The "Provocateur" Behind a Museum's $600 Million Gamble

It's always risky to compare football to the museum world, but there's been a lot of uncanny overlap in Southern California as of late. Forgive me, but I can't resist.

After the NFL recently announced the Rams would be returning to L.A., many commentators wondered if famously self-absorbed Angelenos would care. Turns out they were on to something. In its first season back in L.A., the Rams drew the fourth-worst attendance per capita in the league. Its television ratings were dismal, too.

So people were doubly confused when the NFL announced the San Diego Chargers would be moving north to L.A. next season. Does the city really need two NFL teams?

The same logic permeates the city's museum world. After learning that Guess co-founder Maurice Marciano's new museum was set to open in Spring 2017, we focused on Los Angeles' increasingly crowded museum scene and asked "Is there demand?"

Yet despite our hand-wringing, no one seems too concerned. Perhaps it's a testament to the notorious laid-back Southern California vibe. Or perhaps they're following Michael Govan's lead.

Govan is spearheading the Los Angeles County Museums of Art's massive $600 million capital campaign. This campaign has been recurring subject at IP, replete with dramatic headlines ("Fundraising on a Tightrope") and questions surrounding the wisdom of such ambitious projects.

Each project, of course, is unique. Risk is relative. On paper, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art's plan to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant sounds audacious—until you remember it has a solid safety net in the form of the Walton family's billions.

Which is why the New York Times' recent interview with Govan is a must-read. It surfaces the contextual factors around the LACMA's big gamble and provides an illuminating window into the mind of the campaign's architect. 

Let's start with the context. A prerequisite to any capital campaign—especially one of LACMA's magnitude—is a deep network of civic and philanthropic support. Yet despite some high-profile gifts, including a recent $25 million gift from LACMA trustee Eric Smidt and his wife, Susan, it's been an uphill climb. "It’s a big project for L.A., and there’s been a little lack of confidence that the money will be raised," Govan admitted.

Has the glut of museums in Southern California hindered Govan's fundraising? He's not saying. But the theory has legs. “L.A. is a place where everything is somewhat discounted and diffuse: To get the energy to come together, to make something kind of happen for the entire city and the entire community is not so easy,” said Nicolas Berggruen, a trustee of the museum who is building a new think tank, the Berggruen Institute.

So L.A. is a difficult place to get people jazzed about anything, be it football or museums. Now what?

Well, basic economics tells us that anytime a market is saturated, brands must differentiate themselves. Guess co-founder Maurice Marciano understands this. Commenting on his new museum, he told the Wall Street Journal, "We don’t need another MoCA or Broad or Hammer Museum. It has to be different, or why do it?"

As far as the LACMA is concerned, the Times piece implies the museum's brand is intertwined with its long-serving director. "Mr. Govan breaks rules and celebrates the unconventional in a way that, if nothing else, draws attention to the museum and its director," the piece states. The man himself concurs, noting, "I’m a provocateur."

Which finally brings me to the inner workings of Govan's mind.

In a previous post I floated the theory that one reason directors get behind big capital projects isn't because it's in the museum's best interests but rather because it's great for their own resumes. Govan, nor any other director for that matter, will come out and admit this. Yet this quote nonetheless struck me as, well, peculiar: "The point of this project is to make my successor feel that this is the prestigious job." (In his defense, Govan did say he was a provocateur.)

But let's put aside armchair psychology for a second and focus on something we can all agree on. Govan—like his brethren at other big city museums like the MoMA—is undoubtedly a risk-taker. And risks of this nature need to be backed up with what the Times calls "persistent and uncompromising" confidence.

We recently saw this psychographic trait on display courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas P. Campbell. His institution recently announced it would delay construction of a $600 million southwest wing. When asked whether the wing’s delay was the result of an inability to come up with a major lead gift, Campbell, stoically replied: "We’re very confident about raising funds for this project when the time comes."

And what about the LACMA's own $600 million project, which needs another $150 million by the end of 2017 to continue? “I think just getting close to the halfway point, I’ve sensed a change in my trustees and supporters," Govan said. "There’s this strong sense with them that this is likely to happen."

Then he amended that last sentence: “I will tell you just that it is going to happen."