FEBRUARY 13, 2020
SHORTLY AFTER the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 last April to okay funding for the proposed new structure at the County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, its director, was overheard speaking with Peter Zumthor, LACMA’s architect, on his cell phone describing the people who had opposed the plan: “There was some dissent by minor people who don’t matter.”
Govan’s unscripted phrase, “people who don’t matter,” is perhaps the single most honest comment coming out of LACMA during the entire 12-year march of deceptions waged against the public. In a slow-motion but breathtaking campaign of spin, cover-ups, disinformation, and fabrications (some verging on outright fraud), the museum has gaslighted Angelenos — including supervisors, councilmembers, and LACMA’s Board of Trustees — into thinking, well, yes, I guess, it’s a good idea to unravel the County Museum of Art as we know it. Yes, let’s disband all the collections and send them to satellite galleries in the four corners of Los Angeles, even though scores of knowledgeable curators over a century have carefully put them together piece by piece into magnificent, cogent puzzles. The museum must know what it’s doing. Let’s all get on this bus speeding to an alternative reality because Michael fits the central casting image of a director leading a museum dynamically into the future: he looks great, talks fast, seems sincere, wears cowboy boots, flies his own plane, and even if I don’t quite get what he’s saying, I want to be on the red carpet with the cool kids, the Hollywood crowd he’s brought to the galas.
Govan’s snide comment best explains his indifference toward, and even contempt for, the public, an arrogant attitude that has led to the fiasco that has now engulfed LACMA and bitterly split Angelenos as the museum prepares for the demolition of its core structures. Kept in the dark for most of the long process, largely abandoned by the Los Angeles Times until recently, the public itself is finally starting to realize that it is being duped, that the building is a Martian airship tearing apart the museum the city has long cherished. Generations of schoolchildren, and their children and grandchildren, have ridden buses to the museum to see the strange Picassos. Who knows where those paintings will be now?
In a victory lap after the supervisors’ vote, LACMA opened a small show about the project in the largely shuttered, soon-to-be-demolished Ahmanson wing of the museum, as though closing a deal in the sales office of a condo development. Pictures of a curving, all-glass building hovering over vacant plazas appeared on a large screen, with happy Angelenos strolling in a pedestrian nirvana. It was basically a life-style advertorial for sunny, outdoor living, as Diego Riveras and Magrittes, looking like postage stamps in the glassed-in balcony of the promenade deck, gazed down from the windowed porch.
The show was a masterpiece of condescension and misrepresentation, a public relations pitch with high production values that used glossy images to sell a bill of goods to gullible visitors. The air-brushed show offered vacant architectural headshots with zero information about how the project accommodates the collections, visitors, and routine functions like conservation and office space — design flaws recently outed in the press. What the exhibition really showed was a proposal drastically short on gallery and wall space, a building that was outdated as a design, obsolete before its construction, and lacking even basic back-of-house services.
Visual lies were embedded in this slick movie trailer. The renderings erased the inevitable fencing necessary to protect outdoor sculpture and ensure the building’s security: the plaza will be divided by a permanent fence. Interior views from the promenade deck showed a sweeping panorama of the Hollywood Hills, but in fact the deck lies below the tree line, so most of those views (which the museum doesn’t need or want in the first place) don’t actually exist. There could never be enough cafés or outdoor programming to justify the amount of plaza depicted: the agora of open space is actually blah — a wasted, aimless vacuity.
Conspicuous by its absence was a floor plan or even a diagram of where the collections would be located. Forget any indication that the $650 million price tag was bursting through the $750 million line on its way to $1 billion. There was no real information or stats for nerds to crunch. The show’s assumption was that you can fool all the people all the time.
Besides the public, the people who don’t matter include the very curators who have toiled in the trenches for decades developing the museum’s shows and world-class, world-famous collections. In his single meeting with assembled curators at the beginning of the project, Zumthor declared he was “not interested in a museum organized by curators,” as Govan approvingly looked on. Throughout the design process, curators were marginalized by a director and architect who don’t believe in the very collections that should be the core and building blocks of an expanded museum, collections that had grown substantially since the last building was added to the East Campus core over 30 years ago. Tellingly, in the Zumthor plan, the curators’ offices have been eliminated, moved out of the building, exiling the curators from the art in the galleries that is, or was, their responsibility.
