Michael Govan

Art as Urbanism
Michael Govan interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Benedict Clouette

A director of a large art museum plays many roles: organizer, thinker, critic and fundraiser. But, urban designer? In his relatively short time at the helm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan has done just that, commissioning large-scale pieces to transform the museum’s urban campus. Unlike previous generations of museum directors, he is defining a city district through works of art rather than buildings. Volume spoke with Govan about overseeing an encyclopedic museum and its urban design.

JI: Dia:Beacon reverses container and content. Even before entering the museum, which is of course typically thought of as a container of artwork, the visitor is already immersed in art. There are large-scale pieces located around the building museum-goers encounter before they experience the architecture per se. Can you discuss your approach to the design of the museum complex?

MG: Some saw my work on the Dia project as being anti-architecture. Quite the reverse: to claim that I was anti-architecture is a total distortion of architecture. At Dia we understood architecture as the environment, the way things are organized, how we move in space and the sequence of events.

One notion was to blur the line of the museum entrance: to question what the threshold is and how to organize the experience of the threshold. You’re in the museum before you know it. Many people don’t realize that the parking lot itself is a work of art. It’s part of Robert Irwin’s concept. He organized the way the parking spaces would be set, the arrangement of the earth, grass and trees. The trees are fields of color—they’re green in the summer, white blossoms in the spring and for most of the winter they’re an incredible field of red berries.

JI: There is also an intentional blurring of content and management. Generally with museums art is regarded as the content and the architecture manages the image of the museum by way of the building’s exterior. It is also often the case that on the inside a museum’s architecture is relatively generic – a container that does not over-determine the experience of the artwork. But at Dia the exterior and interior pieces commissioned for its inauguration are so central to the museum’s first impression and experience that they condition its identity – perhaps even more so than the architecture. Can you discuss the dynamic between the building and the permanent artwork in this regard?

MG: The question is whether some spaces can be shaped by the specificity of artwork. At Dia the architecture was transgressive by most museum standards. Most museums are a container into which objects are placed, and Dia’s notion was that the artist would shape the environment with their work. The majority of Dia’s commissioned artworks like Heizer’s or Irwin’s even puncture the building, readjusting the fabric of the container itself. In other instances, like at LACMA, the reading of the artwork is determined by the presence of the building. Inside the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the ninety-foot-tall Barbara Kruger piece is a bit anti-monumental in that you have to read it in fragments because the movement of the elevator disrupts a single gestalt. With the Tony Smith piece displayed in the Ahmanson building we created a tight fit similar to that at the Corcoran in order to create a feeling that it’s specific to the space. So in that case it was constructed. The thing for me is to create a certain quantity of these instances of specificity. It’s not an exact science, but it changes your reading of everything else in the museum, including the generic spaces for the rotating exhibits.

JI: At LACMA you took this approach to an urban scale. Rather than focusing on commissioning a signature building to become a new identity for the museum, you’ve worked with artists to create spaces in front of and around the existing buildings. Art is a medium to realign and reform relationships between extant buildings as well as with the immediate urban context. As a result LACMA now looks more like a district with artwork as the primary building blocks of its urban plan. To describe a really crude historical schema of museum directorships, you could say that once directors sought to build a collection, then their ambition turned to creating a landmark building and now in your case it’s –

MG: To build an environment and a perspective.

JI: Yes, and in building an environment, art production has become a form of urban design.

MG: There is an idea related to signature architecture that the bigger building is the better building and the resulting image is a big building with a little piece of sculpture at the entrance. At LACMA we’ve played with reversing that concept so that the largest object on our campus will be a Jeff Koons piece: a train hanging from a 160-foot-tall crane, which performs three times a day when they run its locomotive. So it functions like a ‘campanile’ in a town square, to mark time and place. Renzo Piano’s architecture – its grid-like form and simplicity – invites art to be a strong presence. He actually likes it if the art is bigger than the building. He thought that the character and height of the Jeff Koons proposal were fantastic.

