Category: Michael Govan

LACMA Director earns more than Bush

UPDATED Jan. 18, 2017: The last available record of Michael Govan’s annual compensation as director of LACMA was made available in 2014; his pay was listed as $1,029,921. LACMA also provides Govan with a free $5-million dollar home; the New York Times noted that benefit is worth “$126,500 a year, according to tax fillings.” Mr. Govan’s salary is now considerably more than that of a sitting U.S. president ($400,000).

– // –

The acts of corruption that have recently played out at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., might be the first in a season of scandal for the art world, but if you look closely you’ll see the rot has spread far and wide. On March 26th, 2007, the top official of the Smithsonian, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, resigned his position against a backdrop of outrage over his having used museum funds for personal aggrandizement.

Had it not been for his resignation, Small would have been compensated $915,698 this year for his work as the Secretary of the Smithsonian. Small’s downfall came about on March 22nd, 2007, when an amendment introduced by Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, proposing a freeze in funding for the Smithsonian - passed the U.S. Senate by a unanimous vote. It was a shot across the bow that couldn’t be ignored. Senator Grassley commented that, “It signals to the Smithsonian that a champagne lifestyle at taxpayer expense is unacceptable.”

However, what really got my attention in the furor kicked up by Senator Grassley, was the specific language in the good Senator’s budget amendment. It explicitly stated that no Smithsonian employee should be paid more than the total annual compensation of the president of the United States: $400,000 a year. That’s when the magnitude of the Smithsonian scandal hit me like a ton of bricks - the yearly salary of the Smithsonian’s director was twice that paid to the president of the United States.

After getting over that initial shock, I decided to conduct a little research into the salary paid to Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As it turns out, the 42-year old Govan also “earns” more than a sitting United States president. The L.A. Times reported on June 4th, 2006, that Govan is paid “a $600,000 base salary (about $120,000 from the county, the rest from the private, nonprofit Museum Associates). That figure, which excludes housing and car allowances, puts him about $145,000 ahead of his predecessor, Andrea L. Rich.”

Obviously, the duties and obligations inherent in being the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, pales in comparison to the awesome responsibility of directing an art museum with a $48-million budget and 320 employees.

While the mainstream press, art blogs and art world luminaries applaud Michael Govan, no one asks if it’s proper for an art museum director to be paid more than a sitting president of the United States. The unacceptable “champagne lifestyle” that Senator Grassley spoke of now seems firmly entrenched at LACMA, and the museum’s revolving door policy towards major corporate funders seems an open invitation to excess and corruption. But as the old truism goes, “the bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

LACMA: Director Govan & BP Oil

Interesting revelations concerning energy giant BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were made in a March 6th, 2007, article by the Los Angeles Times. The paper revealed that sometime in 2006 the chairman and president of BP America, Bob Malone, asked billionaire Eli Broad - who is heavily financing LACMA’s reconstruction - to recommend causes in L.A. where the oil company “could make a difference.” It was Mr. Broad who first suggested LACMA as a recipient of funds from BP. From then on, Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, enthusiastically cozied up to BP’s top executive officers in London. One can only imagine the exchanges that went on behind those closed doors - but the result was a $25 million “gift” from BP to LACMA and Govan’s pledge to name the museum’s new entry way, “The BP Grand Entrance.” The Times quoted Govan as saying “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy…. We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Mr. Govan is undeniably a sophisticated fellow who appreciates the mechanisms of wealth and power in our globalized society, but it is entirely out of the question that he is ignorant of the controversies surrounding BP - one of the world’s most rapacious oil companies. Even the briefest exploration of BP’s dismal record will turn up enough facts so as to throw serious doubt upon Govan’s sincerity and credibility - yet he persists in singing the praises of BP, the “sustainable energy” giant. Here we must consider the likelihood that a high-powered PR firm is coaching Govan’s public statements. In the meantime, read what some critics have to say about BP - Mr. Govan’s new found friends in the oil industry.

LACMA - BP logo

[ LACMA - BP logo. Published in an official March 6, 2007, LACMA press release announcing the oil giant’s "gift" to the museum. ]

Green Logo, but BP Is Old Oil. - By Joe Nocera. August 12, 2006. (New York Times) “Yet at its core, BP remains an oil company, and no matter how much it says it wants to create more environmentally sensitive sources of energy, its basic task is still to stick holes in the ground in search of hydrocarbons.”