The original sin, the first impropriety in the pyramid of deceptions that has driven the museum into a financial and institutional tar pit, is that the new director, an architecture addict with an edifice complex, arrived with an architect tucked in his back pocket and a compulsion to “build, build, build,” as a 2007 feature in the New York Times Magazine reported.
But there are strict Los Angeles County procurement rules that necessitate pre-qualified vendors, including architects, and Govan’s chosen architect would never have qualified for the LACMA job but for the museum’s odd command structure, which sidestepped procurement standards. The Swiss architect, educated at a crafts and design college, didn’t have an architecture degree and hadn’t apprenticed in an architect’s office, so he was never formally trained in the discipline’s great subjects, space and complexity. But because of Switzerland’s lax rules about hanging up a shingle, he could call himself an architect. In 2009, he won the coveted Pritzker Prize, based on a portfolio of small, enchanting pavilions; two nice, not-large museums; and a beautiful mountain spa, all with sensuously textured surface treatments. But he had also left a trail of incomplete, abandoned, and demolished projects, and disillusioned and angry clients (some of whom have contacted me with alarming stories). In Berlin, Zumthor was fired from the commission to design the Museum of Terror after 10 years of work. Cost escalations had exceeded the budget twice over. What had been built was torn down.
Because LACMA is directed by Museum Associates, a private group basically entrusted with running the museum for the public benefit, it could do an end-run around county rules. Rather than staging the normal invited competition, or even a curated search among qualified architects, Govan slipped Zumthor into the project despite the fact that he didn’t have experience working at this scale. Zumthor is really a miniaturist who excels at small- to medium-sized projects, and there is no evidence he has the aptitude, skills, or even interest in handling such a large, complex project as a redesigned LACMA. Architecture history is littered with stories of architects successful at small-scale who are unable to make the transition to large-scale.
LACMA’s perfunctory, secretive, pro forma architect selection process left no public record, deviating from the precedent set by Govan’s immediate predecessor, Andrea Rich, who in 2001 conducted a transparent competition to redesign the museum’s campus. This December, LACMA’s neighbor in Hancock Park, the Page Museum (one of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County), also conducted a competition with public transparency, public input, and exemplary results.
The unchallenged improprieties of anointing the architect outside acceptable norms displayed Govan’s just-trust-me-I-know-best attitude, which allowed Zumthor to be rammed through without proper vetting or accountability to the public.
Govan’s M.O. extends a pattern he already exhibited while running the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Wounds are still fresh from the damage Govan inflicted on the Foundation when, as director, he built a new sprawling outpost in an old Nabisco factory up the Hudson and shuttered the headquarters in Manhattan. Even at polite dinner parties, New Yorkers — including former members of the Dia board — still fume about what Govan’s new Dia cost them: by siting the new structure an hour away up the river, he shut down an important voice in the city’s — and nation’s — art conversation.
As director of the Dia, Govan became used to wielding power without challenge, dividing, stacking, overriding, and manipulating his board. He pressed his way through any storm with charm and guile. Fresh out of college, he had apprenticed at the Guggenheim as assistant director under Tom Krens, a mentor who powered Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim into existence.
Impelled by Krens’s swashbuckling example, and emboldened by his Dia Beacon coup, Govan arrived in Los Angeles ready to impose a pre-formed attitude on a museum he barely knew. He didn’t see the existing campus as a set of buildings housing a distinguished collection but as a tabula rasa upon which he could erect a second Dia Beacon. LACMA as we knew it was about to disappear, replaced, just as Dia Chelsea had disappeared.
His co-conspirator in the scheme was Zumthor, an architectural intimist who, by his own admission, didn’t like large museums. The two men were, in fact, designing a building for a different kind of museum, a Kunsthalle or art shed that didn’t need the curatorial expertise demanded by historically based collections.
