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).
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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.”