Category: Michael Govan

Spiral Jetty, Big Oil, & LACMA

Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson

[ Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson. 1970. The famous earthwork construction in Utah imperiled by oil drilling. ]


A story by Kirk Johnson titled Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah, appeared in the March 27th edition of the New York Times. The article details how oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake of Utah may threaten Spiral Jetty, the famous earthwork construction created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. Quoting the NYT’s piece:

“A fierce debate, with equal parts art, environmentalism and economics, has erupted over a plan by the state to allow oil drilling about five miles across the lake. The owner of ‘Spiral Jetty,’ the Dia Art Foundation in New York, in an alliance with a conservation group called Friends of Great Salt Lake, says the oil rigs would harm the work’s aesthetic experience. Led by their drumbeat of protest, more than 3,000 e-mail messages, mostly against the drilling plan, were received by the state during a public comment period last month. A decision by the state about whether to let the drilling go forward is expected in April.”

But it’s not just concern over Smithson’s artwork that has made oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake a hot button issue. Environmentalist groups like The Nature Conservatory explain that the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands “provide important nesting and foraging habitat for over 250 species of birds.” In fact the lake is a critical stopover for some six million migrating birds that fly annually from North to South America. Eco-tourists have been flocking to the lake for some of the best bird watching in the United States. It’s difficult to believe that oil drilling will not have a negative impact upon the migratory bird population and the associated booming eco-tourist industry.

The Friends of Great Salt Lake have spearheaded the resistance to the proposed oil drilling by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, LTD., and the environmental group elicited the help of Mr. Smithson’s widow, artist Nancy Holt, who wrote an appeal to action that resulted in the State of Utah receiving over 3,000 letters protesting the anticipated oil drilling. I too am opposed to the despoiling of the Great Salt Lake area by the oil industry, and I have nothing but admiration for the coalition of art enthusiasts and environmentalists who, through democratic grass roots activism, have stood up to defend Smithson’s artwork as well as the Great Salt Lake environs.

It is interesting to note that the Dia Art Foundation of New York City, which is one of the major organizations opposed to the oil drilling, had Michael Govan as its President and Director from 1994 to 2006. Govan left the foundation in ‘06 to become the Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). One of his first moves as Director of LACMA was to broker a funding arrangement between the museum and BP (British Petroleum). The oil giant agreed to make a “gift” of $25 million dollars to LACMA, and in return the museum’s new entry gate would be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”.

In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times Mr. Govan justified taking BP’s money by saying, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy”, a statement rendered ludicrous by a recent news report published by MSN Money on March 26, 2008. Titled Oil giant backs off green push, reporter Michael Brush’s article draws attention to the fact that BP’s “energy production declined 3% in 2007, and operating profits were down 6.4%”, which has “brought growing pressure from analysts to build oil reserves fast.” As a result BP is beginning to tap Canada’s oil sands, vast tracts of land in Alberta and Saskatchewan that contain a “hydrocarbon-rich mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay” (….) These huge deposits give Canada the second-largest petroleum holdings in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia.”

As the MSN Money report points out, “producing oil from tar sands requires so much energy that it creates three to five times as much carbon dioxide as production from wells.” The extraction process “requires roads and pipelines that slice up forests - a huge impact on the local ecosystem.” And “production of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide linked to mining tar sands has caused a spike in acid rain in Western Canada.”

Commenting on BP’s move to extract oil from Canadian sand, Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council is quoted in the MSN Money article as having said, “There was this one shining moment where they (BP) looked like they were going to be the good guys, and they’ve just rapidly moved away from it. (….) This is an issue of how they portray themselves in the media compared to what they are doing to impact the rest of the world. They could live up to the image they portray. But they chose not to.” LACMA’s Michael Govan should pay attention to those words and return the $25 million he accepted from BP.

Federal Agents Raid California Museums

On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Agents also conducted a raid on the Silk Roads Gallery of L.A. Looking for stolen antiquities smuggled out of China, Thailand, Myanmar, and pilfered from Native American sites, dozens of Federal agents blocked entry to the museums, serving warrants to museum officials that authorized searches of museum computer archives and records, as well as offices, storage spaces and galleries.

The raids were part of an ongoing, five-year long, Federal undercover investigation into an alleged smuggling ring that sought to profit from stolen artifacts. The Feds contend that a smuggler supplied the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery with looted antiquities, the gallery owners would then sell the works to clients who knew the objects were stolen - providing the dishonest buyers with exaggerated appraisals of worth. The payback came when the gallery owners arranged to have the purchased artworks donated to museums - with the thieves enjoying the inflated tax deductions made for the “gifts.” Unbeknownst to the gallery owners, a “client” they were selling stolen objects to was an undercover Federal agent.

