LACMA Director discusses managing museum at Brown Family Assembly


Brown Family Speaker and LACMA Director Michael Govan speaks to students at an all-school assembly March 20. Credit: Sofia Heller/Chronicle

Jenny Li

Students watched a truck carry a 350-ton California boulder, now known as “Levitated Mass,” to the Los Angeles County of Art on the screen at the annual Brown Family Assembly today as speaker and Director of LACMA Michael Govan discussed his decision to display the boulder for its sense of place and locality.

Govan said this was just one part of his goal to rethink art and the conventionality of museums.

While Govan said he has always loved art, he was previously skeptical about museums and art institutions, viewing them as “stodgy.” Govan said that he began to think of them in a new way when he realized that he could revolutionize museums and provide them with a sense of self-identity.

Before working at LACMA, Govan transformed a factory in New York City into the Dia Art Foundation, where he was also the director.

“The world keeps changing,” Govan said. “We as an institution need to keep changing.”

In 2001, Linda and Abbot Brown (Russell ’94 and David ’96) created the Brown Family Speaker series to bring influential and innovative people to school.

“What we’re trying to do is bring ideas to the school that you wouldn’t necessarily access every day and that wouldn’t be a part of the general curriculum,” Russell Brown ’94 said. “I think people at Harvard-Westlake would not necessarily think of working in an art museum in the way that Michael does. It’s not really a career path that’s thought about when you’re a student here, so that’s also part of it, and to open up the possibilities of what you can do with your life.”

Govan explained his process of redesigning LACMA into an area that welcomes culture with both pragmatic and idealistic elements.

Govan asked artist John Balistreri to design a exhibition of Belgian artist Rene Magritte’s work in a creative, unconventional way that resulted in a carpet of blue sky and a ceiling of Los Angeles’ freeways.

Govan also commissioned “Urban Lights,” the Los Angeles street lights in front of LACMA, to stress how Los Angeles’ culture has uniquely shaped LACMA.

“You need sense of identity, and that’s what never goes out of style,” Govan said.

Govan said his designs are based on the idea that art is everywhere and in everybody’s lives. LACMA is a part of a group that rewrites history with imagination and combines it with present-day thinking and values, he said.

“I would argue that you don’t live through a day without art, without creativity, without culture,” Govan said. “The arts have to be seen broadly. In ancient cultures, they were what was drawn and what was thought. It’s religious, it’s civic and it’s popular.”

Govan wanted to illustrate unorthodox change in order to inspire students to challenge and take action in their everyday lives, he said.

“I think the thing that defines education most of all is the idea of curiosity and openness,” Govan said. “If there’s any message I wanted to convey, it’s don’t take anything for granted. The future is open, and everyone has a role in making that future more of a future you want. Don’t be suspicious of institutions, change them.”

In the effort to promote the multicultural spirit of LACMA, Govan said that the museum plans to bring its collection of art to communities throughout Los Angeles that wouldn’t normally receive access to an art museum.

Govan is also helping in the construction of the Academy Museum next to LACMA, planned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so that art and film can represent Los Angeles together.

Govan attended art and government classes prior to the assembly and spoke with AP Art History students afterwards during lunch.

“I thought it was really interesting how he talked about how he is a visual artist,” AP Art History student Mady Madison ’17 said. “He said it gives him a more developed understanding of the art he curates.”