What Will Los Angeles Lose as LACMA’s Michael Govan Tries to Make His Mark?

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As the demolition and reimagining of parts of LACMA are underway, a question begs an answer. Who is this really for?

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the largest encyclopedic museum on this side of the Mississippi River. Our collection is vast, with art reflecting the population of the city it resides in. Galleries dedicated to Mexican, Korean and Japanese art are as proudly revered as our European collections. LACMA is considered quite a young museum at just 55 years old; its director and CEO, Michael Govan, is 57.

I have watched LACMA evolve since the early 2000s. The museum means a great deal to me as an institution and as a physical space. I am indebted to LACMA  as both an Angeleno and an art historian.

Rachel Reyes' cubicle from her time at LACMA
My personal cubicle at LACMA. Photo courtesy of Rachel Reyes.

Following along while the Art of the Americas building imploded last Friday was hard to stomach. I recalled so many memories based on that building: waiting in line to get tickets while clutching my mom’s hand; chatting loudly as our teachers collected 30 stickers to put on our sweaters during field trips; watching couples and families gather for respite by the fountains on hot summer days.

I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, in Pacoima, a small community that’s largely Latinx and working-class. When I was 8 years old, I transferred out of my local elementary school and enrolled in a magnet school slightly farther from my house. The differences were stark: I wasn’t required to take English classes, and we were encouraged to participate in the humanities — my new school had dedicated music and art classes.

Before I even left elementary school, I was given the opportunity to explore art all across Los Angeles. From the Norton Simon Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art, our school bussed us to and from bright, white museums with scenic, idyllic views. We didn’t know it then, but this was planting seeds for the city’s future art patrons.

Now, I understood changing the official entrance from the dated 1986 building to the brand-new BP Grand Entrance (yes, it’s that BP). Like so many new leaders, Govan needed to make his mark as a director. And I don’t even necessarily disagree with Govan’s interest in outdoor, front-entrance work for patrons waiting in the ticket line — publicly accessible art is great. But leveling the entire campus? After all, Govan had already “transformed” the museum by adding a few dozen lamps in an installation known as “Urban Light.” Why was this transformation so invasive? And who is this expensive, extensive renovation for?

Aerial view of LACMA rendering.
Aerial view: The LACMA building in context of Museum Row. Image courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner and Building LACMA.

Along with many other community members, I am thoroughly perplexed by the ongoing redesign of LACMA’s 20-acre campus. It almost feels like a joke. The new building looks like a beige gua sha, and its design will highlight scuff marks and pigeon droppings. It is hardly the welcoming and inclusive environment that our collection deserves. It doesn’t encapsulate our city. This concrete slab feels like an afterthought, a rock in the beach parking lot, far from the beauty and glory of the Pacific Ocean.

Only an outsider like Swiss architect Peter Zumthor would propose something like this. His voyeuristic vision is supported and championed by Govan, who hails from Massachusetts and moved to L.A. only once he was appointed LACMA director in 2006. The two have worked closely on this $750 million project that destroys four buildings on the Miracle Mile campus. One is already down.

Govan arrived in California swinging, already in talks with Zumthor to completely redesign the campus as he had previously done with the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Govan knew he needed to build consensus with the museum’s board to secure this vision. It was not enough for him to hastily refurbish older, asbestos-laden buildings. He needed a more lasting legacy, an off-white eye sty that could be seen from both sides of Wilshire Boulevard.

Building footprint for LACMA
Building footprint spanning Wilshire Boulevard. Image courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner and Building LACMA.

The Zumthor/Govan plan was eventually approved by the museum’s board in 2013. Govan then started seeking approvals from lawmakers in 2015. The County Board of Supervisors approved the plans unanimously in April 2019, followed by unanimous approval by the City Council in December 2019. The approvals include $117.5 million in taxpayer funding and $300 million in county bonds.

Pushback has been both pragmatic and philosophical as two different opposition groups formed: Save LACMA and the Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA. Though each group takes their own distinct stances against the Zumthor/Govan redesign, they find a shared grievance in the loss of exhibition space — from 120,000 square feet down to 110,000 square feet. These two groups are not alone: the Ahmanson Foundation, which has gifted $130 million worth of European art to LACMA, announced that it would cease gifting due to lack of gallery space in this new design. How can we pay homage to the additional 27,000 pieces of art that Govan has helped the museum acquire during his tenure if much of it will sit in storage due to a lack of space?

