Is This Los Angeles' $600 Million Man?

Michael Govan ’85, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is featured in a New York Times article about “his provocative vision for his museum and his adopted city.”

LOS ANGELES — Michael Govan stood in a third-floor gallery scattered with paintings and crates at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his arms gesturing at blank white walls, his face furled in thought. Mr. Govan is the director of the museum, but on this bright morning, he was focused on one single project: the installation of an exhibition of paintings by Agnes Martin. No detail was too small for Mr. Govan as he squinted his eyes and directed two workers, hoisting a framed canvas against a wall.

“Two inches higher,” Mr. Govan said. Still not right. “A little to the left.” Finally, Mr. Govan nodded his approval as the work was positioned into place. “Awesome.’’

Mr. Govan could not have been more intricately involved in the details of this retrospective, as he is with pretty much everything that happens on the museum campus on Wilshire Boulevard. He knew Ms. Martin before her death in 2004 and has long adored her work. He spent months visiting collectors at their homes, explaining why they should lend their Martins to this public exhibition — fixating on such details as his insistence that paintings not be put under glass, which, he is quick to tell you, obscures the fine lines of her art. (“Agnes Martin would be horrified to see her work under glass,” he said. “Horrified.”) Mr. Govan curated the exhibition, which closed after a successful run in the fall, right down to the last caption and light fixture.

Mr. Govan needed the diversion. As this new year begins, he is consumed with an even more urgent and consequential campaign, one that could help define not only Los Angeles’s position on the world’s art stage but Mr. Govan’s standing in his adopted city: a $600 million reconstruction of Lacma. It is as ambitious in its architectural aspirations as in its cost.