JI: The Grove is a successful retail center not far from here in Los Angeles that for all intents and purposes has managed to solve the chronic problem of parking. The developer Rick Caruso refined the system to get a high car count in and out of a complex located in a dense and highly trafficked area of the city. In an interview, you refer to the Grove as an example of people’s willingness to venture by car to central, urban destinations despite the potential pitfalls of doing so. Can you discuss your thoughts about attracting local visitors to the museum?

MG: Yes, I think it’s a huge issue. Somebody once asked me how the Dia experience, which is so niche, can apply to LACMA, which is so huge. It’s a civic project, not a destination. I think that it influences it in every way possible. The lessons learned at Dia can be deployed on a civic scale. You put art up front. You get people into art first, before they enter the museum. That’s a principle at Dia and that’s a principle that will play out here at LACMA.

When Caruso made the Grove he spent a huge amount of time studying the psychology of the destination, the small village and how to create that in Los Angeles. My point in the article was that if you can get millions of people there, you can’t then tell me transportation is the reason for low attendance! [laughs] I started to imagine that given how sprawling Los Angeles is – it’s geographically non-hierarchical – every place is a destination. So the question is how to make it worthwhile once you’re there. I think a lot about how to create a destination. I’m curious about LACMA being a destination in a center city location. You can imagine it as a nexus.

That idea of a nexus is reflected in the works we’ve realized at LACMA. For example, Chris Burden’s project, ‘Urban Light’, establishes an LA ‘street temple’ with two hundred urban lamps from the 1920s and 1930s taken from streets in different neighborhoods. Each has a personality and a different notion of civic pride and urban design. They’re all painted grey so they’re all the same color; it’s an incredibly beautiful sculpture. Almost like the Campidoglio in Rome with earth brought from the Seven Hills to make the mound, the Burden piece is a belly-button space where these lamps from every quarter of Los Angeles are situated here at the center of Los Angeles County. Along with Robert Irwin’s palm trees, these two aspects of the LA streetscape formalize the architecture and make it almost ceremonial.

JI: Unlike cities such as Paris, LA is not imageable; that is, it’s not a city that can be understood and grasped from one vantage point. Similarly, the urban design and architecture of LACMA’s campus is, well, diverse. It too is not imageable. Can you discuss the identity of the museum vis-à-vis the architecture?

MG: LACMA is the last encyclopedic museum and probably the only one that has a chance to rethink itself. As a malleable, encyclopedic museum, LACMA has the most interesting opportunities at the present, including architecturally. It isn’t overwhelmingly coded in one way or another. Museums on the East Coast, where a great deal of wealth was concentrated at the end of the 19th and in the 20th centuries, were built on the classical, European Enlightenment model. All those buildings are built out of stone and you’re just not going to change the façade of the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] or the Chicago Art Institute or the Cleveland Museum or the Boston MFA, because they are so successful and so set.

Moreover you can’t make any more encyclopedic museums because you can’t collect the material. You can’t get classical works or works out of South America, Mexico or China even with all the money in the world. We have one of these collections and our buildings are more or less built out of cardboard because of the mild weather in LA. It’s a precious opportunity and an enormous responsibility to rethink what’s possible and we’re aware of that every day.

JI: Given the vastness of LACMA’s collection it too is not imageable. It has a wide range of material and no one type of work or one single work such as the ‘Mona Lisa’ at the Louvre represents the museum’s mission or identity. What is the design-image of LACMA?

MG: There’s a condensation of the world in an encyclopedic museum: you have objects from all over and throughout time mapped onto one dense surface. It is and it isn’t imageable depending on how it’s organized.

In terms of content management, there’s a distinct difference in organizing content in three-dimensional space versus the nature of the digital realm where things are sortable and searchable. By adding interpretation or framing we can stimulate some of that non-linear thinking. But it’s a big responsibility to put things in actual space, because then every decision you make is read. If you walk into the Metropolitan Museum of Art you see Greek and Roman art on your left, Egyptian on your right, and European painting upstairs. That’s a big message about the order of priorities. In the organization of LACMA one can almost imagine the whole campus as a timeline: the Broad building is the contemporary, your moment of entry, and the historical collections extend backwards in time to prehistory, to the tar pits, this fantastic, pre-human historical artifact. So you have the present, human history and pre-history.

