Once you've seen Michael Govan's office, it makes perfect sense that — besides being the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — he is a pilot. The ceiling is a Gordian tangle of freeways; the floor is a perfect white-and-blue heaven of clouds. It's the handiwork of California artist John Baldessari, and exactly the kind of tweaking of earth, horizon and sky that a pilot would appreciate. For more than four years, Govan has been sitting in LACMA's more terrestrial cockpit, charting a new flight plan for the county institution. As LACMA stands, it is only a couple of years younger than Govan. He means to make LACMA the literal and metaphorical heart of Los Angeles, from pre-Columbian to post-Modern, with L.A.'s own Eiffel Tower, in Govan's assessment: a 70-foot-long locomotive dangling from a 160-foot crane. It's about thinking outside the frame.
The Resnick Pavilion opens in September; what does this mean for LACMA?
It represents nearly the completion of the [architect] Renzo Piano master plan. That building is at the heart of the [LACMA] campus, and it's meant for art of all kinds.
You know, if you have a building that says "contemporary" or "Japanese" or this or that, it tends to select its own audience. This will be the mixing place. [For example], you'll come for ancient Mexico and you wind up seeing the Resnick collection. That's our mission — to expand the range of people's appreciation of the world and its cultures.
[The pavilion] is one floor with a lot of glass and light, a real indoor-outdoor feeling. It's one thing we have that Chicago or New York or even Paris year round doesn't have as much — the opportunity to create more of an indoor-outdoor experience.
You're very invested in what goes on outside the museum walls.
If you look at ancient cultures and ancient art, like the Acropolis or Chichen Itza, art came from integrating art, architecture and public spaces. People really respond to it. Having music outside, as we do on Fridays, having artists outside, making a cultural place, rather than just a box with objects in it, is really important to me.
I see "LACMA" on billboards and banners — Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a very long handle.
It's well known [here] as LACMA. In Mexico or Europe or Asia, I like to use the full name so everybody understands we're from L.A. Los Angeles is a very cool place and I like to promote it.
LACMA has educational outreach to public school kids and is working to restore the Watts Towers.
We are the county museum, so it's nice to engage the outside. The towers need [an] organization that's attuned to their being a very important art object. I've had trustees ask me: Why are you working in Watts? It's for the same reason we have education programs — it's part of our mission. It is important for us to be thinking about the larger community all the time.
Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says Angelenos will save a Warhol and the Hollywood sign but won't step up to save people like his folks. How do you answer that?
Since humans were civilized, they have had a desire to create things. Look at the Watts Towers. Here's Simon Rodia, who barely had two nickels, and spends every day collecting tile fragments, spending what little money he has to buy cement and steel and by himself puts up this crazy-beautiful monument. It comes from some deep inner human need, creating and then looking at the work of art. What's your motivation to be educated? What's your motivation to live? It's to strive for something great and beautiful and complicated. If you take away art, you have very little; obviously, if you take away food and shelter, you have nothing. I can never see them separated. You have to live, but you have to live for something.
What is it about the American character that seems resistant to public funding for the arts?
There's an Emersonian sense of self-reliance that we pride ourselves on. Art has thrived in America without enormous public funding; Los Angeles County is very generous to the cornerstone organizations in music, theater and art. It's hard to compare the U.S. to countries [with] centuries if not millennia of cultural experience. You have to think of the U.S. as a very young nation culturally. I think that comes with time. People say L.A. seems so much less generous than its sister cities on the East Coast when it comes to cultural philanthropy, but most of those museums have a half-century if not a century head-start on us. I'm always impressed with the generosity by [people like] the Ahmansons, the Resnicks, the Broads.
Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, created the museum blockbuster — big-name shows, big ticket sales. What's become of that?