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LACMA director Govan is piloting prudently

January 16, 2009 |  3:30 pm

GovanbigThese days, one of Michael Govan’s private pleasures, flying a single-engine prop plane, gives him a useful perspective on the challenges of his public role: piloting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during a time of economic turbulence.

“I know head winds when I see them or feel them,” he says.

With the 1979 Beechcraft Bonanza he keeps at Santa Monica Airport, Govan has the option of waiting out bad weather. With LACMA, he has to keep airborne and on course no matter what: The museum is about midway through a multipronged, multimillion-dollar “Transformation.” One new building, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, opened last February, and another is expected to open by mid-2010. Also on the agenda are renovating existing galleries, improving the park surrounding the museum, and enlarging and upgrading the biggest art collection west of the Mississippi.

But economic head winds are forcing Govan and the museum’s board to throttle back on the transformation’s speed. Govan said this week that as they begin planning for the fiscal year starting in July, their discussions will include whether to cancel or postpone exhibitions scheduled for the second half of this year and 2010. In addition, the start of a $50-million renovation of LACMA West, the underused former May Co. department store at the western edge of the museum’s Wilshire Boulevard campus, has been delayed until more money can be raised.

“It would be tragic in any way to lose the tremendous momentum we have built, but that said, we have to be extremely cautious,” Govan said. He vowed “not in any way to let our hunger blind us” to the perils of being too bold during dangerous times.

Although the museum has not laid off any of its 371 full-time employees, a hiring freeze has been in place since October, leaving 11 vacancies unfilled. Govan said that all areas of possible savings, including staff levels, would be reviewed.

Another issue is whether the museum can keep up its spending on art acquisitions, which has totaled $102.4 million over the last three years.

Indeed, LACMA is currently selling items from its collection. Sotheby’s expects a Jan. 29 auction of two paintings, by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Joshua Reynolds, to fetch as much as $1.7 million. Then, in February, Bonhams & Butterfields will auction more than 100 pieces from the museum’s textiles and costume collection.

Govan said, however, that those deaccessions, as sales from museum collections are known, have not been prompted by the economic downturn but are part of a routine “sift and sort” in which pieces that curators deem expendable are sold to generate money to buy other works.

He added that money is still flowing for research and development on another high-profile project, “Train,” a 70-foot-long replica of an old-time steam locomotive that artist Jeff Koons would create as an instant outdoor landmark for the museum, hoisted high above it on a crane.

One promising development for museum-goers figures to be the $53-million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion.

Although intended for the kinds of special exhibitions that will be under budget scrutiny, the new space also is projected to have a domino effect, whereby galleries in LACMA’s older buildings will be freed up to display more of the permanent collection of more than 150,000 artworks.

Among the shows projected to open in 2010 are a traveling exhibition from France of late-career paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir; a survey of American narrative painting from 1760 to 1920, organized by LACMA and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a retrospective of Arshile Gorky, an influential American Abstract Expressionist before his suicide in 1948.

Work had been expected to start this spring on outfitting the 70-year-old LACMA West with a restaurant, a museum store and rooftop sculpture installations, as well as expanding its existing exhibition space and the Boone Children’s Gallery and Workshop. The building would become a new home for the museum’s collections of prints, drawings, photographs and textiles. Also, administrative offices would be centralized there, and the board would get a penthouse meeting room. The store and restaurant would augment existing ones at the museum, generating fresh revenue.

Plans had called for using bond proceeds already in museum coffers for the renovation, then relying on further fundraising to cover the debt. But that model is no longer economically prudent, Govan said, although design work continues.

“You tighten your belt, but you don’t want to stop dead and kill all the momentum you built,” said the museum director, whose crucial task now is persuading wealthy donors to keep underwriting LACMA’s ambitions and needs, even though their assets have diminished and other cultural and social philanthropies are issuing their own calls for help.

LACMA too has taken a hit on its investments. Museum officials say that its endowment stood at $148 million in mid-2008. Govan said last month that it had fallen 25% since September.

Before the economic downturn, he said, LACMA’s goal had been to raise $100 million this calendar year to keep the expansion and renovation work going full-speed and to cover annual operating costs. The cost of running the museum has ballooned over the last two fiscal years, from $51 million to $74.4 million — a reflection of its increased size with the addition of the Broad museum, as well as interest payments and other carrying costs from $383 million in construction bonds it has issued.

Annual interest on the bonds is expected to skyrocket this year, from $2.1 million to nearly $13 million, according to the museum’s filings for bond investors. And Govan expects operating expenses to rise an additional $5 million.

LACMA has reaped $307 million in gifts and pledges for its building campaign, according to an August bond rating analysis by Moody’s Investors Service, but that still leaves a $76-million gap, which, if not filled, eventually could force the museum’s leaders to rob Peter (the public programming, research and acquisitions that are its core mission) to pay Paul (the bondholders).

Govan, who has a reputation as a skilled fundraiser, said that despite the poor economy, he isn’t ready to lower his sights on securing large donations that would help fund the construction debt and put the LACMA West renovation back on course.

The museum’s board, whose members each promise to contribute at least $100,000 annually, doesn’t lack for wealthy individuals, including such stars of the Southern California real estate world as Donald Bren and Edward P. Roski Jr.; former Hollywood executive and Yahoo Inc. Chairman Terry Semel; Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton; and Barbra Streisand.

As he seeks multiple millions, Govan said, he has fine-tuned his pitch to include a riff on New York City during the Great Depression.

“That was a huge period of cultural infrastructure building, and it made New York incredibly competitive” with other world centers, he said. “I’m rooting for L.A., and I’m working my tail off to have the same thing happen here.”

LACMA is “a good museum,” he said, but not the “super-world-class” one he envisions. “That’s what’s sort of up for grabs, and if people decide it’s a good thing, there’s certainly resources here to do that, and great momentum.

“We have to show that we can run cautiously and keep our budget balanced,” he said. That way, art-loving Angelenos who still have large sums to give can be reassured that “they’re making a strong investment in the future.”

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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