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Michael Govan on LACMA’s Major Expansion into China

Exterior of LACMA. Courtesy of LACMA.

Exterior of LACMA. Courtesy of LACMA.

Last year at Art Basel in Hong Kong, billionaire Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek announced an unprecedented kind of partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Tek’s private institution in Shanghai, the Yuz Museum—which holds his collection of more than 1,500 works of contemporary Chinese and Western art—would merge with the Los Angeles museum. On the same day, LACMA revealed the promised gift of more than 400 works of contemporary Chinese and global ink-related art from the collection of Gérard and Dora Cognié. Overnight, LACMA’s collection of Chinese art became a major force in the Pacific Rim and beyond.
To celebrate, the two museums teamed up with Princess Alia Al-Senussi, who works at Art Basel, and entrepreneur Dino Sadhwani to throw one of the most over-the-top art parties in recent memory. They took over all of Jumbo Kingdom, the world’s largest floating restaurant—2,300 diners are able to be seated at a single time in the 62,000-square-foot space—and outfitted the eatery’s over four floors with an opium den décor, New Orleans–style brass bands, and a dance floor lit like a Wong Kar-wai movie. The party was so extravagant that it caused at least one publication to ask, apparently earnestly: “Can a party change the world?”
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LACMA’s newfound status as a hub for Chinese art is a far cry from where it stood when its director, Michael Govan, arrived in 2006 after 11 years heading up the Dia Art Foundation in New York. For most of Govan’s first five years, LACMA lacked a director of Chinese art, and the collection was so depleted that many candidates were weary of applying for the vacant role. On the eve of another edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, we spoke to Govan about how he overcame the odds to seal the deal with Tek (who is driven by a sense of urgency, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015), the details of a historic partnership that will see LACMA essentially operating an overseas satellite, the museum’s overall expansion into China, and the ambitious revamp of its campus in L.A.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Portrait of Michael Govan. Photo © Brigitte Lacombe. Courtesy of LACMA.

Portrait of Michael Govan. Photo © Brigitte Lacombe. Courtesy of LACMA.

Nate Freeman: Before we get into the partnership between LACMA and the Yuz Museum, I want to talk briefly about what the Chinese collection was like when you arrived in 2006. Shortly after you started, J. Keith Wilson left to become the director of ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Was it your personal goal to make sure that the museum focused on improving its collection of Chinese art?
Michael Govan: When I moved to Los Angeles and LACMA, one of the strategies to define LACMA over the coming decades was to shift our viewpoint. Instead of looking back at New York and Chicago and back to Europe, the idea was to turn our heads and look across the Pacific, and look at Latin America, and really have a viewpoint that makes sense for Los Angeles. Metaphorically, you can look at our neighbors—it’s not far to look at Mexico and Latin America, and you can look across the Pacific to Asia.
It’s an intellectual, cultural strategy to say that we do live in a globalized world and every institution should contribute a point of view. And if you look at Asia and Latin America, there aren’t really any big encyclopedic museums. There aren’t any global museums, because it’s not part of the culture or the history of Asia or Latin America to create encyclopedic museums—that’s a European thing. So we’re a European concept, but looking at Asia and Latin America, and looking at the world through those lenses. Then we become this interesting multicultural, global face with a different point of view on the Pacific Rim.
NF: When you say there are no encyclopedic museums in Asia and Latin America, you’re saying that the idea of building an encyclopedic museum with those viewpoints is groundbreaking?
MG: It would be unique. And vis-à-vis China, one of my first trips [after joining LACMA] was to China. When I got to the museum it was like, well, we’ve got to look at China, right? And, I want to say this in the right way, but I came back confused. In those days, even sending exhibitions—you almost had to pay to send exhibitions to China. There wasn’t a routine for traveling shows through China. Our name recognition there was near zero, if not zero. So I took a different strategy, as we already had strong relationships with Japan, because Los Angeles and Japan have been so close for so many years—in the 1980s, there was such a massive influx of business and exchange. So I went to Korea and spent eight years developing deep relationships there, and I think we have some of the strongest relationships to Korean institutions of any American museum. When we hired Stephen Little [as curator of Chinese and Korean art], he brought a whole world of opportunity. And lo and behold, our growth in L.A. had created a stronger image of LACMA as one of the American institutions. And then we were received—and Stephen helped with that a lot—extremely well.
The discussions and travel to China [were] what landed me in a friendship with Budi Tek. I actually saw him when I went to the Dia Beacon 10th anniversary. He, of course, loves Dia Beacon, and so we bonded over common aesthetic interests. The friendship deepened through our common aesthetic interests. He’s a world traveller, and he loved Los Angeles. That’s where the friendship developed.
And I really admired his genuine enthusiasm for important visual art and its connection with audiences to better the world. And then his illness deepened the friendship in unexpected ways. Because his dream had been—and this is important to note, it was not that LACMA came in and changed his mind—lobbying to create a nonprofit group path for art museums in China similar to what he had seen in the U.S., where you’ve got nonprofits that are supported by multiple patrons that have a sustainable life. It’s not based on one person, and it’s also not entirely government-funded. So we bonded over that discussion. And then when the illness got worse, that was when he said, “Maybe you and LACMA could help create something new in China.”
Zeng Fanzhi, Untitled, 2018. © Zeng Fanzhi 2019. Courtesy of LACMA.

