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Behind Michael Govan's almost $1-million LACMA salary

The director's hefty contract is in stark contrast to the nonprofit museum's recent woes. But some in the art world note the need to attract top talent and point to Govan's fund-raising success.

August 18, 2009|Alan Zarembo and Mike Boehm

In the museum world, there are any number of ways to spend $1 million.

That's nearly as much as Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, will earn this year in salary, deferred compensation and benefits.

That also happens to be how much LACMA's film program lost over the last decade -- a big part of the reason that Govan recently laid off the program's director and cut the weekend screening series, provoking an outcry from hundreds of cineastes.

In good times, eyebrows might be raised over whether $1 million a year is a fair wage for a director of a nonprofit museum. But in the midst of a recession that has forced budget cuts and layoffs at museums around the country, the issue becomes more loaded.

"Every dollar you give in compensation is a dollar you can't spend on programs and curatorial work," said Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin.

The question may be particularly relevant at LACMA, because it gets more public funding than many museums: About a quarter of its $74-million operating budget came from L.A. County in 2008, including $201,432 toward Govan's salary and benefits.

LACMA has avoided widespread layoffs common at other museums. But it has canceled two exhibitions and abandoned negotiations for a third. Several curatorial positions remain open amid a hiring freeze, though one key spot was filled last week. Govan says he is seeking donor support to create a new film program.

In an interview this month, Govan said his pay was commensurate with the demands of his job, which requires him to be out "five or six nights a week" raising money -- a task at which he has excelled.

"Do you have any idea how much that costs in baby- sitting?" the 46-year-old director, who lives with his wife and their young daughter, said jokingly.

If the museum decided to cut salaries, "I'd be first in line," he said, adding that he decided to forgo a bonus and raise this year.

Still, Govan, a rising star when he was hired in early 2006, is on pace to collect $6 million over the course of his five-year contract, according to a copy of the agreement recently obtained by The Times, as well as details subsequently provided by the museum.

His compensation, about a 50% increase over that of his predecessor, places him in an elite group of art museum directors who for the most part preside over institutions more prestigious and many times richer than LACMA.

They include the heads of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, according to the most recently available tax filings. After three decades, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York topped $1 million in his last year because of deferred compensation paid upon his retirement.

The director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles made $929,000 in 2008, while the top two executives at the Getty Trust, which funds the museum, made $1.1 million each.

"The art world is so polluted with money, these extraordinary sums being paid for contemporary art, that it really has a distorting effect on the whole system," said Bruce Robertson, an art history professor at UC Santa Barbara who served as LACMA deputy director before Govan arrived.

"Michael shouldn't be singled out," Robertson said. "He is part of a pattern."

One reason the LACMA board of trustees decided to pay top dollar for a director is that it wanted somebody to raise the museum's profile.

"The reputation of LACMA was not a good one," said Bobby Kotick, a trustee who heads the company Activision Blizzard, maker of the video game Guitar Hero. "There was definitely skepticism whether L.A. was committed to building a cultural institution that would be on par with the Met and MOMA. . . . Compensation was one way to overcome that."

Govan said he accepted the offer without much negotiation. It included a starting base salary of $600,000, the opportunity for bonuses and raises, rent-free living in a museum-owned house, a car allowance and $1 million in deferred compensation if he stays five years.

His only request, he said, was a bigger relocation and signing bonus to ease his family's transition from New York, where he ran the Dia Art Foundation. That amounted to $350,000.

Museum officials said they came up with one additional perk: offering Govan $1,000 a night to stay in his own New York condominium while there on museum business. The deal, which ended in June when a tenant moved in, paid Govan $103,000 over three years.

He and his family now live for free in a $5-million house in Hancock Park -- a benefit worth $126,500 a year, according to tax filings.

Asked if he would have taken the job for less money, Govan, whose ex-wife and teenage daughter live in New York, said: "I couldn't have, because of my family situation and my living situation."

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