JI: Given the wealth of artifacts in its collection, an encyclopedic museum is in a position to invoke the imagination of visitors by contrasting historical and contemporary material. At other times, an encyclopedic museum can organize a show that combines and relates the two.

MG: Contemporary art imagines, or perhaps better recognizes, that history is always remade and reread; a work of contemporary art is new, but it also forces a rereading of everything else. LACMA’s approach is similar.

In an encyclopedic museum you feel so strongly that the objects in the collection have been displaced. So I’ve been looking for collections that can facilitate dialogue between the museum’s urban location and those displaced objects. An example of facilitating dialogue with our local context is an installation we’ve just opened, a temporary reinstallation from our pre-Columbian collections designed by the artist Jorge Pardo. The exhibition competes with the art and the art is completely displaced from any representation of its original context. It’s been given a thoughtful new one, a contemporary one that links it to this place. You can’t make the whole museum eccentric like this, but you can do things that make people more aware of the institution as a framing device and that awareness carries through to your experience of the whole museum.

JI: Given that there is no longer the expectation that an encyclopedic museum needs to be comprehensive and constantly on the lookout for omissions, it can turn to a different acquisition and exhibition strategy. One such strategy is to have an infinitely malleable and evolving scope that takes advantage of the breadth of its initial conception. What do you see as the potential of broadcasting, as LACMA is doing, in contrast to the narrowcasting of boutique museums?

MG: Encyclopedic museums – a bad word for it and very complicated – embody a worldview and reflect the ambition of a civic environment. We might better consider encyclopedism as a frame of reference that allows a museum a wide bandwidth. We could read it as inclusiveness, rather than as bringing exotic spoils from afar. The broadband quality allows us to be in dialogue with the audience of our urban context. LACMA goes with the situation in LA. In a city that speaks over a hundred languages, the encyclopedic museum can justify its existence and relevance based on a conversation about the present day with an audience from every part of the world.

JI: What’s the cultural forecast for LA – where’s it going, what’s its potential and how is it different from other cities?

MG: New York was the cultural capital for a moment. Innovation on that level is not sustainable. You’d be hard-pressed to call New York the center of innovation any more, but like London and Paris it’s an incredible platform for the presentation of an already codified, celebrated culture. It’s also the center of the market. LA is in the process of becoming a center, one of many centers. Los Angeles has a unique kind of innovation. I’m not sure if it’s true, but are more images made in Los Angeles than in any other place in the world? What would compete, if you consider advertising, computer imaging, gaming, Hollywood and all the art that’s being produced here? It’s an incredible sense of production and intensity.

BC: How does ownership of a collection affect the way a museum creates a brand or an identity for itself? And on the other hand what are the advantages of having fluidity in the relationship between the museum’s identity and the work it presents in cases where the collection is not strongly identified with the museum?

MG: There are models on both sides regarding the question of fluidity versus permanence, and identity of programming versus the identity of the institution. There are institutions with a permanent collection and a great identity. The other extreme is the Kunsthal, which is intended to be an empty shell with loaned content flowing in and out of it. Obviously we’re thinking about this back and forth quality. It’s a civic and county museum and therefore the notion of permanence and identity, especially if constructed in an interesting way, is important. But fluidity is also important in order to permit more open readings of identity. Our current building plan calls for an exhibition pavilion without a collection in order to provide at least one space that almost floats like a pavilion in the park without a specific identity, and that can at times relate to one of the permanent collection spaces, while at other times it can be an empty space with a very flexible relationship to the landscape of the park. I think we’re a big enough place that we must have gradients, from less determined to more determined backdrops, places and contexts. That’s obviously up to curators and the artists to make of it what they can.


1. Michael Govan
2. 'Train', Jeff Koons, 2007
3. 'Urban Light', Chris Burden, February 2008
4. Eli Broad and Michael Govan in the third floor gallery, Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) press review, February, 2008

Photos 1, 3 & 4, Copyright 2008 Museum Associates/LACMA
Photo 2, Copyright Jeff Koons Studio/LACMA











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