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Michael Govan

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

Michael Govan is the CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). While studying studio art and art history at Williams College, Govan met Thomas Krens, the then-director of the Williams College Museum of Art, and began working there. After graduating in 1985, he began an MFA at the University of California, San Diego. While in graduate school, Krens asked Govan to join him as deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. During his tenure, from 1988 to 1994, he oversaw the construction of the Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain. Following this role, he served as the president and director of the Dia Art Foundation for twelve years, leading the conversion of a Nabisco box factory into Dia’s Beacon campus. During his career, he has worked with artists and architects like Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Maria Norman, Frank Gehry, Hans Hollein, and Aldo Rossi.

Since arriving at LACMA in 2006, Govan has led the fundraising and construction of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (2008), the Renzo Piano-designed Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion (2010), and a new LACMA campus with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor (2024). In the shadow of the La Brea Tar Pits, the building plays with notions of unconscious memory and ephemerality. Its projected end-date is later this year. When finished, the structure will change the landscape and language of Los Angeles architecture, theory, and knowledge production. Govan lives with the logistical, pecuniary, and architectural questions of making a museum, but also the philosophical ones: How do we break the time-space model? Can we shatter linear art-historical narratives? What should the limits of museums and institutions be: architecture or art? This conversation took place in December 2023.



EO

How did you come to art?

MG

Ever since I was a kid, I drew all the time. I made things and I thought I wanted to be an artist. I did a lot of other things too. I got very interested in math and science for a while and early computer science. But art was the through line. When I went to college, the question was: do you go to art school college or do you go to liberal arts college? I already knew how to draw, though you can always improve, but the whole point was what are the ideas? What is the time demand? And how could I investigate the content of what I was interested in? So I ended up at a liberal arts school. That’s how I ended up at Williams because they would let me investigate these things. A lot of big schools you have to specialize in one thing. If you’re going to use the art studio, you have to be an art major. So the idea was to be able to explore everything, to think broadly, and to somehow channel that into my art making. So I ended up being a major in art, but I ended up being a double major because I was interested in art history as a way to see art.

EO

What was the other major?

MG

Studio Art was my main major. It was going to be math, computer science. It ended up being art history, the other side of it. I decided to do art history because I kept taking classes to see art, to see other art. And there was the Clark Art Library. Have you been to Williamstown?

EO

I haven’t, but I’m familiar with the structure yes.

MG

Anyway, they have a big library at the Clark Art Institute and a graduate program. So I took graduate classes as an undergraduate. Even as a freshman, they let me into all their classes. I petitioned. So I had incredible access to the library and a lot of people thinking at a high level. So I graduated and then you have to make a living [Laughs.] I was working on the newspaper. I had a journalism minor in my mind. I redesigned our college newspaper in part and I was the features editor. I was doing what you were doing at a very low level compared to you. [Laughs.]

EO

Hopefully one day I’ll be doing what you do. [Laughs.]

MG

Exactly. I’m hoping that, too. Sooner rather than later would be good. [Laughs.] And then I got a job working at the school’s museum just to have a job and I had to stay the summer. I asked the president of the college for money to create a magazine, you’ll appreciate this, on the arts at Williams. So I needed a job in Williamstown and I wanted to make my own. [Laughs.] I felt like the arts weren’t well promoted...

EO

Was it known outside of the community or was it more of a secret?

MG

It was both kind of known and unknown. There was a great theater and there was a dance program with an amazing head of the dance program. I literally walked into the president’s office, in a way innocently,when you don’t know politics or anything else. I said, Here’s my plan. I’m going to make a magazine to promote the arts at Williams for people, and I want to do it myself. I asked for, whatever it was, $5,000 and I’ll do all the design and the writing and the photography, which I did. I went to the first arts person and they were like, “What the hell? Why did they give you the money?” They had been asking themselves. [Laughs.] Anyway, I met with all of the heads of the arts departments and I also met with a person you may know, Tom Krens, the director of the museum. In all my interviews, like you’re doing your interviews, I realized what he was thinking was quite broad for what the museum would be. And then he liked the magazine, so he offered me a job designing posters and catalogs for the museum.