Zeng Fanzhi, Untitled, 2018. © Zeng Fanzhi 2019. Courtesy of LACMA.

NF: And he just proposed it to you out of the blue over dinner, right?
MG: Yeah, that’s kind of a true story! We were having conversations about a third party nonprofit that’s a museum that’s sustainable in China, and how do you do that. But yes, I went for dinner and he was with his family and with [Yuz Museum curator] Wu Hung, and he kind of said, “I can’t do this. Maybe you can.” He’s told that story and it’s really pretty true. I was a little unprepared for that level of commitment. Most European and American institutions are going to China to try to bring money back. We’re going to China to bring money and resources and grow an organization in China. That’s a very different proposition.
NF: What was the process like after he proposed this idea? It was reported that it took two-and-a-half years until it was finalized. Was there any hesitation?
MG: It’s a hard problem in the sense that you have to think globally and locally at the same time, given our cultural resources. We live in a city that’s as diverse as Los Angeles, and you think about local and global as the same thing. And you think about where the growth of art is happening—both in audiences, as there are so many new museums in China, and in an art. One of my trustees was quoted to say: “If you’re a global art museum and you don’t have a China strategy, you shouldn’t be one.” You have to have an approach. And this is I would say an extreme approach, but maybe one that’s appropriate for the biggest art museum in the western United States.
NF: What is the timeline for everything to be put in place?
MG: We’re finding out. We’re going to be signing an agreement that lays out the roadmap and has a bunch of milestones to get us to the establishment of the other board and the foundation. So it’s all ongoing now and we’re actually going to formalize—because all the announcements you heard about, they were handshakes. We’ve spent a lot of time creating a written roadmap, and we’re actually going to sign that imminently, maybe even when I see him in Hong Kong.
We’re working on these milestones because, again, we’re taking it very seriously. We’re going to build an endowment to protect the collection and do everything that a normal museum would do to create a sustainable infrastructure.
NF: Tek said he is giving 90 percent of his collection. Will those works become part of LACMA’s collection, or is there going to be some sort of separation?
MG: This is for China, just like our collection is for Los Angeles. We’ve got one exhibition in China right now; we lend our work around the world. The idea is for the collection to have a locality in China, to be in a separate foundation, but one that operationally lacks what will be the main [organization]—just because we’re bigger and have all this expertise. But for now it’s shared—[Tek] calls it a marriage. And I kind of like that, because it gives us the status that this isn’t an all–U.S. institution going over to China and establishing something. It really is a marriage, and we can call it an East-West marriage, but we have teams of registrars, we have conservators, we have 30 curators—we are the main operational center. The idea is to see it as a marriage and that the works should reside in Asia and China, but could be lent to Los Angeles as need be, just as we’re going to be lending things to China. We love this idea that there’s the locality there, and it isn’t an export proposition or an import proposition.
NF: Is the trade war between the U.S. and China making any of this more difficult?
MG: Not now. There are no restrictions right now. And there was a battle over art export taxes.
Exterior of LACMA. Courtesy of LACMA.

Exterior of LACMA. Courtesy of LACMA.

