-40 Knotted wool pile on silk foundation Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of J. Paul Getty ⓒ2012 Museum Associates/LACMA
Art + Technology Lab at LACMA ⓒ2015 Museum Associates/LACMA
Reinstallation view of LACMA Art of the Ancient Americas Galleries ⓒ2012 Museum Associates/LACMA
Diego Rivera <Flower Day> 1925 Oil on canvas 147.32×120.65cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund ⓒ2007 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura ⓒ2007 Museum Associates/LACMA
Henri Matisse <Tea> 1919 Oil on Canvas 140.34×211.3cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bequest of David L. Loew in memory of his father, Marcus Loew ⓒ2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/ Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York ⓒ2007 Museum Associates/LACMA
Installation view of LACMA Korean Art galleries ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at LACMA ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
Michael Heizer <Levitated Mass> 2012 ⓒMichael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz
Rene Magritte <The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)> 1929 Oil on canvas 60×80cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Mr. and Mrs. Preston Harrison Collection ⓒ2006 C. Herscovici, London, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
David Hockney <Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio> 1980 Acrylic on canvas 218.44×617.22cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the F. Patrick Burns Bequest (M.83.35) ⓒDavid Hockney. All Rights Reserved. ⓒ2011 Museum Associates/LACMA
Pablo Picasso <Weeping Woman with Handkerchief> 1937 Oil on canvas 53.34×44.45cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. thomas Mitchell ⓒ2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York ⓒ2007 Museum Associates/LACMA
Robert Irwin <Miracle Mile> 2013 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Hyundai Motor as part of The Hyndai Project: Art + Technology at LACMA in honor of the museum's 50th anniversary ⓒRobert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ⓒ 2015 Philipp Scholz Rittermann
Thomas Hart Benton <The Kentuckian> 1954 Oil on canvas 193.4×153.4cm Gift of Burt Lancaster (M.77.115) ⓒThomas H. Benton yrust/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
Chris Burden <Urban Light> 2008 The Gordon Family Foundation's gift to 'Transformation: The LACMA Campaign' ⓒChris Burden ⓒ2014 Museum Associates/LACMA
Nam June Paik <Video Flag Z> 1986 Powered device, television sets, videodiscs players, plexiglas modular cabinet 190.5×351.79×40.64cm Gift of the Art Museum Council ⓒNam June Paik Estate, installation video ⓒ2012 Museum Associates/LACMA
Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at LACMA ⓒ2010 Museum Associates/LACMA
Broad Contemporary Art Museum(BCAM), north facade ⓒWeldon Brewster
Wilshire view at LACMA ⓒ2008 Museum Associates/LACMA
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Michael Govan was born in Washington, D.C. in 1963. He graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in Art History and served as Acting Curator of the Williams College Museum of Art. In 1986, he organized exhibitions on Picasso and Rembrandt. Later, he crossed the Atlantic to Italy to study Renaissance art. Upon returning, he continued to study art at the University of California, San Diego, but dropped out in 1988 when he was asked to serve as the Deputy Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He accepted and served in the position until 1994. From 1994 to 2006, Govan was the President and Director of the Dia Art Foundation, where he spearheaded the creation of the Dia: Beacon, a museum in New York’s Hudson Valley that houses the foundation’s vast collection of art from the 1960s to present day. Over the decade of Govan’s tenure, Dia’s collection nearly doubled in size. In 2006, he joined the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as Chief Executive Officer and Wallis Annenberg Director. He is considered responsible for revitalizing LACMA and bringing the museum to cultural prominence in Los Angeles. Displaying profound interest in contemporary installations, Govan has sponsored groundbreaking artists, including Chris Burden and Michael Heizer.
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