Zumthor’s selection opened the door to the decade-long, wildly expensive serial disaster that is still unfolding. As a result of skirting all the rules of procurement that normally guide and control county projects, Govan exposed L.A. taxpayers to an architect untested at this scale, which has put the county, the museum, the public, and even the collections at financial and institutional risk. Promoting the professionally underequipped Zumthor beyond his skill set didn’t do the Swiss architect any favors. It set him up to fail.
And he did.
Zumthor’s inability to perform at this scale was clear from the 2013 show, The Presence of the Past (a title pilfered from the 1982 Venice Biennale), when the museum presented the first design in the Resnick Pavilion. Zumthor’s plan for the main gallery floor made it clear that the architect didn’t know what he was doing. The galleries were crammed together, bunched up without a spatial through-line, with confusing, arbitrary changes of direction and squared galleries that skulked uneasily along the curving edge of a hallway at the amoebic perimeter.
Eventually Zumthor solved the formal problem of how a straight line meets a curve by breaking up the bunched-up boxes in galleries clustered around a pavilion and widening the hallway into a promenade at the perimeter, billed now as the “Meander Gallery” — as though a friendly PR term could sweeten the fact that the corridor is a 65,000-square-foot waste of space.
Because the entire perimeter wall is glass, the museum will lose a full half-mile of wall space. The light levels of the glass-enclosed promenade will prevent displays of most art except bronzes and sculpted marble. Works on paper and textiles of course must be exhibited under low levels of light, but oil paintings, particularly those painted on panel, and polychrome sculptures, among other media, also demand specific, stable, and controlled illumination levels.
No one in the press, which was generally passive and permissive through the years-long gestation of the design, knew enough about architecture to call Zumthor out on the mess he was proposing in the opening show, or even on his correction to this mess. Nobody thought to test the square footage being put forward by the museum with a quantity survey comparing the proposal to the existing buildings. Everyone gave the museum the benefit of the doubt: it’s a ranking museum, after all, and it must know what it’s doing.
Instead, the museum carefully edited and deceitfully limited information that it spoon-fed the unsuspecting public, so opposition was effectively neutralized by the total lack of information. Public meetings, one in the dead of August, were perfunctory, with Govan escaping out the door before facing any serious questions. The museum itself also gave the architect the benefit of the doubt: after all, someone with a Pritzker Prize must know what he’s doing, especially a man who styles himself as a Zen master of the architectural sublime. We may be deep into the computer age, but Zumthor models buildings in beeswax. He’s so in touch with the earth.
But the museum never really asked the public whether it wanted this project. The museum held a few small pro forma meetings that fulfilled the letter but not the spirit of the law about informing the public. A decisive funding meeting at the Board of Supervisors in April was stacked with people scripted by the museum, marginalizing the half-dozen citizens who came on their own. The supervisors inhaled Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton, who also arrived with their scripted museum talking points. The supervisors basically dismissed the handful of citizens who each tried to make their case, even though they were overwhelmed by LACMA’s daunting wall of speakers and celebrities. The hearing was a farce meant to achieve just one thing: the appearance of compliance with the Brown Act, requiring that government business be conducted in public.
After LACMA’s strategic decision not to hold a public competition and after Zumthor’s work began, LACMA shrouded the work-in-progress in secrecy, but the architect’s failed attempts revealed that the designer of charming pavilions and small buildings had no idea how to organize a museum of this size and complexity. It has taken him more than a decade to try and figure it out. Meanwhile, Govan protected the architect from criticism, enabling Zumthor to bill fees over a decade that rose to something between $10 and $20 million taxpayer dollars (the museum refuses to make his cumulative fees public).
Govan was defending an architect who, like the director himself, could easily be accused of deception. Zumthor credited a 1954 breezeway by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park as an inspiration, but the architect clearly studied this curving canopy so closely that it looks like a Xerox. In the recent LACMA exhibition, glossy Hollywood headshots of Zumthor’s design show the same stretched curves that Niemeyer built into the breezeway, the same notion of a floating structure, the same organic shape. The idea was original then in the 1950s, a boomerang era in design, but dated now, a throwback all the more tarnished for being so transparently derivative.
