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Culture Clash of the Titans

December 1, 2009

The rapid expansion of LACMA and the fall and rise of MOCA provide a drama-filled backdrop for the increasingly knotty relationship between hotshot director Michael Govan and uber-philanthropist Eli Broad.

The L.A. art world, it seems, is beginning to resemble one of Damien Hirst’s head-reeling spin paintings: The Broad Contemporary Art Museum debuts at LACMA. A financially hollow MOCA comes back from the brink. LACMA director Michael Govan ascends to stardom (with a few hiccups along the way). Art star-in-the-making Mark Bradford scoops the MacArthur genius grant. Wallis Annenberg launches Century City’s Space for Photography. Board members play musical chairs. And everyone, as always, is wondering what Eli Broad—a life trustee of both LACMA and MOCA—will do next. The guessing game du jour is predicting just where in L.A. Broad will build his own art museum (à la Armand Hammer) for spotlighting his blue-chip collection of Neshats, Warhols and Koonses.

Perhaps never before has L.A.’s art world enjoyed so much incredible growth as well as international attention. Just last month, the jet-setting Art Basel crowd descended on downtown for a star-studded gala thrown by MOCA for its 30th anniversary. The evening, which raised more than $4 million, was capped by the auction of a Damien Hirst-customized pink piano, on which Lady Gaga had just performed, for $450,000.

Yet as much as L.A.’s rise has provided a canvas for creativity, it has also unleashed a parallel amount of ambition. Power plays have been as much in the public eye as pointillism, pop art and steam punk.

At the center of it all is the complicated relationship between Broad and Govan. “There are two art titans in L.A. right now: Michael Govan and Eli Broad,” says ACE Gallery director Douglas Chrismas. “They are like our version of Nicholas Serota [the director of London’s Tate museum] and Charles Saatchi.”

Broad, 76, the co-founder of KB Home, is used to being L.A.’s unquestioned art oligarch. With an estimated net worth of around $5.2 billion, Broad—a voracious art collector whose air of Midwestern practicality is paired with a reputation for getting what he wants—has done more than any other individual to grow L.A.’s cultural scene, from serving as MOCA’s founding chairman to being instrumental in the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Together with his wife Edythe, he has donated $60 million and numerous artworks to LACMA as well as raised $40 million for the museum to date. And, with his pledge last December of $30 million to MOCA, he has brought the museum back to fiscal health and even luster.

But Broad—who Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has described as someone who “exchanges project involvement for near total control”—may have met his match in Michael Govan, age 46, the man whom the philanthropist for all intents and purposes hired to run LACMA in 2006. “We needed someone with energy and charisma who could bring younger people to the board,” Broad tells Angeleno of his decision to recruit Govan. “Michael had all of those attributes.” A passionate go-getter who offsets a driving sense of purpose with debonair looks and an affable chuckle, Govan has more than lived up to his reputation since arriving in L.A., both in terms of undertaking large-scale projects and building LACMA’s board. The former director of New York’s Dia Art Foundation (known for its innovative focus on contemporary art), Govan is intent on making the encyclopedic LACMA a major player in the contemporary field as well; he just hired the high-powered modern art curator Franklin Sirmans away from Texas’ respected Menill Collection.

Nowhere has the muscle of Broad and Govan been more on display than in the back and forth over LACMA’s newest buildings, both designed by architect Renzo Piano: the 72,000-square-foot Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), opened in 2008, and the forthcoming Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, situated directly behind BCAM. Broad donated a prodigious $50 million to build BCAM and personally lobbied Piano to design it. The building is nothing if not a statement of Broad’s power—after all, it takes a particular kind of audacity to name an exhibition hall that exists within the campus of a larger art institution a “museum.”

Famously, however, in January 2008, just before the building’s debut, Broad announced that, despite expectations, he wouldn’t be giving the bulk of his collection to LACMA after all and would offer up a majority of the works as a sort of international lending library. While Govan spun the news as a positive act, enabling the works to remain in the public domain, there was almost as much ink spilled over Broad’s latest maneuver as there was over the opening of BCAM itself.

