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A master works his magic on museum

Michael Govan has transformed LACMA and become a cultural force. He's not done.

May 15, 2011|Jori Finkel

It was in New York that Govan met his wife, Katherine Ross, who for years served as the vice president of public relations for the luxury goods giant LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and is now a consultant for Balenciaga. Media-savvy and camera-ready, the two quickly became a favorite subject for society columnists and photographers. The couple has one daughter, now 6.

The family decamped to L.A. in 2006 when LACMA trustees including the late Nancy Daly recruited Govan to run the museum. It was already in the throes of expansion, with preliminary plans by Renzo Piano in place.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 19, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Govan: A profile of Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan in Section A on May 15 said that LACMA had partnered with the J. Paul Getty Trust to acquire the estate of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, they acquired artworks and archival material from Mapplethorpe's foundation, the primary beneficiary of his estate.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 22, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Govan: A profile of Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan in Section A on May 15 said that LACMA had partnered with the J. Paul Getty Trust to acquire the estate of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, they acquired artworks and archival material from Mapplethorpe's foundation, the primary beneficiary of his estate.

If the Guggenheim taught Govan about destination architecture, Dia: Beacon was also a lesson in destination artworks -- using big, high-impact installations to define a sense of place and, in some cases, draw a broad audience.

At LACMA the biggest crowd-pleaser so far is Chris Burden's "Urban Light." Since going up in 2008, this installation of more than 200 salvaged Art Deco lampposts has become a popular meeting place, backdrop for wedding photographs and site for film shoots, as well as an all-around symbol for the museum. "The logo for the museum is an artwork, not a building," Govan offers.

As for the boulder, Govan says he saw its potential the moment the artist called him four years ago from LAX after visiting the quarry in Riverside. Heizer called to say he'd found in a quarry he used "the most beautiful rock he's ever seen. And he knows rocks -- he spends his life with rocks, and his grandfather was a geologist," says Govan.

Not all of LACMA's big projects have this momentum. Koons' proposal to hang at LACMA's entrance a 161-foot-tall replica of a locomotive from a crane, which Govan once compared to the Eiffel Tower and was estimated to cost more than $25 million, has languished in development for nearly four years. Govan says the train could be an "extraordinary international event" but acknowledges that he is "not completely certain" it will be built. "We don't have a final method of construction, and I don't have a final fundraising plan."

Another LACMA project Govan has floated but not brought to completion is that the museum become a caretaker for significant residential architecture in the region. Many say now is a good time to do it, with houses by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright languishing on the market, but Govan says he does not yet have the needed donations, financial or architectural.

For someone who generates so many ideas, having a few go unrealized does not seem to trouble him. He has a serial entrepreneur's equanimity about timing. What doesn't work for LACMA now might ripen in five years, or five decades.

"Businesspeople want to know what's your attendance this year, what's your plan for next year. They often think in terms of quarters. Museums think in quarter-centuries," he says.

"If you're not dreaming in the business we're in, the art business, then you're not doing your job."

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jori.finkel@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

5 -- Years left in Govan's contract with LACMA

14 -- Number of books on Amazon.com that list Govan as a contributor

349 -- Employees he oversees at LACMA

12,000 -- Approximate number of artworks acquired since he started as director

637,299 -- LACMA attendance in 2006, year he started on the job

914,356 -- Museum visitorship in 2010

$915,000 -- Govan's compensation for 2009-10 fiscal year

$1 million -- Bonus he received in 2010 for completing his first five years on the job

$148 million -- Amount of money raised for the museum's capital campaign during Govan's tenure

Source: Times staff reports

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