Nearly 12 years after the decision to hire Zumthor, ramifications of the original sin are still playing out, compromising no less than the cultural future of Los Angeles. Learning on the job, testing design theses, Zumthor has burned through a dozen years while the cost of construction, through 2019, has increased by 44 percent. The original $600 million, which soon became $650 million, is fast approaching if not exceeding $1 billion. Meanwhile, the above-the-fray guru architect, usually dressed in priestly black, has successfully gamed the system, earning his high fees, while the museum has lost some 44 percent in construction value. Either the museum has to chop away at the architecture to compensate for the increases or tolerate the added costs, or both.
In a normal world outside LACMA’s bubble, an architect’s non-performance or late performance resulting in project delays that cause substantial additional costs would trigger scrutiny if not dismissal. Architects are regularly sued over failure to perform according to prevailing professional norms.
Govan has chosen to shield Zumthor rather than protect the public interest. County supervisors, city councilpersons, and LACMA’s Board of Trustees meanwhile have gone AWOL, abandoning the oversight role they were elected or appointed to perform. Govan has developed a cozy relationship with the Los Angeles Times and appears to have the editor-in-chief, and perhaps the publisher, on speed dial: not only does the paper publish softball interviews, but Govan wrote, at the Times’s invitation, a prominently placed op-ed piece rebutting criticism replete with distortions and misstatements of fact that the Times didn’t bother to correct. While publishing Govan’s self-serving editorial, it refused to publish a critical op-ed piece by Greg Goldin, an L.A. author and architecture critic, who finally placed the opinion piece at City Watch, another Los Angeles publication.
For all his choir-boy freshness, Govan is Machiavellian. After an interview I had with him in his offices, Govan told his curators in a meeting that a madman (that would be me) was writing an article about the project for the Los Angeles Times, but not to worry, he knew people and the article would never be printed.
He was right.
At one point, Govan contacted the editor-in-chief of this publication to ask him to stop printing my articles: LARB, unlike the Times, did not surrender.
Govan has worked the room masterfully. He dispensed coveted invitations, leveraged celebrity, spotted the money, and transformed a staid, rather academic museum into a hot ticket. Creating a web of debts and entanglements of the back-scratching sort, especially among influential artists to whom he has given shows, Govan immunized himself from criticism: he is too popular and powerful to take on.
Govan’s personal shield, through more than a decade of improprieties, was basically an elegant likability that ingratiated him to his immediate constituency, the people who actually mattered: he comes wrapped in a Cary Grant package. Leading with his charm, Govan worked le tout Los Angeles, and after so many openings, so many galas, so many backroom meetings, so many professional promises of shows and buildings, so much red carpet, so much hospitality at his LACMA $5 million mansion in Hancock Park, Govan developed what sociologists call “social trust,” which transferred to virtually every step of the project. Numerous Angelenos I have spoken with, many prominent in the art world, actually dislike the scheme and disapprove, but they will never say so publicly because, to a one, they all say, “Michael is a friend.” They tolerate the project and remain silent because they just like Michael. (In the interest of full disclosure: Michael and I have been friends for decades, and I like him too … but I’m also an architecture critic.)
A showman rather than scholar, Govan has displaced the collections as the object of the exercise. A cult of personality overtook the project, led by a camera-ready, charismatic Elmer Gantry on a mission. From his bully pulpit as director, he has delivered lectures and interviews, and he streams glossy images highlighting a curvaceous structure. He proselytizes for the future, wielding it like a machete, cutting brutal swathes through the long and delicate history out of which the collections emerged.
Though the architecture community generally disapproves of the Zumthor/Govan scheme, few will say so in public. It’s tough to speak truth to power when you’re angling for the next commission. Some architects who have come out officially in favor of the project are effectively on LACMA’s payroll. At least one architect who testified for the scheme at a recent City Council hearing has for years designed exhibition installations for LACMA. When he testified, he failed to mention that he makes money at Govan’s museum.