The New York Times called the raids and the investigation they sprang from, “a startling development”, and the Los Angeles Times reported the raids “suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than recent high-profile scandals have indicated.” The paper also mentioned “the warrants served Thursday show prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes.”

LACMA director Michael Govan, held a news conference after the raids to affirm the museum’s complete cooperation with the Federal authorities. Govan admitted LACMA had “about 60 objects” in its collection that are related to the ongoing investigation, but according to the New York Times, “he also defended the museum’s process for reviewing potential donations.” Seems that process is in need of a slight tune up. It looks like a season of calamity has descended upon Mr. Govan. The Federal investigation, combined with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad deciding to keep his massive modern art collection instead of bequeathing it to LACMA, is most likely not the “Happy New Year” the museum director was looking forward to.

Meanwhile, the Federal investigation of the smuggling ring has expanded. In a Jan. 29th article titled “Federal probe of stolen art goes national”, Los Angeles Times staff reporters Jason Felch and Mike Boehm wrote that, “the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.”

Another Oil Slick at LACMA

In March of this year I wrote an exposé that uncovered the relationship between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the multinational oil company, BP (British Petroleum). LACMA is expanding and renovating its facilities, and it has taken $25 million dollars from BP as a “gift” towards the projected cost of the reconstruction, which is $191 million. The payoff is that LACMA will dedicate its massive new entrance gate to the oil giant, calling it - the “BP Grand Entrance.” It was the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, Michael Govan, who actively sought the financial support of BP, saying in a Los Angeles Times interview, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” The President of Houston-based BP America, Bob Malone, said the oil giant’s donation represented a “commitment to the arts.”

On October 25th, 2007, international news media reported that BP agreed to pay a whopping $373 million in an out of court settlement designed to stop U.S. Justice Department criminal indictments against the global energy giant’s law-breaking in the United States. Essentially the settlement stipulates that BP must pay for damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the company be placed on probation by the Justice Department for a period of three years. The federal government will continue extensive investigations into the energy company’s wrongdoings, and the Justice Department has made it clear that BP is “not beyond prosecution” when it comes to further possible charges. The Associated Press quoted Acting Attorney General, Peter Keisler, saying; “Obviously, the actions we’re responding to today reflect that there were some very serious problems within the company.”

Federal investigators have charged BP with a number of crimes; inflating the price of propane gas and overcharging U.S. consumers millions of dollars - ignoring government safety standards, leading to an enormous explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery plant that took the lives of 15 workers and injured 170 others - and ignoring government warnings which lead to a spill of 201,000 gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the nation’s largest oil field.

According to the deal with the U.S. Justice Department, BP must pay $303.5 million in punitive fines for conspiring to fix propane prices in 2003 and 2004. They are also required to pay a $50 million fine and plead guilty to a felony for the explosion at their Texas refinery, and BP must also pay $20 million in criminal fines for their oil pipeline leaks in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ABC News quoted Granta Nakayama of the Environmental Protection Agency as saying; “BP committed serious environmental crimes in our two largest states - with terrible consequences for people and the environment.”

BP America president, Bob Malone, said of the deal with the Justice Department; “These agreements are an admission that, in these instances, our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law - for that, we apologize.” Perhaps those are the very words that should be chiseled into the “BP Grand Entrance” that LACMA Director Michael Govan is having constructed for the museum. And speaking of apologies - when will Govan express regret for turning LACMA’s good name and cherished art treasures into a public relations vehicle for BP? When will Govan return the $25 million dollars BP donated to LACMA? - a “gift” that was nothing more than the oil giant’s attempt to “greenwash” its reputation?

Rep. John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, disapproved of the lenient fines BP must pay regarding the Texas refinery charge. The good Senator from Michigan said; “I note with curiosity that when an average citizen commits a felony it usually leads to a prison sentence. Yet, apparently, when a big oil company commits a felony that causes 15 deaths, it pays a criminal penalty equal to less than a day’s corporate profits.” To the Senator’s penetrating remark, I can only add - “And then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will construct a new building named in honor of the corporate criminal.”

Proposed architectural design for the BP Grand Entrance at LACMA.

[ Illustration for my proposed architectural design for the "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA. My project calls for a monumental archway constructed of clear plastic - which of course is made from petroleum. The portico will encase a 200 ft. tall functioning oil derrick that actually pumps oil. Every hour on the hour, the derrick will spout a geyser of crude.]