EO

You also were on a graphic design kick?

MG

Yes. I did a lot of graphic design. That’s one of the things I did to make money. I programmed computers, did graphic design, all those things to make money. I redid the museum’s logo, and I designed all the posters and brochures. Then of course I needed more money, so I said, “Can I work to screw in light bulbs?” [Laughs.] So I did every job. I did packing, creating, lighting, installation, poster design. And then when I graduated, I asked if I could make an exhibition.

EO

Because on your Wikipedia, it says that you worked as a curator for the museum.

MG

So that was the story. From my undergraduate but graduate courses, I had written a paper on Picasso’s Minotaur print. It’s now really obscure, but I had organized new research on the relationship between Picasso’s prints and Rembrandt. So I asked if I could make an exhibition. I was 22. Tom Krens said, “Sure, if you can figure it out, raise the money.” So in that case, I got the loans, I wrote the catalog, I laid out the catalog, I printed the catalog, I did the show. It was that first summer out of college, I think. He said, “You know what, we don’t have a curator right now. Why don’t you be acting curator? I’ll give you a full-time job at the museum. But you have to help me manage the building construction project.”

EO

Which meant what?

MG

That we were building an addition.

EO

Who did that building again?

MG

Charles Moore. Existing building, Lawrence Hall, which was the old library. It was an early twentieth-century building, maybe even late nineteenth-century. Then Charles Moore, the postmodern architect, had built two editions. I was asked to help manage the construction of that second edition. At the time Tom Krens was getting his business degree, so he wasn’t in Williamstown a lot. So I was just there. So I lugged in light bulbs, did poster design, catalog design, programmed the computers for the collection, cleaned the bathrooms, whatever [Laughs.] I had curated a show. Weirdly, I became the generalist while he was gone. I ended up doing more work and having more relationships to artists, conservators, curators, architects.

EO

Is that when art and architecture converged for you? What were the psychological and psychosocial aspects of managing the construction of a building when you had emerged curating the space? Not many people witnessed the building of a institution or the construction of a building generally. Did that have a staying power with you?

MG

Definitely. I was curious. You’re doing the work, but you’re a voyeur. As a kid, I liked art and I really didn’t like museums. I was like I love art. Museums are putting it in a cage like a zoo. They were restricting it. I loved the art, but didn’t love the container [Laughs.]

EO

What did institutions and museums mean to you growing up?

MG

I grew up around Washington DC, so you end up going to the Smithsonians and the national galleries. Yes, there were some art galleries and artists, but mostly you had these giant institutions that have an institutional presence. It’s funny because I’m a Regent of the Smithsonian now to give back because my childhood was shaped by going to all those museums, the Hirshhorn when it was built, the Air and Space Museum when it was built. But with the kind of curiosity, because I want to say it in the right way. I wasn’t convinced [Laughs.] Then the other key thing in architecture is that we were building the building. So I was actively involved in helping to manage a museum building project. I was 23 years old. We also made an exhibition called the Revision of the Modern. It came from the German Architecture Museum, the Deutsches Architektur Museum. It had all those architects, the first generation of ‘starchitects,’ Morphosis, Isozaki. It was the Revision of the Modern. They didn’t want to call it postmodern.

EO

When was this?

MG

I think the show was in 1985. It was mid-80s. Heinrich Klotz, who was the director of the German Architecture Museum, was the reigning world expert on museum architecture at that time, as well as architecture. The show wasn’t all about museums, but he started the Architecture Museum. That was his contribution and then he was director of the Architecture Museum, built the OM Ungers Building, and then he went to found the ZKM, the museum that’s architecture design technology. He was a really interesting character, an older man. So I learned a lot about architecture. Then I got very involved with artists and travel. I worked with Andy Warhol for a minute to help design a poster for our opening. So I got to go to the Factory a lot.