That Zumthor has designed a square architectural plug for a round hole is the project’s most visible problem, but the architecture is also informed by a twisted view of history that Govan, in another act of deception, has never clearly acknowledged. Govan came to LACMA armed with the latest poststructuralist critique about how traditional encyclopedic collections reflect the social, racial, and class prejudices of their collectors: the British Museum, the Hermitage, the Prado, and the Louvre were kings’ collections, sometimes amassed through colonial conquest. The collections projected hegemonic power that marginalized “other” voices.
Along with the people (and curators) who didn’t matter, the socially tainted old collections no longer mattered either. Govan targeted what he claimed were biases in the existing LACMA collections, saying he wanted to democratize the presentation of the art. A contemporary museum should no longer be Eurocentric, for example, leading with Rubens on the main floor, but should reflect a range of cultures and periods in a non-hierarchical floor plan. Govan didn’t really broadcast his intentions but surreptitiously used his chosen architect to implement radical institutional surgery, the end of LACMA as an encyclopedic museum. Without permanent galleries, Govan and Zumthor have deliberately advocated a museum so vastly reduced in size that its collections could no longer be shown as collections. That eliminated the supposed “problem” of encyclopedism and prejudiced the museum away from its basis in history toward a contemporary sensibility.
But LACMA’s collection is actually not a king’s hoarding. It was shaped by the brilliant early-20th-century museum reformer Wilhelm Valentiner, who began his career rationalizing German collections in Berlin: he mixed and juxtaposed disciplines, geographies, and chronologies, with Byzantine and Gothic art from Northern and Southern Europe juxtaposed on the same floor, for example, and Renaissance and Baroque art together on another. For the first time, it was possible to read Europe’s aesthetic and religious, intellectual and political history in a three-dimensional form. Sculptures, paintings, and crafts were gathered under the same roof and could be viewed together. The collections weren’t based on the tastes of German kings but on ideas that subtly linked artworks, highlighting their aesthetic and historical complexity.
Valentiner exported his museum reforms first to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, and finally to LACMA’s predecessor in Exposition Park, the L.A. County Natural History Museum. In the process, he restructured all these institutions, integrating their collections, purging hierarchical viewpoints in favor of art-historical structures. Valentiner set a cross-institutional standard that allowed these encyclopedic collections to talk to each other across time.
With magnificent pieces of sculpture, LACMA’s world-renowned Southwestern Asia collection, for example, permits a figure from Gandhara to be seen alongside a Hellenic Apollo, thus giving insight into historical moments such as Alexander the Great’s Asian conquest. LACMA’s treasures also include large pre-Columbian, Chinese, South American, and European collections.
Zumthor’s proposed Kunsthalle, however, is the end of LACMA as we know it. There will be no way of knowing that there’s a large collection of Southwestern Asian art, or any other collection for that matter, since the art would be effectively tossed into a hopper, awaiting the Bingo moment when it comes out of storage when it fits into a theme show.
A museum with galleries dedicated to changing shows rather than permanent collections cheats the pubic out of its heritage and diminishes its role as a teaching institution.
The collections as Valentiner shaped them are really complex structures of knowledge and learning, not just haphazard connoisseurship, beauty pageants on a wall, or bright curatorial ideas on a Monday morning. They tell stories and histories. Just as ripping an encyclopedia into pieces destroys its value as an archive of accumulated knowledge, dismantling collections tears up object-based understandings that have been systematically constructed over decades.
There was no way the public could know all this was in the offing, especially since the museum has to this day not published a definitive floor plan. Govan found a willing partner in Zumthor, who managed to insult every curator who has ever worked at LACMA by asserting, in a 2019 article published in a Swiss newspaper, that the objects in the collections were “homeless,” that they had come together by the accidents of gift and episodic acquisition, and that his architecture would at last give them a true home and meaning. He would contextualize the artworks in atmosphere.
Zumthor never acknowledged — or perhaps never understood — that the curators had assembled the art within the syntax of collections: the syntax itself was the context that his design was defenestrating. In the arrogance so characteristic of this project, Zumthor met with LAMCA curators only once, early on; at this meeting, he expressed no interest in the collections, never asked any questions about them or about the diverse habitats the collections required. He could not even name a single museum he liked.
Zumthor espouses the notion that it’s more important to sense the brushstroke than to know its meaning, but the opposition of sense and idea, perception and cognition, is false and demagogic.
