The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at a critical juncture in its efforts to push its Peter Zumthor-designed building project closer to the finish line. On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will hold its long-awaited vote on whether to officially approve the $650-million project and authorize $117.5 million in county funds to the museum.
As he readies for that milestone meeting, museum director Michael Govan is facing criticism over the project’s latest architectural designs. Plans included in the final environmental impact report (EIR), released on March 22, featured tweaks amounting to a 10% reduction in size — from 387,500 square feet in designs announced in October 2017 to 347,000 square feet.
In a conversation with The Times, Govan responded to the criticism and defended his vision for a future LACMA campus. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The museum appears to be “shrinking.” How do you reconcile spending so much money to lose gallery space at a time when the museum collection is growing?
We were aware that this building project would be not as big as the current space it was replacing because that was a jumbled mess of galleries. We were trying to replace the space; it was a replacement project. We already added on 100,000 square feet between [the recent permanent additions] BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion, so we’ve already grown pretty dramatically. What’s happening in this whole conversation is that no one’s seeing the big picture of the 20-year plan.
We grew first — projects can only be so big in fundraising, you weren’t going to be able to raise $800 million or a billion dollars. So the idea of [building] the Resnick Pavilion allowed us to grow in steps instead of trying to do it all at once. Now we have 100,000 square feet on the [west] campus. So now we can close the old buildings with no real huge negative, because we have a lot of space.
There’s a 10% reduction in the square footage between the draft EIR and final EIR, true — it’s actually 9%, but who’s counting? That’s a nonissue.
It made more sense to distribute our exhibition volume — the experience of LACMA — toward the new property. So that was an objective: lighten and open up park space. We’ll have 220,000 square feet total for LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard between four buildings [BCAM, the Resnick Pavilion, the new Zumthor building and the museum’s Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art].
The new museum won’t have space for curatorial offices — which the current museum buildings do have. Are you concerned that the curatorial staff, if based across the street in rented offices, will be disembodied from the art? And is the added operational cost an issue?