EO

Oh, my God. He did a show at the museum?

MG

No, we just bought a self-portrait. I asked the director, Tom Krens, could I go see him and see if he would do the poster for the opening? You can find it on eBay. So I went to the Factory and worked with Fred Hughes and got to meet Andy. And he said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I remember he handed me an eight and a half by 11 piece of paper with his name written 20 times on it. And said, “Use the signature you like.” I left it at the museum instead of keeping it. The other thing I did at the time was Tom Krens was working on an exhibition.Those were heady days in Germany because every city was building a museum post-war. They were rebuilding their cities. So Richard Meier museums, all those museums that we look at now, that got built in the 1980s, that generation. As you know, many of the art galleries of that scene, Paul Mintz’s gallery, Michael Werner, Sigmar Polke and the German expressionist scene was exploding. So Tom needed a research assistant for that show. So I went to Germany in the ’80s, probably 20 to 30 times and visited every artist of that generation. Now, of course, I was a conceptual artist, not a painter. My art was super conceptual. But I found painting amazing. I met Kiefer early on, I met Baselitz, Christa Naher, Polke, Penck. So I saw the power, the force, the optimism that art world growing fast. And then I would go back to New York. And that next generation, the Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl generation. I was going to those early shows of Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine, Jenny Holzer talking to Mary Boone. Koons's first solo show at the early artist-run gallery International with Monument in 1985. Those were heady days for art. I was the opposite in my own practice. I was more like, I guess, Sherrie Levine. But anyway. That’s what happened, and then I decided I really, really want to go to graduate school for art.

EO

After having been institutionalized. [Laughs.]

MG

It was just like too much. Actually, my thesis project at Williams was about museology in a way because I made a catalog. I made a book. I put it in boxes in the center of the room, but I had made a show of paintings of the pages of the book, reversing the original and copy.

Very simple, but it was nice. I took great pleasure in painting on cardboard. And then the idea is you threw away the paintings after the show. Anyway, I wanted to go to graduate school for art. It was just so heavy, the whole art world. And I met amazing artists. I met Joseph Beuys, I met Andy Warhol and all those other artists. To get away from the New York side and European side, I picked University of California, San Diego.

EO

When did you start there?

MG

1986 or ’87.

EO

Okay, because I saw that Lorna [Simpson] had graduated...

MG

Yeah, we were a year apart. She’s a year older. A year or two older. We were just close.

EO

So you weren’t there at the same time.

MG

I think she was finishing as I was starting.

EO

What was the reasoning for going there?

MG

It was considered the think tank at the time. You had Eleanor Anton and David Anton. Eleanor’s work was a really interesting take on feminism, narrative theater, and photography. She’s still alive. I did a project with her here at LACMA. David Anton, who was a poet and art critic, wrote in the Duchamp catalog. But his talk poems. David Anton was especially powerful in the poetry world. He made these talk poems, very Lacanian in a way, he would just talk, they would all be printed in lowercase letters with spacing. He’s well-known and an interesting character and Allan Kaprow was there, he was the one who was sent to recruit me. I was really interested in Helen and Newton Harrison, who were there because they were the first of what you could call ‘environmental artists.’ They were making art about climate change in the late ’70s. Harold Cohen was in a show we just did on computer art. He was training computers to make paintings. They also had art critics, Sheldon Nodelman, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Bebette Mangold. Jean-Pierre Gorin was a cinematographer for Godard. It’s when the California school system was paying ridiculous amounts of money to hire the very best talent for the Southern California schools. That’s when Baudrillard was hired to teach at UC Irvine. For Lorna or me, when you looked at the schools, you could go to Yale, which trained you to be a money-making professional artist. Or you went to San Diego, which was for, I don’t know, misfits or people who had a more conceptual bent.

EO

What was the vibe there? What was happening on the ground? What was in the air?