[UPDATE: Smithsonian Balks over Oil Money - It’s instructive to note that LACMA has enthusiastically taken money from BP, while the nation’s prestigious Smithsonian Institution recently shelved plans to accept $5 million from the American Petroleum Institute - the national trade association representing some 400 companies in the oil and natural gas industry. In a Nov. 13, 2007, article titled Smithsonian Questions $5 Million In Oil Money, the Washington Post reported that: "The Smithsonian Institution has taken the rare step of putting on hold a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute after two members of the museum complex's Board of Regents, including a U.S. senator, balked at accepting oil-industry money for a major initiative on the world's oceans." Chairman of the regents’ executive committee, Roger Sant, a businessman who made his millions as an energy industry executive, told the Post: "I think it is in everyone’s mind that oceans and oil are not consistent." Well… almost everyone - apparently LACMA’s Director, Michael Govan, and the museum’s board of directors, haven’t heard that oil and water don’t mix.

On Nov. 17, 2007, the Washington Post reported that the American Petroleum Institute withdrew its funding to the Smithsonian in a tersely worded one sentence letter that simply read: "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that API is rescinding the Aug. 29, 2007, offer of financial support for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Ocean Initiative, effective immediately." ]

LACMA & the Spin Doctors from Hell

I’m not sure just when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the services of the high-powered public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. (H&K), but I first noticed the PR firm’s name included as a media contact on an official LACMA press release dated Feb. 3, 2006. The announcement was for the appointment of Michael Govan as the museum’s new Director and Chief Executive Officer (see the .pdf file.) When LACMA made known on March 6, 2007, that oil giant BP had given $25 million to the museum - LACMA’s official press release again included H&K as a media contact (.pdf file.)

[Update: LACMA has removed the above cited .pdf documents from their press release archive. However, one document from their online public records, the .pdf file titled LACMA Special Events, clearly lists Hill and Knowlton under the museum's "Partial Client List" on page four. The original Feb. 3., 2006 press release regarding Michael Govan having become director of LACMA was replaced with an updated bio on Sept. 30, 2010 which makes no mention of Govan having struck a $25 million funding deal with oil giant BP, nor of Govan agreeing to christen the newly constructed museum entry way, "The BP Grand Entrance."]

I have absolutely no objections to LACMA using a PR firm to effectively promote itself, nor would I criticize an individual for doing the same - but Hill and Knowlton, Inc. has a long and controversial roster of clients that I think readers of my web log should be aware of. A leading public relations corporation, H&K has 71 offices in 40 countries, with specialists in “crisis & issues management” as well as the oil and petrochemical industry. After reading some of the following, you may wonder what on earth has been going on behind closed doors at LACMA’s board of directors meetings.

Hill and Knowlton, Inc. became infamous over its dealings with the tobacco industry in the 1950s. In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice finally sued the tobacco industry for $280 billion in damages, arguing that in 1953, the five major cigarette manufacturers met with “public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.” In August of 2006, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking - however, the judge did not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government (the case is currently being appealed.)

Lord of the lies; how Hill and Knowlton’s Robert Gray pulls Washington’s strings, written by Susan B. Trento and published by the Washington Monthly in Sept, 1992, detailed much of the PR firm’s skullduggery under the chairmanship of Gray. Trento wrote that for 30 years, Hill and Knowlton, “set a standard - not a particularly high one for what Washington lobbying can get away with (….) Whether the client was Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier or the Church of Scientology, the only criterion was that the client paid - and paid well.” Sheila Tate, a former H&K employee and later Nancy Reagan’s press secretary, described the PR firm as a “company without a moral rudder” for its controversial client list.

The Center for Public Integrity published a 1992 report titled, The Torturers’ Lobby, describing the use of PR firms by repressive regimes (view in .pdf or html.) Hill and Knowlton, Inc. topped the list of earnings, making $14 million in one year by representing governments that abuse human rights like China, Indonesia, Egypt, Peru, and Turkey. Human Rights groups have long condemned Turkey for abusing its citizens of Kurdish origin, but the center’s report stated that H&K earned $1.2 million from Turkey between 1991-1992. H&K even took the Chinese government as a client soon after its massacre of dissidents at Tiananmen Square in 1989 (source: Human Rights in China website - .pdf.) In May of 2005, Agence France-Presse reported that H&K signed a $600,000 contract with the government of Uganda, to “improve Uganda’s stained reputation as a human rights abuser and democracy laggard.”