Much of the drama has played out behind the scenes, however, such as over the completion of the Resnick Pavilion, due to open in fall 2010. According to a LACMA board member who wishes to remain anonymous, Broad was making arguments to the board that constructing the pavilion would strain the museum’s finances.

The prospect of a delay couldn’t have made Govan happy. Getting the Resnick up and running quickly was crucial to the director’s plans. The exhibiton hall promises to give him a 45,000-square-foot exhibition hall, open to easy reconfiguration, that can accommodate the sort of momentous contemporary art shows that generate serious buzz.

On top of that, the LACMA board member who spoke to Angeleno believes that Broad was also motivated by a more personal concern: that constructing the new building would steal some of the spotlight from the philanthropist’s own edifice.

Broad’s chief communications officer, Karen Denne, disputes that account and insists that Broad’s concern about the Resnick building being completed was only about timing. “Mr. Broad is fiscally prudent, and he was concerned that it was not the right time to move forward with a new building, given the amount of debt LACMA had and the state of the economy,” says Denne. Either way, the board wasn’t swayed.

Denne, underlining Broad’s commitment to the museum, adds that, “Mr. Broad was the largest donor and fundraiser in the history of LACMA.” But Lynda and Stewart Resnick—the mega-moguls behind such brands as FIJI Water and POM Wonderful—might just well break that record. Before BCAM opened, the couple had pledged $25 million to open a new visitors’ center on the campus. Ultimately, Broad solicited and persuaded British Petroleum to fund the visitors’ area.

To make the exhibition hall possible, the Resnicks raised their ante. At a splashy September 2008 press conference, Govan announced that the Resnicks had stepped up with a $45 million gift to erect the Resnick behind the Broad. Before 2010 is out, Govan will have a space on par with MOCA’s Geffen facility, where the museum has mounted such swarmed shows as Ecstasy and Murakami. Says Chrismas: “Michael needed a place you could drive a tractor through.”

Who gets the credit for pulling in the Resnicks’ largesse is a matter of dispute. “In fact, Mr. Broad solicited the Resnicks for their gift,” says Denne. But Resnick spokesman Rob Six as well as a LACMA spokeswoman insist that isn’t the case.

At the Resnick, Govan won’t have any restrictions when it comes to programming shows, which hasn’t been true at BCAM. Indeed, the Govan and Broad are, to this day, at odds over whether LACMA is honoring its contractual obligations over the display of art there. “When we opened BCAM, Michael met his obligations by contract,” says Broad. “Since then, we’ve been saddened that he hasn’t lived up to these obligations. The reason we funded BCAM was to show contemporary art, and have two-thirds of the building to show our collection. LACMA could do what they wished with the remaining third. That hasn’t been the case recently.”

But LACMA spokeswoman Alliston Agsten denies this claim: “There is no language whatsoever in the contract that refers to any amount of square footage, not to mention two-thirds of the space, that is to be devoted to the presentation of the Broad collection.”

For a time, LACMA’s director and Broad seemed to be in harmony. Govan inherited a $156 million museum redesign plan (which included BCAM) from his predecessor Andrea Rich and presided over its opening, a major symbol of Broad and Govan’s achievements as partners. According to KCRW art critic Edward Goldman, who spoke to Angeleno in 2008, Govan’s aesthetic sensibility made a big impression on Broad. “I think they collaborate very well, and I also think that it is because of Michael that the entire project has become more sophisticated.”

With all these ups and downs, it’s no wonder one of the L.A. art world’s favorite obsessions of late has been trying to decipher the dynamics of the Broad-Govan relationship. “A lot of controversy centers around whether Michael is happy with Eli and Eli is happy with Michael,” says collector Stefan Simchowitz, the stepson of former MOCA board member Jennifer Simchowitz.

