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The aviator director with one foot in the desert

Lacma’s Michael Govan has adopted Heizer’s vast City complex in the Nevada desert

by Jori Finkel  |  17 September 2015
The aviator director with one foot in the desert
Complex II, part of Michael Heizer's City. Photo: Tom Vinetz / © Triple Aught Foundation
Anyone following Peter Zumthor’s proposals for a new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) knows that the museum’s director, Michael Govan, is a serious fan of contemporary architecture. What is not as widely recognised is Govan’s resourceful, some would say entrepreneurial, behind-the-scenes support of architecturally scaled works of art in ways that are beginning to bear fruit.

Close to home, Lacma has completed a master plan for the conservation (estimated at $5m over five years) of Simon Rodia’s skyscraper-sculpture Watts Towers in partnership with the city of Los Angeles. And in the Nevada desert, Lacma has been critically important in the development—if not completion—of Michael Heizer’s mile-and-a-half-long sculptural system known as City, and James Turrell’s immense sky-viewing apparatus in Arizona, the Roden Crater. Both projects took several decades.

City, in particular—a vast, sprawling (and thus “unphotographable”, Govan says) complex of earthen and concrete sculptures that inspires comparisons with the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza—has reached a milestone. President Obama recently designated the 704,000 acres surrounding the Basin and Range National Monument, giving it protection from private and public development. Lacma played an important advocacy role in securing this status, with board co-chair Elaine Wynn, Govan and Heizer joining the president and Senator Harry Reid in the White House in July for the official designation ceremony.

“This level of protection was essential,” says Govan, who regularly flies his restored 1979 single-engine Bonanza from Santa Monica airport to Heizer’s property in three hours. “To experience City you leave the world of gas stations, casinos and supermarkets, and move into this abstract space. If there were a road or power line or oil mining nearby, it would totally ruin the experience of emptiness created by this vast desert basin and range.”

Lacma has also helped to raise considerable funds for the completion of City, channelling about $12m through the museum on a “pass-through” tax basis to the Triple Aught Foundation, set up to support City. Govan has helped to revive Heizer’s reputation by providing a home for Levitated Mass, his boulder-based sculpture—another architecturally scaled work—and introducing the artist to art dealer Larry Gagosian.

At this stage, City’s sculptural forms appear to be complete, but the complex still requires some weatherproofing, water engineering and other protective measures. The question is whether Lacma will take over the operation and administration of City once it opens to the public, possibly in five years, according to Govan. He says the museum could assume this role alone, help the Triple Aught Foundation to do so, or partner with other institutions, such as the Getty.

Lacma’s director Michael Govan © 2015 Getty Images. Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Lacma
Lacma’s director Michael Govan © 2015 Getty Images. Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Lacma
Govan sits on the board of the Skystone Foundation, which supports the Roden Crater, as well as the Triple Aught Foundation. His involvement with both projects dates back more than a decade to his time as the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York. He credits Turrell with encouraging him to take flying lessons, a boyhood dream, when he was under stress due to infighting on the Dia board. His flying hours came in handy when he organised Turrell’s retrospective of 2013 and wrote a catalogue essay, quoting the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and discussing optical phenomena known to pilots.

That show was designed in part to support Turrell’s effort to complete the Roden Crater, his life’s work. But this goal remains distant, with construction stalled for many years. Carved up to provide different celestial viewing experiences, the crater does not look very different from when Calvin Tomkins visited it in 2003 for a New Yorker feature; several large viewing chambers and camera obscura-like rooms remain unbuilt. Numerous target completion dates have passed, and Turrell’s joke these days is that the work will be completed in 2000. “I’m sticking to that,” he likes to say. The challenges have been financial, legal and construction-related. Govan says: “It’s a different animal [from City] and requires large amounts of money to construct each section.”

All of which leaves the museum’s role in the management of Roden Crater unclear, and Govan sounding more doubtful than usual: “It’s too big for Lacma—it’s too big for any one institution.”

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