But nobody called Govan out for the sly maneuver that would, through the very architecture, turn the museum upside down and inside out. The design expressed a misplaced poststructuralist revolution; building the plan would accomplish a fait accompli without Govan ever having to defend the ideas in public. The architecture itself executed the sleight of hand: function followed form; form dictated content. If you accepted the building, you accepted the revolution.
While Govan was talking democracy and critiquing the Eurocentrism of encyclopedic museums, he hypocritically accepted the bequest of an archetypal Eurocentric collection from L.A. media mogul Jerry Perenchio in 2014. Govan didn’t seem fazed by the collection’s character and provenance, especially since, in a transparently manipulative move, he had Perenchio stipulate that the $500 million gift of 57 paintings was contingent on their hanging in the Zumthor building. Govan was holding the collection hostage to force the building’s construction.
But Govan was negotiating in bad faith since, even then, he was planning a museum without the permanent galleries Perenchio understood would accommodate his trove of Impressionists. Naturally Parenchio wanted his collection displayed as a whole, not dispersed, but was he told there would be no space dedicated to permanent collections, and therefore no permanent provision for his own? Was Perenchio shown the floor plans that would inevitably split up his collection, sending it into storage or to small satellite outposts? Reportedly, after Perenchio’s death, Govan and Perenchio’s heirs met in a meeting that ended quickly and badly.
The hypocrisy is compounded by strategic short-sightedness. No collector in the future will donate to a museum that won’t guarantee hanging time and wall space. The esteemed Carter Collection of 17th-century Dutch masters may now revert to other museums, because of stipulations of its bequest that require its display in galleries dedicated to Dutch art of the Golden Age and other works of equal stature. Other collections and bequests may be lost.
Already the Ahmanson Foundation, a stalwart supporter of LACMA since its move to Wilshire in the 1960s, has without fanfare ceased its association with the museum. For over 50 years, it supported the acquisitions of the Department of European Painting and Sculpture with annual gifts. For a museum that doesn’t have acquisitions funds, these gifts equaled a $100 million endowment. That unique situation among American museums made LACMA’s ability to acquire European works the envy of many other institutions.
The reason for the Ahmanson Foundation’s quiet withdrawal is Govan’s refusal to commit dedicated space to the European collection. The Foundation was right to suspend support for a museum that effectively dismisses the European collections as a bunch of old brown paintings that no one wants to see anymore.
J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA’s chief curator of European art and one of the most respected curators in the United States, has since left the museum. He recently told me, “Govan has destroyed my life’s work.”
Confronted with LACMA’s many deceptions, the public has increasingly lost confidence in the LACMA project, and it has lost trust in its administration and its board. Faced with the fact that no one is protecting the museum from the vandalism occurring in plain sight — not the County Board of Supervisors, not LACMA’s Board of Trustees, not the Los Angeles Times, not the City Council (which just voted to approve bridging Wilshire) — L.A. citizens are mounting, belatedly, their own defense of their museum. The deceptions and denials churned out by the museum’s administrators, and passed along and condoned by the city’s elected officials and traditional press watchdogs, kept the public in the dark for most of a decade.
The public seems to be realizing that this vanity project — of Govan, by Govan, for Govan — is not in the public interest. Citizens are mad. Even a seasoned hard-hat working guy in the LACMA demolition crew this week told a passerby walking his dog that the buildings were “beautiful,” that demolishing them was a “total waste of perfectly good buildings,” and that there was “no reason to send them to landfill.” This feet-on-the-ground citizen joins about eight thousand other sensible citizens, the “people who don’t matter,” who have signed various petitions against the project. Two citizens’ groups are suing LACMA, and one group is threatening to put a referendum on an upcoming ballot. A major legacy owned by the public is at stake, and a spontaneous people’s revolt, in multiple forms, is starting to take shape. The Zumthor plan has been divisive, splitting the city into pro and con camps, alienating the immediate neighborhood, and spawning a growing grassroots reaction against the museum’s inexplicably self-abusive behavior.
Citizens are mobilizing.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.