Behind the spin, the oil giants are more dangerous than ever. - By George Monbiot. Tuesday June 13, 2006. (The Guardian) “The green rebranding of Shell and BP is a fraud. Far from switching to biofuels, it’s drilling and devastation as usual (…) BP’s rebranding, like Shell’s, has been so effective that you could be forgiven for believing that it had become an environmental pressure group. These companies have used the vast profits from their petroleum business to create the impression that they are abandoning it.”

Oil Slicks: BP’s new eco-friendly ad campaign makes no sense. - By Daniel Gross. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002. ( “If our kids should be so fortunate as to live in a world beyond petroleum, one in which cars, factories, and electricity plants are powered by an alternative power source-hydrogen, fuel cells, electric batteries, ethanol, fission, or fairy dust-it’s a virtual certainty BP won’t be the one to get us there.”

Report slams BP, cites organization, safety deficiencies. - By Edward Iwata. Tue, March 20th, 2007. (USA TODAY) “A federal report Tuesday blasted energy giant BP for sweeping ‘organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels’ that led to the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 and injured 180. In its largest investigation ever, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found in a 335-page report that 25% budget cuts at BP’s plants, including Texas City, ‘left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe.’ (….) ‘After the 2005 disaster, OSHA fined BP $21 million - its largest penalty in history - for 300 safety violations.

BP chief fields barrage of questions on ethics. - By Andrew Clark. Friday April 20, 2001. (The Guardian) “5% of investors voted for BP to withdraw from its shareholding in Beijing-controlled PetroChina (….) PetroChina is planning to build an oil pipeline through Tibet. Opponents, including the Dalai Lama, say this threatens local culture and will lead to large-scale population transfer (….) The International Campaign for Tibet, suggested BP’s new slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’ should be changed to ‘Beijing’s Partners’or ‘Backing Persecution’. He said BP was ‘utilizing every arcane and legalistic tool to stifle debate on the matter.’”

LACMA: Broad, Beuys, & BP

Eli Broad is ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion dollars. Touted as a philanthropist interested in raising the cultural profile of Los Angeles, Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”), has been busy putting his stamp on L.A. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is currently a powerful trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where his $60 million “gift” will build The Broad Contemporary Art Museum to house his massive collection of modern art.

The Broad Art Foundation has made known its unparalleled acquisition of 570 artworks by German artist, Joseph Beuys (pronounced “boyz”). The huge collection was procured for an undisclosed sum, and comprises the most complete body of work by the deceased artist now held in the United States. Eli Broad said of his purchase, “We consider this an opportunity to make a real difference in Los Angeles’ emergence as a world capital for contemporary art. An artist as significant as Beuys should be strongly represented here.” LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, has promised that the works of Beuys will be placed on exhibit when the museum unveils its new multi-million dollar facilities in early February, 2008. Govan said “Beuys is one of the most important artists of the post-war era,” and “therefore ideal to present at the opening of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.”

I must admit that I’m not a devotee of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He is credited by enthusiasts of postmodernism as one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, but to me his performances or “actions” as he called them, were obscurantist affairs at best - and his installation works were equally baffling. For example, in his infamous 1965 performance/action, How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Beuys covered his head in honey and gold leaf and moped before a live audience while carrying a dead hare through an exhibit of pictures - all the while talking to the lifeless animal. However, unlike many of today’s conceptualists, Beuys believed in art as a catalyst for revolutionary change. This dedication to a transformative social art was a primary force behind the artist’s performances and artistic activities. In his 1973 statement, Art into Society, Society into Art, Beuys wrote;

“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art, to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A Social Organism as a work of art’… every human being is an artist, who - from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions of the total art work of the future social order.”

In 1979 his intense interest in radical democracy led Beuys to found the Green Party along with Petra Kelly and Heinrich Böll. That same year Beuys ran for election as a Green Party European Parliament candidate - an election that the left-wing environmentalist party failed to win. In 1980 Beuys was the leading candidate for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia, but again the party failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. Those setbacks notwithstanding, Beuys continued to support the Green Party and the vision of a “free democratic socialism.” In 1982 Beuys began his 7000 Oaks project for the Documenta 7 international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The endeavor involved the planting of seven thousand trees across the city of Kassel, a deed aimed at implementing social and environmental change. Beuys fervently believed in art as the key to creating a better world, and he viewed society itself as a constantly evolving work of art where everyone played a creative role - hence his famous statement, “Everyone is an artist.”