Few would dispute that a genuine desire to improve L.A.’s cultural offerings and a belief in the power of art are the biggest motives behind the actions of the city’s two art barons. And Los Angeles’ museums often work together as much as they vie for visitors and resources. In 2011, for example, LACMA, MOCA and 23 other area arts institutions will join in mounting a citywide arts initiative, Pacific Standard Time, funded in large part by the Getty Foundation, which will take a sweeping look at the history of art in California since WWII. “The fact that our museums have great directors and are doing important exhibitions is what’s attracting the world’s attention,” says Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica Museum. “The brouhaha is not what brings people here.”

But underneath these laudable intentions may lie a craving for control. Being a potent force in the art world is first and foremost about influencing the caliber of the art that goes before the public. L.A. is still a young city and its museum landscape is still crystallizing. So the opportunities to impact the art world’s development here are enormous.

Across town, at around the same time LACMA was moving ahead with its grand building plans, MOCA was going through its own tumult. Over the three decades of its existence, the museum has built one of the foremost troves of postwar modern art in the world. Its special exhibitions, such as Wack! and A Minimal Future, have garnered the institution resounding critical acclaim.

But its finances had become increasingly dire, a situation that exploded in the press in December 2008. Unlike LACMA, which currently receives 38 percent of its operating funds from L.A. county, MOCA depends much more heavily on private donations and ticket sales with an average of 80 to 90 percent of its income coming from those sources. And, over the course of a decade, MOCA’s expenses had so far outgrown its income that the museum was forced to dip into its endowment. In 1999, MOCA had $38 million in invested assets and an $11 million budget. By 2008, those investments had dipped to $5 million, and the operating budget had swelled to $22 million. As the financial debacle came to light, nine trustees exited the board over a period of six months. Director Jeremy Strick resigned after nine years at the helm. The money troubles had been brewing for years. Two years earlier, Susan Bay Nimoy, the wife of Leonard Nimoy, and former UPN network CEO Dean Valentine had both left MOCA—decamping to the Hammer Museum—owing to concerns about the museum’s financial recklessness.

MOCA needed a savior. Not surprisingly perhaps, two men stepped forward with visions for the museum’s future. Govan proposed a merger with LACMA. “The civic responsibility was to offer options,” says Govan. “We talked about partnerships. I said, ‘We don’t want to be perceived as taking you over. But we can argue for the potential benefits of working together and presenting innovative ideas.’ We are proud that we were able to offer exciting options in a difficult climate. ‘Museum failing in L.A.’ is not a good headline. It was all in our interests that MOCA had alternatives to succeed.”

Broad came up with an alternate plan. He told MOCA’s trustees that he would pledge $30 million to replenish the museum’s sagging endowment and support exhibitions, thus keeping MOCA independent if they could come up with $15 million in matching funds. “I said, ‘We have to save MOCA,’” says Broad. “I got Disney Hall funded and built. I knew I could get MOCA back on its feet. It had to be right-sized expense- and staff-wise. I could see that MOCA was clearly worth saving. MOCA’s board members became very contentious, a problem that started between five and eight years ago in response to financial trouble. There was no unity of vision.”

There were pros and cons to both pitches, and wariness among the MOCA board of each man’s intentions. Were Govan and Broad motivated purely by a desire to save the institution? How much did the prospect of exerting control over one of the world’s finest modern collections influence them? Govan’s plan would have enabled MOCA’s collection to survive, albeit under LACMA’s roof and as just one part of its wide-ranging collection. A number of trustees got behind his idea, arguing for the merits of having MOCA and LACMA geographically close together on Wilshire Boulevard. LACMA already owned a good portion of the property surrounding its campus, which theoretically would create a highly desirable hub for art in central L.A.