MG

All those professors were at the later part of their careers. They were elders by that time. I had amazing studio critiques from Allan Kaprow. They were performances. [Laughs.] He would talk about art in terms of what part of the body it came from. The catch is Allan Kaprow, being a conceptual artist, was particularly interested in my museum work. So he proposed when it was discussed, the Williams College Museum that I would have a hybrid role. That I would be able to get credit for working at the museum as part of my art graduate education. Allan Kaprow had proposed that the Guggenheim be left empty to make it into an artwork, the show would be emptiness. He was really interested in the museum as a site of conceptual thought. So I would literally spend two weeks in San Diego and then two weeks back in Europe or New York on the road.

EO

Wow. Talk about having it made in the shade. [Laughs.]

MG

Oh, no. It was actually quite stressful. [Laughs.]

EO

I believe it. It’s more that it sounds glamorous but having to make a life out of that framework…no thank you.

MG

After a year the wear and tear on my mind and body to be going and doing frenetic work, and then going to San Diego. I would get up, get something to eat, sit on the beach and read my Lacan or Torrey Pines for a minute, and then I would go to an empty studio which I kept empty, in a conceptual gesture. I would make empty paintings. [Laughs.] My entire portfolio, the idea was to put it on six sheets of paper that could be folded and put in a folder. As a magazine maker, you’ll again appreciate this. I was so sick and tired of the apparatus of the art world, its heaviness, the cost, that I decided I would create a fictional art character. I would rent things to photograph them and then I would write an article about a fake artist with these pictures, make it in the shape of Artforum and then make bad photocopies with fingers in them.

EO

Residue.

MG

A lot of my art engaged the notion of the ‘copy’. The idea was my entire year’s work would fit on six sheets of paper photocopy. So it was a schizophrenic existence. At the time, Tom Krens became director of the Guggenheim, and I guess he asked three or four people to work with him, one other person in particular and none of them would do it, and so he asked me if I would come help him for a few years.

EO

None of them would do what?

MG

He needed a Deputy Director. He was going to this new museum and job from Williamstown. He had been named director and he needed a couple of people he trusted. Totally new environment.

EO

What did being a deputy at that time mean?

MG

I mean, it ended up meaning I was assistant director of the Guggenheim Museum and I was still 25. It made people crazy mad inside the museum. But I didn’t care because I was just going to do it for a few years and go back to art school. So, I don’t know what to say. The rest is history. I got deep because of the work that was going on there, the building construction, the Frank Lloyd Wright building. I started working with artists and curators and then we ended up working it out. So, I stayed there for six and a half years.

EO

I need to know about Bilbao.

MG

What happened is we were renovating the Guggenheim in New York. We acquired the Panza Collection of American minimal art. I got beaten up in the press in early days. We were trying to see whether we could show that collection still at MASS MoCA, which is the project we started in the early ’80s.

EO

Wait, you helped start MoCA?

MG

Tom Krens, Joseph Thompson, and I started that project in 1983. While I was still a student, Joe was not, and Tom was the director of the Williams College Museum. During that project, speaking of architecture, the architects that we worked with on the schematic design were Frank Gehry in 1983-4, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and David Childs as a threesome. Frank was not so famous yet. Denise and Robert were defining post-modernism and David Childs was the most successful design corporate architect probably in the world as head of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. We had this idea that we would take MASS MoCA under the wings of the Guggenheim because you needed more space to show work. Contemporary art was already by that time exploding in size, site-specific installations. So the Guggenheim as a building wasn’t sufficient to show the art of our time, even though we started doing things like using the whole building. The early Jenny Holzer show used the spiral. Mario Mertz had his motorcycle around the spiral with Fibonacci. Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. We did really use that building.