In December of 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked 40 tons of lethal gas over the city, in what was to become the world’s worst industrial disaster. Some 8,000 people died in the first few days, and approximately 20,000 are believed to have perished in the aftermath. Today over 120,000 people in Bhopal continue to suffer health problems as a result of the disaster - blindness, cancer, serious birth-defects, and other ailments. A proper clean up of the plant and its environs has never taken place, and in Nov., 2004, the BBC reported that thousands of tons of toxic chemicals are still loose on the ground or held in open containers. Hill & Knowlton, Inc. handled Union Carbide’s PR troubles during the disaster, and H&K’s Executive Vice President, Richard C. Hyde, lead the “crisis management” team that assisted Union Carbide.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is currently the public relations firm for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the organization that represents the nuclear power industry. In a February 6th, 2006, Wall Street Journal article titled, Nuclear Industry Plans Ad Push For New Plants (Sub req’d), the paper reported that the “nation’s nuclear-power industry is set to roll out a multiyear advertising campaign to build public support for a generation of new plants” - and the ad campaign which promotes a “nuclear renaissance” is run by H&K. In a June 2006 editorial, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the PR firm helped the NEI form the so-called “Clean and Safe Energy Coalition,” a front group that would sing the praises of nuclear energy for the corporate media. The Review wrote, “We just find it maddening that Hill & Knowlton, which has an $8 million account with the nuclear industry, should have such an easy time working the press.” That multi-million dollar contract stipulates “pre-empting and offsetting criticism from opponents.”

While we’re on the subject - when the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a partial core meltdown on March 28th, 1979, it was Hill & Knowlton, Inc. executive, Robert Dilenschneider, who was brought in to handle PR for the plant’s operators, Metropolitan Edison.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is probably most notorious for its work with the government of Kuwait in organizing and running the propaganda campaign aimed at getting the U.S. public to support military action against Iraq. On August 2nd, 1990, Saddam Hussein began Iraq’s invasion and 7 month-long occupation of neighboring Kuwait. Within a few days the Iraqis had completely overrun the Kuwaiti Armed Forces, and with more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 700 tanks on Kuwait’s territory, the Kuwaiti Royal Family escaped to next door Saudi Arabia.

From exile the Kuwaiti government would employ as many as 20 PR firms in its campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion (source: O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991 - “H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause.”) But the Kuwaitis would ultimately pay $10.8 million to H&K for a massive media blitz. On October 10, 1990, H&K orchestrated the appearance of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington. The youngster wept as she told of her harrowing experience in occupied Kuwait City. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

After Nayirah’s emotional testimony, President George H.W. Bush quoted her many times in addresses to the American people. For instance, at a Nov. 1st., 1990 Republican rally in Massachusetts, he said of the Iraqi invaders, “They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism. In one hospital, they pulled 22 premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.” At an Oct. 16th, 1990, fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, he said of the Iraqi occupiers, “I don’t mean to be overly shocking here - but let me just mention some reports, firsthand reports. At a hospital, Iraqi soldiers unplugged the oxygen to incubators supporting 22 premature babies. They all died. And then they shot the hospital employees.” A number of Senators also used Nayirah’s testimony in the same way, and the shocking story was repeated innumerable times in radio, television, and newspaper reports.

After the war, investigations found absolutely no evidence to support the incubator claims. As it turned out, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and her father was Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir Al-Sabah. The youngster never worked at the al-Addan hospital and under no circumstances had been witness to the butchery she recounted. Nayirah’s story was completely fabricated, and H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached the teenager in false testimony.

The record of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. as a dodgy and immoral PR firm is extensive, and itemizing their misconduct and crimes is beyond the scope of this web log. The facts I’ve researched and presented here are public knowledge - one can only imagine the skeletons in the closet. If you take the time to conduct your own research, you’ll find information on many other controversies surrounding H&K. In 1983 it managed PR for the building materials manufacturers, U.S. Gypsum, aimed at downplaying the connection between asbestos and health problems. The firm took an estimated $5 million from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990 to wage an anti-abortion PR campaign. In 2004 H&K began working with Wal-Mart in order to rehabilitate the image of the Union busting retail company. The larger question is, why did LACMA take into service a high-powered corporate PR firm so tainted with unseemliness?

Conceivably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in employing Hill and Knowlton, Inc. merely wanted to increase its profile with the general public. Or perhaps, realizing that their relationship with a major oil company would be seen as a liability, the vaunted arts institution decided to implement damage control - my suspicions point to the latter. What LACMA might be paying H&K for its services is not public knowledge, but the PR firm does not come cheap. Likewise, while it’s not known exactly what H&K is doing for LACMA, insiders in the lobbying and public relations industry have a saying, “the best PR is invisible.”

So the next time you’re exposed to a radio spot, television news segment, magazine article, or glowing press review extolling LACMA and its big oil benefactor, you might be consuming propaganda from hired guns Hill and Knowlton, Inc. When you read that Michael Govan, the director and CEO of LACMA, praised oil giant BP for “their commitment to sustainable energy,” you may have the feeling he was coached by the PR firm - and you just might be right.