But Broad doesn’t see Govan’s intentions so magnanimously. “Michael would have liked to have taken over the MOCA collection but we took a different view. It wasn’t a merger. It was simply a way for LACMA to get a great collection without paying for it. LACMA should have been supportive of its sister institution and help it to survive independently rather than take it over.” And The Young and the Restless co-writer and MOCA co-chair Maria Arena Bell (whose husband William serves on the board of LACMA) also had reservations: “I felt it was really important for L.A. to have a contemporary art museum that was thriving and separate from LACMA,” says Bell.

Broad’s strategy, meanwhile, would allow the museum to remain self-governing but it came with hefty conditions, including aggressive cost-cutting and fundraising demands. “Eli required that the museum get financially stable, cut expenditure, raise funds, not borrow from its endowment, limit expenses from the endowment, maintain a strong and vibrant exhibition schedule and bolster its capital campaign,” says MOCA CEO Charles Young.

MOCA’s choice to go with the Broad plan is mutually beneficial to both sides. Broad may have breathed new life into MOCA, but MOCA may have done the same for Broad: Becoming deeply involved with the museum’s regeneration campaign not only provided the philanthropist with the perfect escape route from LACMA, it also enabled him to stay on top of L.A.’s museum hierarchy. And while there’s no evidence this was in Broad’s mind, the stakes were high for another reason: If MOCA were to migrate to the Miracle Mile, its exit would come with terrible consequences for the ongoing regeneration of downtown L.A., where one of Broad’s biggest investments, the stalled Grand Avenue Project, is still trying to get out of the gate.

While Eli Broad is used to holding all the purse strings, Michael Govan answers to a board and must work within that context, an environment in which he, by all measures, excels. LACMA’s leader has arguably transformed art philanthropy in L.A. from the polite pursuit of a small and doddering group of lifelong local benefactors to the cause absolut for the hip, globally minded, jet-set crowd. In a city whose millionaires and billionaires tend to favor political and environmental causes over cultural ones, Govan’s appearance could not be more welcome.

Since arriving on the West Coast in April 2006 from New York (where he successfully created the critically acclaimed, nearly 300,000-square-foot Dia:Beacon museum in the Hudson Valley), Govan has raised the prestige level of the LACMA board to the point where Forbes now ranks it as the third most powerful billionaire board in the country, after MoMA and the Robin Hood Foundation.

Unlike other art museums in town like MOCA (whose trustees include John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha) and the Hammer Museum (whose board includes Lari Pittman and Barbara Kruger), LACMA’s current board lineup doesn’t boast a single visual artist. But it does read like a who’s who of the business and entertainment world. Additions during Govan’s tenure include Barbra Streisand, producer Brian Grazer, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, television anchor Willow Bay, L.A. Dodgers ex-CEO Jamie McCourt, former Warner Bros. head Terry Semel, and billionaire art collector/investor Nicolas Berggruen. “Boards have become different organisms over the last 30 years. In the old days, entrepreneurship wasn’t part of a museum’s operational charge. Now, people critique organizations for their lack of entrepreneurship. So we’ve started to attach the language of corporate growth to museums,” says Govan.

But Govan has suffered a few setbacks. A decision earlier this year to shutter LACMA’s beloved 40-year-old classic movie screening program for financial reasons led to a huge outcry, with Martin Scorsese denouncing Govan in a letter to the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, information about the museum director’s hefty salary and perks amounting to $1 million leaked to the same publication, further angering film lovers. The film series has been reinstated for at least another year. Meanwhile, Govan’s plans to erect a Jeff Koons installation featuring a chugging, 70-foot replica of a 1940s locomotive suspended from a 161-foot-tall crane, may have hit an impasse. In a recent Vanity Fair profile, LACMA board member Wallis Annenberg, who donated $2 million to conduct a feasibility study for the sculpture, said: “I personally think Los Angeles deserves a much finer icon than a train hanging from a crane.” Annenberg reportedly intends to leave the rest of the funding of the $25 million project to other trustees. Seeking to clarify the situation, LACMA’s vice president of development, Terry Morello, has this to say: “Wallis Annenberg agreed to pay $2 million to get the drawings done. She didn’t make a commitment to pay for the train.”