To get to Bilbao, we were trying to take MASS MoCA under our wing, thinking about scale. We needed to renovate the Guggenheim and then how Bilbao happened, we hired four curators, Germano Celant, the Italian curator, who’s no longer living. He founded Arte Povera with those artists. Norman Rosenthal, who had been the curator of the Jasper Johns show, he was well-known, lived in Philadelphia, and Carmen Jimenez, who lived in Madrid. So Germano lived in Milan, Mark Rosenthal lived in Philadelphia, and Carmen lived in Madrid. Carmen came to us with this idea that the government of Bilbao wanted to build a museum as part of their urban renewal. They had already commissioned Rafael Moneo to redo the airport. So she brought it to us and Tom Krens went there with her. I didn’t go on the early visits. Then they made a deal to have the Guggenheim be the partner to build a museum. We had an architectural competition. Frank Gehry won the competition right at the time that they had fired him at Disney Hall.

EO

But did you see the writing on the wall when you all conceptualized the project?

MG

It was driven by Tom Krens having a global view. I was always struck by his globalism.

EO

Did you think that that came from his time at business school? What was driving his sensibility?

MG

It came from him being a kid riding his motorcycle around Europe and working in archaeological digs in Turkey. He was comfortable riding a motorcycle around Europe, working in an archaeological dig. He saw the world as a very big place. And, of course, he’s working with Iris Love, a famous archaeologist, and she was one of his mentors. She’s talking about world art history. You’re living it, you’re looking at it, so he is an American, who is in Europe.

EO

In The New Yorker piece on Peter Zumthor, you both talk about the new building being about adjacencies. That, to me, is really what resonates with the Guggenheim having a mirroring institution that was both of New York and adjacent to it.

MG

Unfortunately, this is a boring story of logistics and time and place of how things happen, but the ideas are more important. But if you see the world as a complicated big place, because you travel a lot and you see how different things are in different places, and I mean, Krens had that. He felt comfortable in odd corners of the world. One of my first projects there was to work on this exhibition of Russian avant-garde art with 12 curators: four Russians, four Germans, four Americans. You can imagine how politically and aesthetically fraught that curatorial group was as a committee trying to do that. Meanwhile, we were trying to go to Russia back and forth to negotiate loans. So when Carmen Jimenez walked into the office and said the city of Bilbao and the Basque country is trying to create more independence, the ETA, the separatists, were trying to separate the Basque region. And the government was trying to find peaceable means to create identity. And it was like, yeah, we need more space for art and we should think internationally and we should make partnerships. And so it was not a hard leap, whereas most people might have just said, “What? An industrial city in the north of Spain, where there’s terrorism and we’re going to go?” [Laughs.] But for him, that was cool. Then I was assigned to help negotiate, go to California to work in Frank Gehry’s office. Then many other things happened. I proposed that we bring the curators downtown. Soho used to be a place where there was art.

EO

Right. Because the Guggenheim was temporarily above the Prada store on Broadway.

MG

Yeah, that’s a long, separate and sad story that I don’t know that I want to go into.

EO

It’s fine.

MG

I had a slightly different vision for that space when I proposed it. It was supposed to be competition for Dia. Rough and rugged. Simple.

EO

I’m not trying to trauma bond. I’m just curious. [Laughs.]

MG

So that idea of the world as big, complicated, different points of view. You’re spending time in Russia. At that time, Japan was raging in art. We were sending shows to Japan, Australia. The Mori Museum was just in conception. They asked us to consult on the early stages of the Mori Museum. Real estate in Japan at that time, was more for a square foot than a whole small city in the United States in the ’80s. So when you’re traveling, you get this curious sense of how vast and different every part of the world is, and every place has culture, and museums were starting to become a thing. I mean, now they’re really a thing. Look at the M+ in Hong Kong. Look at the museums being built in Delhi. Museums are now instruments of expressions of power, but also doors open for diplomacy.

EO

What was that quote by Allan Kaprow? You said you staged that show, keeping the Guggenheim empty.

MG

Yeah, he wanted the museum to just be a thing, an object to be understood. I mean, this is my training. Everything is contextual. All definitions are contextually defined in context.

