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Art Mafia: Next Generation

Is Michael Govan ’85 the leading member of the next generation of the Williams Art Mafia?

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is close to naming a new director, sources say, and the leading candidate is Michael J. Govan, director of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation and a specialist in contemporary art.

Govan, 42, has served the last 11 years as director of Dia, which owns one of the world’s foremost collections of art made since 1960.

Efforts to reach him Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Under Govan’s leadership, Dia has dramatically changed direction, abruptly losing nearly half of its board members in the mid-1990s, then gaining a new set of donors. In the shift, Dia reduced its emphasis on bankrolling remote projects in the desert Southwest and stepped up efforts to bring art to broad audiences.

“Michael flies his own plane, and that’s a [sign of] the kind of ambitious self-starter he is,” said Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and a principal with AEA Consulting.

“Michael is someone who will be always challenging himself, which is one of his strengths,” Anderson added. “It would be good to have him in that seat” at the Los Angeles County museum.

Govan, born in Washington, D.C., earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and studio art in 1985 from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he met art-world luminary Thomas Krens, then director of the campus art museum.

Though Govan served as acting curator and special assistant to Krens at Williams, he also had ambitions as a conceptual artist, and briefly studied fine arts at UC San Diego before becoming deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where Krens had become director.

Govan moved to the Dia Foundation in 1994.

Compared to the Los Angeles museum, Dia is a small operation. Its annual operating budget was about $16 million for the year ended in June 2004; LACMA’s was $48 million.

Tax disclosures show that Govan’s salary package was $440,000 for the year ended June 2004. LACMA director Rich’s was $455,153.

Do you get paid that much money just for being a nice guy? No.

Michael Govan really is the George Steinbrenner of the art world. Like the boss who once wanted to move his team across the river, Dia’s director has been threatening to relocate part of the art center’s contemporary collection from Chelsea to Massachusetts. In a bid to wrest several million dollars out of state economic czar Charles Gargano, Govan has been dangling the prospect of a Dia outpost at the new Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (mass moca), says a source close to the talks. Govan helped develop mass moca when he was employed by Thomas Krens, who fourteen years ago had the idea of turning an abandoned Berkshires factory into a museum. North Adams, Massachusetts, mayor John Barrett says he’s had “discussions” with Dia. “I’d say they probably go back close to a year,” he adds. “I don’t know if Govan’s been talking to others.” A New York source calls the talks “a classic relocation threat,” though a Massachusetts source insists that Govan does in fact prefer the Berkshires but faces a skeptical board. Govan says through a spokesperson that he’s been to mass moca and other sites “both inside and outside New York City” while searching for the “ideal space” for Dia’s collection, but that he has made no decisions yet.

The New York Times reports that:

If Mr. Govan ends up with the job — a post already rebuffed by museum directors and curators from New York to Jerusalem — he will take over an institution brimming with grand plans and power struggles.

Grand plans and power struggles? Sounds like Anchor Housing! Or EphBlog?

Good luck to Govan. May the Eph domination of the curatory firmament continue and expand forever. Previous art mafia posts here, here and here.

UPDATE: Govan got it.

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