Green Party election poster designed by Joseph Beuys

[ Election Poster for the Green Party - Designed by Joseph Beuys, 1979-1980. The legend reads: "With this choice, the Green Party." ]

You just have to marvel over the contradiction of an elite art institution flaunting the artworks of an anti-capitalist, radical environmentalist artist. Beuys once said, “We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism.” Once the new LACMA opens in 2008, in order to see the Beuys collection in The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, you’ll have to walk through that damned “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion - constructed with the $25 million the oil company gave LACMA. It’s not difficult to imagine what the former Green Party candidate would think of this folly - and what he might do if still alive today. In 1985, just a year before his death, Beuys wrote the words that should be emblazoned on the walls of the BP pavilion;

“Art that can not shape society and therefore also can not penetrate the heart questions of society - and in the end influence the question of capital - is no art.”

LACMA: The Oil Museum

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), after receiving $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company BP (British Petroleum), plans to dedicate a new entry gate and pavilion to the energy Goliath. To be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”, the construction is nothing more than an edifice to big oil and the clearest example yet of the increasing corporatization of the arts in America.

Historically, the largesse of wealthy benefactors has always played a role in the arts, with the names of well-heeled patrons gracing museum wings and collections. But there is something unseemly about naming part of an art museum after a transnational oil conglomerate - especially when considering the increasingly toxic role of oil companies in today’s world. President of BP America, Bob Malone, said the donation represents the energy giant’s “commitment to the arts” - but scrutiny of the oil-smeared endowment reveals a public relations campaign designed to erase public memory of BP’s dirty doings.

Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop

[ Aerial view of the model for a proposed new LACMA. Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop. Red dot: LACMA West - the former May Company building at Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. Yellow dot: Location for the so-called "BP Grand Entrance" - a massive entry pavilion devoted to the power and glory of big oil. Blue dot: Japanese Pavillion. Green dot: La Brea Tar Pits. In between the yellow and blue dots, current museum facilities are to be completely renovated. ]

BP’s contribution will go towards a costly three-part expansion and renovation of LACMA’s facilities. The oil leviathan’s cash has swollen the money available for the first phase construction to $191 million. Italian architect Renzo Piano has won the commission to redesign and unify LACMA’s expansive site. Billionaire Eli Broad and his wife Edythe gave $60 million to the overhaul project. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to be built just west of the “BP Grand Entrance”, will connect to LACMA’s existing main wing and will house Eli Broad’s collection of modern art. The new LACMA and its edifice to the petroleum industry, is scheduled to open February of 2008.

In a March 6th article on the oil company’s “gift” to LACMA, the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Putting an oil company’s name on LACMA’s doorway brings an unusually high potential for controversy.” Indeed - and here comes the controversy! Despite the endless and well-financed public relations spin concerning BP’s alleged “commitment to sustainable energy”, the fact of the matter is that BP is part of the “OILigarchy” - the rapacious fossil fuel industry responsible for global warming and massive environmental destruction. BP reported profits of $22 billion in 2006, and the company currently has an ongoing commitment to increase its oil production by 5% - a policy that must be linked to the very real crisis of fossil fuel-induced climate change.

Photo by Gary Leonard

[ The "BP Grand Entrance" under construction. Photo by Gary Leonard. ]

BP invests less than 1% of its annual budget in solar and other renewable energy sources - a smaller amount than it spends yearly on public relations and advertising. That fact must be kept in mind, as the “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion will be topped by solar panels allegedly there to help fill LACMA’s energy needs. However, the real task of the solar panels is a propagandistic one. BP wishes to pawn itself off as a green energy company, and LACMA - for a price - is only too happy to collude.

As the L.A. Times noted in its March 6th article, BP has paid more than $125 million in legal settlements in the State of California since 2002. Quoting the L.A. Times article, “BP paid the state $45.8 million to settle a suit over pollution from leaking gasoline storage tanks. Later, air quality regulators sued over leakage of smog-forming chemicals at BP’s Carson refinery. BP settled for $81 million.”

In 2005, BP’s Texas City Refinery exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. U.S. government agencies investigating the blast found that BP’s excessive safety and budget cuts had led to the tragedy. More than 1,700 lawsuits have been filed by injured workers, with some 1,200 claims being settled out of court by BP in order to avoid bad publicity. The oil company has set aside $1.6 billion dollars to settle cases out of court. In the wake of the explosion in Texas, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), opened investigations into two of BP’s Midwestern refineries, finding the oil giant guilty of violating 39 safety regulations. OSHA issued penalty citations totaling $2.4 million dollars - BP hopes to settle out of court.