EO

As everything should be.

MG

And Glissant isn’t even popular yet at this time. By the time I was 30, I’d traveled the world, met with government leaders, worked on museums, worked with Aldo Rossi in Italy and by that time with 20 of the ‘starchitects’ and worked with Hans Hollein in Salzburg. That was Tom’s project. But that’s when I met Max Hollein. He was my intern at the Guggenheim.

EO

You were there for six and a half years. Then to Dia.

MG

Well, I was going to go back to art and finish my degree. That was the plan.

EO

You never finished your degree?

MG

No, I couldn’t because I got tired. My body could not take the two weeks here, two weeks there. It was just frying my body and brain. I just couldn’t do it. I figured, a lot of artists become artists in their 40s and 50s. I’ve got time. I got to do one or the other. And my fiancé was in New York. [Laughs.]

EO

I’m no stranger to that struggle.

MG

I had planned to go back to school. We reopened the Guggenheim. We restored it. Soho. Bilbao was not up and running, but it was on its way. Salzburg had failed. I was like, I got to go back to school. Then Charlie Wright called me about Dia. He was the former director and they were looking for a new director. I got curious because Dia was about artists and crazy projects. It was the opposite of museums. It was not about architecture and buildings. It was about artists making space. I mean, rough warehouse. Museums designed by artists for artists.

EO

I became really curious when I learned that Robert Irwin helped with the design of Dia Beacon. What was that about?

MG

Dia had this crazy history. Donald Judd. Marfa, Texas. James Terrell, Roden Crater. These were the anti-museums. Giant projects where art was placed into nature or abandoned buildings. Dia was the anti-institution, it had and held the artist’s vision first. Dia, the word, comes from the Latin, ‘Via.’ It’s the Greek version of Via meaning way or conduit. I thought, cool, maybe this will give me a minute to look at the other side of the culture world before I fully commit to going back to art school. I’d worked with a lot of those artists in the Panzo Collection. I knew Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Joseph Boyce, and Maria Norman. They were all, at the time, mostly men. But it was that group. So I thought, Dia, what the hell? I didn’t know that it was going to go out of business. It had no money. That short tenure became eleven, twelve years because I had to rebuild the institution financially.

EO

You caught a bunch of flak for shutting Chelsea down.

MG

[Laughs.] I have gotten flak for everything. I got plenty of flack before then. But Dia needed space. When I moved our staff to Chelsea, everyone wanted security and private cars because it was dangerous. There was an article in the New York Times recently about how it’s now the epicenter of the art world. And Charlie Wright told Matthew Marks to come to Chelsea. But by the time I left, it was becoming gallery central. And the galleries were doing, we discussed it as a staff, the galleries were doing bigger shows than we were. They had more money, they were free. We had to charge admission. I had worked with the city to get the space at the end of the Highline, where the new Whitney is now. That was going to be the new Dia. I had to convince the meat markets to do that. Long story, Dia Beacon was truly found from my little airplane trips when Lynne Cooke, curator, and Richard Gluckman and I were on our way to MASS MoCA to see if we should forge a partnership. They were struggling and we had a big collection partnership and that didn’t work out. But I remembered the building we saw on the way over and the rest is history. Then Lynne Cooke and I worked together.

EO

I found Dia Beacon so funny because it was a Nabisco factory. It’s so Warholian.

MG

It’s beautiful. Lynne Cooke and I said, “well, if we’re going to do this to make it truly Dia, because it has to be an anti-museum museum, we should have an artist work on it.” Robert Irwin, we had commissioned him to do the project at Dia Chelsea, and so we suggested to him that he would be the architect thinker. Much is written about that. That was the way to make it an anti-museum museum, in the spirit of Dia. And more people went to Dia Beacon than went to Dia Chelsea. So when we said we were closing Dia Chelsea, the entire staff understood. We were still operating on a TCO and more people were going to Beacon than Chelsea.