The Zumthor/Govan plan entirely misses the point of what a museum is and should be. Museums do not exist in and of themselves, suspended from the world beyond gallery walls. Sure, art provides an escape from daily life, but the art itself was created by people living and experiencing the world. Artists are the teachers, and their art is our history to learn.

In 2019, Zumthor called LACMA’s collection “accidental” and its art “homeless,” in need of a new house to give “context” to the deep catalog. As someone who has studied philosophy, as an art historian, and as an Angeleno, I take deep offense to the ways that Zumthor has described our museum. Our relationship with art changes over time and encyclopedic museums allow us the physical space to foster this growth. LACMA, and its collection, is not meant to be viewed in a day or a linear fashion. A good museum requires good curation and asks questions and challenges visitors through its exhibitions. To elevate the building housing the objects above the art itself is a mistake; what happens inside is what matters most.

In 2019, Zumthor called LACMA’s collection “accidental” and its art “homeless,” in need of a new house to give “context” to the deep catalog.

Zumthor’s plan does little to incentivize returning patrons. The design almost assumes that the guest will not be back, forcing the visitor to soldier on from one side of Wilshire Boulevard to the other. I have anxiety just thinking about this. By discouraging return visits, we are further jeopardizing the art patronage that museums so desperately need to survive for future generations. Studies show that children who visit cultural institutions like museums are twice as likely to go back as adults. Directors like Govan ought to be thinking about how their fiscal and aesthetic plans encourage lasting relationships with the arts.

Govan has been successful in increasing LACMA’s reach, growing its visitorship from 600,000 to more than 1 million visitors annually. I wonder, though, if those visitors are Angelenos, people who can take the bus down Wilshire Boulevard or wander in for a random afternoon work break. Are these patrons seeing themselves reflected in the art, or are they taking in the permanent collection as a true visitor? Ticket prices have increased from $12 to $20 in the last decade. I suspect ticket prices will increase further by 2023 when the project is slated to finish. This price increase creates a financial barrier for so many communities in our city. A look into LACMA’s 2019 financial statement shows that ticket sales made up only 10% to 13% of the museum’s annual revenue. If ticket sales are such a marginal part of the museum’s finances, why even charge admission in the first place?

Govan insists, though, that his demolition derby is a tool for economic recovery and job creation. This “trickle-down” language is used to defend other projects of communal destruction and corporate looting — like the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic bid. But what people like Govan and Mayor Eric Garcetti fail to note is that our communities end up footing the bill, one way or another, for these promises and dreams that never come into fruition. Beyond the monetary costs of such a large architectural undertaking, what is Los Angeles sacrificing for this massive expansion? Who are we ignoring, and who are we serving?

Rachel Reyes
Posing inside the Ahmanson Building, slated for demolition, during the 2009 exhibition “Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea.” Photo courtesy of Rachel Reyes, photograph by Aja Canyon.

I have spent the past decade sifting through rumors from former coworkers and volunteers regarding LACMA’s future. We’re all confused by the collective decisions made by Govan, the board and local lawmakers. The building I used to work in is now home to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; the museum itself is closed in part due to the global pandemic, but also for further construction. The city’s quarantine might end just in time for the new museum to open, and maybe I will be pleasantly surprised by the cold, quiet galleries that await.

But I mourn for my childhood self, the girl who grew up in the unique mishmash of architectural styles that comprise LACMA’s campus. I mourn being slightly confused by the map while trying to find a specific painting I wanted to visit. I mourn for the way a chorus of voices collected in various stairwells, different languages whispered and yelled simultaneously to create the full language of the city I love.

The world likes to critique L.A. for what we are not, and like many Angelenos, I often think we are misunderstood. Paris can be the couture capital; New York City can have the gallery scene; Austin can be as weird as it wants to be. But in Los Angeles, we are not trying to prove anything. If Govan understood the modus operandi of this city, he would know better than to try and make us the contemporary “art capital of the world.”

I hope that he and Zumthor are smarter than I am. I hope their vision will inspire another generation of art lovers. From where I stand, in the rubble of what once was, I just do not see it.

For the Record: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the museum had 170,000 square feet of available gallery space and that it was being cut down to 109,000 square feet.

Los Angeleno