In 2006 BP was forced to shut down half of its oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, when the company’s worn-out, corroded pipelines began to leak - dumping an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude oil onto Alaskan tundra. On March 6th, 2007, Reuters reported that “Oil major BP’s failure to maintain pipelines properly at its giant Prudhoe Bay field was a major factor behind Alaska’s worst-ever onshore crude spill last year.” In that same report Reuters interviewed Thomas Barret, the head of the U.S. Department of Transport (one of the U.S. government agencies investigating the spill), who said; “What was most unusual was to have an operator like BP not maintaining these pipelines to the standards we typically see in the industry.”

BP is behind the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline - the second longest pipeline in the world - transporting crude oil from fields in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline runs across the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, all of which are conflict zones with notorious human rights records. BP has signed “production-sharing agreements” with the three host governments, neo-colonial contracts that bypass respective national environmental and social laws and place the overwhelming majority of profits in the hands of BP and its partners.

And speaking of oil pipelines in conflict zones, in 2006 BP secretively paid out a multi-million dollar settlement to Columbian farmers who were terrorized by right-wing death squads “protecting” BP’s 500-mile long Ocensa oil pipeline. A thousand poor Columbian farmers filed a human rights challenge in the High Court of London, charging BP with benefiting from the bullying and persecution meted out by the rightist militias. A Columbian lawyer attempting to assist the farmers discovered she was on a paramilitary death list, and fled to Britain where she was granted political asylum. While the total compensation paid to the farmers is unknown, it is believed to have totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. Part of the settlement stipulated BP would bear “no admission of liability” for the beatings, death threats, and property damage suffered by the farmers.

Of course BP has a long history in the Middle East, where seventy percent of the world’s oil reserves are found. Western powers thirsty for petroleum and a need to control the region’s black gold have historically resorted to colonialism, the backing of dictatorships, the proliferation of weapons, and as we see today in Iraq - outright war and occupation.

During the first week of March, 2007, the Anglo-American backed government of Iraq, approved a draft law that will essentially turn over Iraq’s oil wealth to American and British companies. The Iraqi oil legislation bill promotes a “production-sharing agreement” that would guarantee foreign companies up to 70 percent of the revenues obtained from exploiting Iraqi oil, giving U.S. and British oil companies the unrestricted right to take oil profits out of the country, rather than reinvesting them in Iraq. The lion’s share of Iraq oil profits will therefore go to Shell, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and yes - BP. The draft law still needs final Iraqi government approval before it can be enacted, but with U.S. and British military might keeping the Iraqi government in power - passage is sure to be a “done deal.”

The roots of BP’s meddling in the Middle East go back to 1909. In that year, through an agreement with the Shah of Iran, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) began to exploit the oil resources of Persia, obtaining petroleum that fed the British war machine during World War 1. In 1936 Persia was renamed Iran, and APOC became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In 1951 the Iranian parliament passed a bill that nationalized the oil industry, effectively barring British exploitation of Iranian petroleum and causing the Shah - and AIOC - to flee the country. The British then colluded with the U.S. and the C.I.A. to organize the infamous coup that overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and his democratically elected government. On August 19th, 1953, Mossadeq was driven from power, the pro-Western Shah was restored, and in 1954 AIOC became known as The British Petroleum Company (BP) - which of course immediately resumed pumping oil out of Iran.

Credited with such a laundry list of misdeeds, it is not surprising that others have taken notice of BP’s destructive schemes, and have called for resistance to big oil’s sponsorship of the arts. The National Portrait Gallery of London, England, was established in 1856, and it’s the repository for some of that nation’s greatest historic portraits. The gallery holds an annual portrait competition that has launched the careers of several portrait artists. Since 2004 the celebrated competition has been sponsored by none other than BP, and the competition is now known as the “BP Portrait Award.”

In response, English artists and environmental activists started a group called, Art Not Oil, which seeks to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts. The group’s mission statement encourages “artists to create work that explores the damage that companies like BP and Shell are doing to the planet, and the role art can play in counteracting that damage.” The misconduct of BP and other oil companies is continually and determinedly exposed through the art exhibits, educational forums and public protests mounted by the artist activists of Art Not Oil. It is unquestionably time to establish a similar organization in Los Angeles - either that or get used to calling LACMA - The Oil Museum.

[ UPDATE: Art critic Walter Robinson at picked up the LACMA/BP story in a March 16th, 2007, Artnet News article titled Stink over BP deal with LACMA.]