EO

What does that mean? TCO.

MG

Temporary Certificate of Occupancy. That building needed everything and it was a $30 million renovation. And we all thought it might be cool to start fresh because the galleries were taking us over. And that’s when the High Line idea emerged. By the way, the High Line is the train line that connects to Dia Beacon. And the Nabisco cookies were baked just on the next block. So there was this poetry of the High Line, the train line connecting Dia Beacon and Dia Gansevoort Street. Anyway, it’s a long story. I had a whole building designed, I left the cows on the back, so it would be a hidden building. It had no facade. It was a weird, wonderful building that we planned for there and then, I’m not going to go into the details, but the LA thing came up.

EO

What’s the LA thing?

MG

LACMA in 2000.

EO

Right? The L word, the real LA.

MG

By that time, I knew a lot about museums and the world. I traveled, I worked with artists.

EO

What came up with LACMA?

MG

Ten people turned them down. They didn’t have a director...

EO

What was LACMA at the time and why were people turning it down?

MG

I don’t know when you were in LA, but at the time, it was not a very desirable job.

EO

I left LA in 2014, so I was there from 1994 to 2014.

MG

MoCA was the thing by that time, not LACMA.

EO

I know, I remember seeing the MoCA Mike Kelly show.

MG

It wasn’t LACMA. They didn’t have anybody. Long story short, I had spent so much time now thinking about the anti-museum, artists, time, history, traveled the world. And the encyclopedic museum still was problematic to me. Rem Koolhaas had suggested in 2001 that you needed to tear down LACMA because it didn’t work seismically, it was too expensive to renovate. I talked with my artist friends who were from LA and I took a deep breath and I thought, “This is the only city, it’s the new city. It speaks 200 languages. It sits on the Pacific Rim between Asia and Latin America, it’s the media capital.”

EO

We have entertainment. It’s money adjacent.

MG

Everyone told me not to move to Los Angeles because there was no money for art. But I was more interested in the idea. I thought, “Didn’t museums need to be reconsidered from the ground up? And would there be another city in the world with a collection of world art where you could change the frame?” And I figured either I would totally change the frame or they would fire me quickly. [Laughs.]

EO

You came in and you knew immediately that you wanted Peter Zumthor, but how did you know that?

MG

Lynne Cooke had pointed me to the building in Bregenz that he had just built, which was a marvel and every artist loved it, or a lot of artists. At Dia, we were going to build buildings for Walter De Maria’s “Ching” piece and Louise Bourgeois, we were talking about her large sculptures. And Walter De Maria happened to have read an article about Peter Zumthor and loved Peter Zumthor. So that’s how I got to know Peter Zumthor because Walter De Maria said, “Oh, I love Peter’s. He’s the only architect I follow.” He had kept a file on his clippings about this architect.

EO

I really resonated with that Walter De Maria show at LACMA.

MG

So we traveled to see all of Peter’s buildings at the time and meet with him.

EO

When you were at Dia.

MG

To make a building for Walter De Maria’s “Ching” and Louis Bourgeois when I decide to go to LACMA, because those buildings are not going to be built. They’re too expensive for Dia.

EO

Yes.

MG

You need conceits for creative thought. You need to start somewhere. I thought, Oh, the “Ching” is a square. They were building a parking lot in the center of Hancock Park. What if you came up from your car into this light-filled space with the “Ching” which is chance, all possibilities, a kind of East-West hinge on the edge of the Pacific. And maybe this artwork really belonged in Los Angeles, not New York. And Peter should build this building. I should just bring it to LA as a way to start a new conversation. It was impossible physically. Engineering-wise, it couldn’t fit on the side, all of that. But that’s why the Resnick Pavilion is a square. I asked Renzo to continue that form to create a courtyard. I made a lot of architectural changes to make the courtyard where we’re going to have 2,000 people for the jazz concert tonight, or 3,000 because I wanted a civic space. And so we built the square with Renzo, not Peter. And that’s why it opened with the De Maria as a nod to this idea of a big open space with a floor sculpture. “The 2000 Sculpture” isn’t all possibilities. It means something different, but it has this meditative quality to it.

