Mike Boehm profiles LACMA’s Michael Govan on the Culture Monster blog. An amateur pilot, Govan must deftly guide his museum through the turbulence of the new economy without losing the opportunities and momentum created by the go-go years:
“It would be tragic in any way to lose the tremendous momentum we have built, but that said, we have to be extremely cautious,” Govan said. He vowed “not in any way to let our hunger blind us” to the perils of being too bold during dangerous times.
Although the museum has not laid off any of its 371 full-time employees, a hiring freeze has been in place since October, leaving 11 vacancies unfilled. Govan said that all areas of possible savings, including staff levels, would be reviewed.
Another issue is whether the museum can keep up its spending on art acquisitions, which has totaled $102.4 million over the last three years.
Indeed, LACMA is currently selling items from its collection. Sotheby’s expects a Jan. 29 auction of two paintings, by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Joshua Reynolds, to fetch as much as $1.7 million. Then, in February, Bonhams & Butterfields will auction more than 100 pieces from the museum’s textiles and costume collection.
Govan said, however, that those deaccessions, as sales from museum collections are known, have not been prompted by the economic downturn but are part of a routine “sift and sort” in which pieces that curators deem expendable are sold to generate money to buy other works.
He added that money is still flowing for research and development on another high-profile project, “Train,” a 70-foot-long replica of an old-time steam locomotive that artist Jeff Koons would create as an instant outdoor landmark for the museum, hoisted high above it on a crane.
Meanwhile, the museum’s fiscal state is the subject of much scrutiny now that LA’s MoCA has blown up (all of the numbers after the jump):
LACMA too has taken a hit on its investments. Museum officials say that its endowment stood at $148 million in mid-2008. Govan said last month that it had fallen 25% since September.
Before the economic downturn, he said, LACMA’s goal had been to raise $100 million this calendar year to keep the expansion and renovation work going full-speed and to cover annual operating costs. The cost of running the museum has ballooned over the last two fiscal years, from $51 million to $74.4 million — a reflection of its increased size with the addition of the Broad museum, as well as interest payments and other carrying costs from $383 million in construction bonds it has issued.
Annual interest on the bonds is expected to skyrocket this year, from $2.1 million to nearly $13 million, according to the museum’s filings for bond investors. And Govan expects operating expenses to rise an additional $5 million.
LACMA has reaped $307 million in gifts and pledges for its building campaign, according to an August bond rating analysis by Moody’s Investors Service, but that still leaves a $76-million gap, which, if not filled, eventually could force the museum’s leaders to rob Peter (the public programming, research and acquisitions that are its core mission) to pay Paul (the bondholders).
LACMA director Govan is Piloting Prudently (LA Times/Culture Monster)