NF: But that’s been scrapped, right?
MG: Right. It’s been traditional in the 20th century and maybe longer—we did a show called “Gifts of the Sultan,” which was about how gifts of art were a mainstay of diplomacy—that open exchange of art and culture is at the core of a global society, even in tough times. When we had the iron curtain, when there was the Cold War, we were exchanging things with Russia. Actually, we’re exchanging less now; no one can predict the future. We know what the past is. There’s the hope that cultural exchange will always be an open avenue of discussion, and we’ll keep our culture talking no matter what. We’re hopeful that we would be building something that would be valuable in good times and bad times.
NF: The event last year at Jumbo Kingdom was truly spectacular, and this year, you’re co-hosting it with the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and its director, Philip Tinari. Is there a relationship between UCCA and LACMA?
MG: I’m a big believer in collaboration. We have so many collaborative relationships here: the Academy Museum [of Motion Pictures]; we share a collection with the Getty; we partnered with Film Independent; we’ve got a collection exchange with the Autry Museum. So one of the strategies to grow our collections and to grow programs is just to become friends and collaborate.
Event at Jumbo Kingdom. Courtesy of LACMA.

Event at Jumbo Kingdom. Courtesy of LACMA.

I’ll be honest: My dream is that we would be holding that party every year—and Alia and Dino have been so generous to organize it—to be a celebration of museums, plural, in Asia. We’re standing in for Yuz right now because Budi’s health has been in a little bit of a transition. But why are we there? We’re there because we have this partnership in Shanghai. And obviously UCCA has gone through a lot, too, they’re really trying to make a go of it in Beijing. And M+, we’re all very good friends too. And we’re all very good friends with the [National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines] and the Seoul [Museum of Art]. But my hope—and I think this is Alia’s hope, too—is that we carve out a space in Art Basel Hong Kong to celebrate museums, as well as galleries—the other side of the ecosystem. Let’s talk about museums as well as galleries so we have that ecosystem working together. That’s really the point of it. And, honestly—they want to throw a great party.
NF: Do you think that this is a model for other institutions in the U.S.?
MG: Well, let’s just say we’re pioneers. And the pioneers sometimes arrive too early! [laughs] And other times they set a model. So we’re hoping that we can do the groundwork with Budi—and by the way, he will be known as a hero, he’s the instigator—and if this becomes something that proves to be valuable, to create value for education and art, then I think others can follow.
NF: How does this collection and the collection of Gérard and Dora Cognié play into the expansion of the campus in L.A.? Is there going to be more space devoted to having the work on view more often?
MG: The Cognié collection is a promised gift, we can borrow from it, we’re going to do an upcoming show so people can see some of what’s in it. Over the years we doubled our campus, now we have to fix the old buildings, so we’re cutting them in half again while we repair and rebuild our buildings and then we’ll have about 240,000 square feet of exhibition space on Wilshire Boulevard, which is a lot. It’s not as big as the [Art Institute of] Chicago; [the Museum of Fine Arts,] Houston; or New York’s Metropolitan Museum, but it’s a lot. We’ll have a vastly expanded presence here for showing our global collections. And as you know, we’ve increased the quantity of contemporary presentations for the reason that there’s so much art being made that’s so relevant to the world, and audiences are hungry for it. What is key, though, is that if you walk into any general American art museum that’s encyclopedic, there is not a balance of America, Europe, and Asia. If you’re trying to truly represent human creativity, you’ve got to rebalance the presentation. So a certain amount of this is to balance presentations for a truer view of art production around the world.
NF: That’s important for any encyclopedic museum, but do you see it as more important for LACMA—because you’re on the Pacific Rim and you’re within that global context?
MG: Of course, much more important—much more important. We’ve expanded our presence in Korea and Japan, and we’re working on our presence in China. So yes, it’s critically important. We have a beautiful collection of art from the Middle East. The Peter Zumthor building is key in this way: Most the collections will be on one massive single floor—no hierarchy. It’s the organic shape: two entrances, no front, no back. It’s an idea that there’s no hierarchy, to not put Europe on a pedestal or put China on a pedestal. You’ve been to L.A.—it’s a very non-hierarchical city. That is the philosophical mission rebalancing and rethinking the truth of cultures around the world.
NF: If you can imagine 10 years, 20 years down the line, how are these partnerships—with Yuz and Budi Tek, with the Cognié collection—going to shape LACMA in the future?
MG: I think it will have an incredible influence on the shape of LACMA and—if you’re seeking that notion of balance and truth in representing the diversity of human creativity—it will be such an asset in the future. Everyone’s pretty aware that China is likely to be bigger than the U.S. in economics, population, and cultural production. So it makes sense if you’re thinking about the long term. It may not be true in the next 10 years, but it seems likely to be true in the next 50 years.
Nate Freeman