Meanwhile, MOCA has recovered much of its former sheen since accepting Broad’s pledge. The museum’s white knight, whom Bell affectionately describes as “a demanding giver who insists that his money is being well spent,” coaxed Charles Young, UCLA’s no-nonsense chancellor emeritus, to shepherd MOCA through a huge recapitalization campaign. Says Young: “Eli made it possible for the museum to survive—not only to come out of the doldrums it was in but also to move to greater heights. He made the museum’s future possible but he didn’t ensure it.”

Young has since cut the institution’s annual budget from more than $22 million to $15.5 million (LACMA, by contrast, has an operating budget of $53.5 million.) At the same time, the organization has been working hard to rebuild its board. Broad, among others, persuaded music exec Gil Friesen and Hard Rock co-founder Peter Morton, who had previously resigned, to return as trustees. Five new members have joined up, including Sex and the City creator Darren Star. And MOCA’s board has started an international search for a new director aided by the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “We’re looking for somebody who is extraordinarily dynamic with great vision and who is very charismatic and good at bringing people together,” says David Johnson, co-chair of MOCA’s board. “We’re not looking for somebody super young, but someone on the younger side.” In other words, MOCA is looking for someone who can take on Michael Govan. Says ACE Gallery’s Chrismas: “What MOCA will have to do is find a director who can be as creative as Govan—and as ambitious.”

A visionary and ambitious Govan-like operator is unquestionably what MOCA needs. But could Broad’s recent experiences color the process? What happened at LACMA has almost Oedipal overtones. Broad hired Govan, only to have his spiritual heir turn on him. In not leaving his art collection to LACMA, Broad in turn abandoned Govan. Will Broad want to recruit another person who might undermine his authority?

Meanwhile, Govan seems to be looking to take on the Getty as well. As he recently told the Los Angeles Times, he is intent on turning LACMA into a major tourist attraction: “The first on anybody’s list,” said Govan. Chris Burden’s already-iconic Urban Light sculpture, situated directly on Wilshire Boulevard, is only Govan’s first step. The museum’s website vaunts that the proposed Koons train sculpture—which would be visible from virtually all corners of the city—will be L.A.’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Another showy art project-in-the-making is the installation of Michael Heizer’s Levitated/Slot Mass, a boulder weighing more than 400 tons that will be suspended on two concrete rails.

Not to be outdone, Broad is busy creating his own L.A. museum, which he hopes will rise as early as three years from now. The project represents the biggest chess move yet for Broad, whose plans envision a space of up to 43,000 square feet funded with a breathtaking $200 million endowment. Both Santa Monica and Beverly Hills are briskly working up proposals to win the project. But Broad, keeping his cards close to his chest, has also said he is discussing building the museum in a third location, which he declines to name. (Broad is also constructing an art museum at his alma mata, Michigan State University; Govan serves on the institution’s advisory board.)

Of course, the bigger each man’s ambition, the better for Los Angeles. By any measure, the developments of the last few years are stunning. Between 2008 and 2010, LACMA will have added 100,000 square feet of exhibition space to its campus. In November, MOCA debuted its blockbuster anniversary exhibit, Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years. Sprawling across the museum’s Grand Avenue and Geffen buildings, the show, which includes 500 permanent collection works, makes an inarguable case for L.A. as one of the world’s great art capitals. And Broad asserts that, with the addition of his own museum, L.A. will have more square acreage devoted to contemporary art than any place in America.

As L.A. comes into its own as an art town, Broad and Govan will doubtlessly continue to jostle for supremacy. Yet despite some bones of contention, the two men still hold each other in high esteem. “Michael Govan is a great asset,” says Broad. “We don’t agree on everything. Our relationship is not perfect, but nor is any marriage perfect. We all live in the same community and will work everything out.” Chuckles Govan: “I don’t think I can compete with Eli Broad. He’s a restless and never-satisfied philanthropist. He loves to provoke institutions to do better, bigger, more.”



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