EO

You knew that you were going to have to eventually rebuild the museum after the initial rebuild. But, in your mind, that temporary build was like a business card to serve as a proof of concept to further fundraise and finance the entire rebuild you imagined in 2000 when you started.

MG

The place had tried and failed many times to raise money. The last campaign had failed. You have to walk before you run if you’re raising money. So you need a bite-sized project before you take on knocking down LACMA and rebuilding. So this was my way of changing point of view. It became the Resnick Pavilion. But I was talking with Peter and one of the problems of the encyclopedic museum is it uses a Cartesian, God’s-eye view, time-space grid. It’s the grid that allows colonialism to map and conquer the world. So many cultures have other models of time, models of time that are circular.

Glissant talks about travel and to discard. There’s so many different references, but the Cartesian space has to be broken in order to decolonize art history. So the the time-space grid is the issue. Peter’s work works off other principles like the unconscious memory, materiality and ephemerality, shadow not light, in praise of shadows. So all of these other tools in his building undermine the notion of a Cartesian order of the world. I mean, unconscious just is one way to look at it, I’m not even sure that’s the right way. I thought that he had the ability, especially if you’re staring at the La Brea Tar Pits, so you’re staring into the darkness of...

EO

Well, like a literal residue or gunk. This material substance that represents the absence and presence of time.

MG

At the time, I remember Werner Herzog made that movie about the Michaux caves, and the 35,000 year old cave paintings that look a little like Picasso, but they’re like proto-cinema, and then they’re the same animals that are at the Tar Pits, and you start to realize the Tar Pits aren’t prehistory but coincident with art history. You’re staring into this ice age of the origins of human creativity.

EO

It’s like this hall of mirrors for binary thinking, it confronts the logic of linear thinking of the past’s place in the present and vice versa.

MG

If you have to smash up the Cartesian space grid, this is a damn good place to do it. [Laughs.]

EO

I grew up really close to Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, and the way Peter Zumthor speaks about space and art, it’s profound. He was talking about museums being in palaces and more inaccessible places, like the Getty. It’s crazy, because the museum is both the manifestation and collision of time, space, and history. Like the Walt Disney Hall was conceptualized in 1983, but Frank Gehry didn’t submit the plans until 1991, and then it wasn’t actually finished until 2003. It followed a similar timeline as the Getty. LA has so few real architectural anchors.

MG

And it needed one, and it needed one that had a point of view. I also wanted one that wouldn’t be copied, in the sense that, you know, the problem with the world and travel is once things move fast, once there’s one Renzo Piano building somebody likes, two minutes later, there are twelve, and I knew Peter Zumthor took 20 years to design a building, so I knew his age, and I figured this would be a weird, unique, never-to-be-repeated artifact.

EO

Yes, now it'll be a vessel in which you pass through. It currently feels archaic. It feels like Egypt, in the sense that there are these fallen temples, and you can visit them, but you’re not threaded across the LACMA campus in the same way. The weight of the Tar Pits feels like in a different part of the city in a way. People are so literal in terms of trying to map space. It's not explicitly about marking the space but about conceptualizing the experience. So you lose 4,500 square feet, but it changes the psychology of how you experience art in and of the city. It’s like encountering the divine from multiple vantage points at once.

MG

So these are all the conceptual considerations about trying to come up with a new time-space model. I don’t really know that the word decolonize works that much, because you can’t go backwards, but you can restructure. But if you could reorganize identity, because the thing about history is its cultural identities, plural, and if you can reorganize them in terms of present and future values, rather than trying to preserve them. History is always changing, we’re always rewriting it, so if you understand the power...

EO

‘Decolonize’ is too affixing.

MG

We just don’t have all the right language for it yet.