He was the young, ambitious head of a prestigious art foundation. The other he was the founder of the nation’s foremost bookselling chain, strong-willed and generous perhaps to a fault. They met. Sparks flew. A museum got built. And then, somehow, it all went wrong.

Crack NYT business columnist Joe Nocera has the story in today’s Times Magazine section. The museum man in question is Michael Govan ’85, the former head of the Dia Art Foundation, currently in charge of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA. Yet another branch of the Williams Art Mafia Tree, this one springing forth from Guggenheim impresario and noted expansionist Thomas Krens ’69.

Still, he was undeniably a Krens acolyte. Govan first worked for Krens at Williams College, where he was a student and Krens was running the Williams College Museum of Art. A year after Krens got the job at the Guggenheim, he hired Govan, who was then 27, as his deputy director. At the Guggenheim, Govan won his spurs by landing a large cache of contemporary art that Krens had long coveted — the Panza Collection, it was called, which now forms the backbone of the museum’s contemporary art collection. As a result of landing that collection, which included many of the artists Dia supported, Govan got to know Charles Wright, a wealthy Seattle lawyer. Wright was then Dia’s director — and was desperately looking for someone to take his place. In 1994, Govan agreed to take the job, with Wright staying on as chairman. By then, he was all of 31.

The bookseller in question is Barnes & Noble honcho Leonard Riggio, the prickly patron of the Dia Art Foundation’s outstanding space sited in the Hudson River town of Beacon, N.Y. Jerk.

By the time Riggio joined the Dia board, it was clear that the new museum could never be put in New York City, where it would be impossible to find the gargantuan space Dia needed. Govan took him to North Adams, Mass., which was turning some abandoned factories into what eventually became Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Govan had been trying to work out a deal with MassMoCA, and in his version, the deal was running into roadblocks. Riggio’s memory is a little different. “I wasn’t particularly interested in a big building project in Massachusetts,” he says. “I told Michael that I would help him find a place and that it had to be someplace in New York.”

It’s a story of how vision, money, and influence interact in the art world. While Nocera is at pains to portray both sides as using each other to achieve their own aims, Riggio — who resigned from Dia’s Board of Directors not long after Govan decamped for the West Coast — comes off as a bit of a maniac and Govan appears more than a little opportunistic.

In any case, it’s an excellent read.

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