Inside LACMA's plans to share its collection with a new Las Vegas museum: 'I'm a West Coast booster'

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan may be at the helm of an ambitious — and controversial — building project for the museum’s collection of 152,000-plus objects, but his views on what expansion means for art museums in modern times is more, well, expansive. Which explains a recent announcement that LACMA is partnering with the upcoming Las Vegas Museum of Art to share both expertise and, eventually, its collection.

But how exactly will that arrangement work? And why, asked some online commentators (including former Times art and design columnist Carolina A. Miranda), should L.A. County subsidize Clark County, Nev.?

In an interview with The Times, Govan emphasized that continual expansion along Wilshire Boulevard would yield diminishing returns. LACMA is instead developing a “strategic plan of regional partnerships” with museums — large and small — in order to pull more of its collection out of storage, and make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Rather than enlarging its physical footprint, LACMA aims to broaden its cultural reach, influence and presence in the West, and globally — a benign Manifest Destiny for the California visual arts scene.

“I think that’s a very 20th century idea — to keep adding wings until you’re a million square feet on Fifth Avenue,” Govan said. “The 21st century idea is that you build infrastructure in other communities, as well as deep, long-term relationships. That’s my paradigm shift.”

Las Vegas, with a metro area population of nearly 3 million, is one of the largest cities in the country without an art museum. So it was with great fanfare that the city revealed in December that it had approved an “exclusive negotiating agreement” with the Las Vegas Museum of Art to continue work on plans for a proposed 90,000-square-foot, three-story building in Symphony Park. The area is already established as the city’s cultural hot spot, and is home to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts — with regular performances by the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre — the Discovery Children’s Museum and the Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (Gehry is also under consideration to design the Vegas museum).

Heather Harmon, executive director of Las Vegas Museum of Art, says the museum is tentatively slated to open in 2028 and has established a campaign fundraising goal of $150 million, as well as plans for an endowment. One goal the museum does not currently have, however, is to become a collecting institution, which is why Harmon says that LACMA’s cooperation is crucial to its early success — and why Govan says the museum will not pose as any competition to LACMA, which is the largest art museum in the West.

Govan and Wynn Resorts co-founder Elaine Wynn sit on both the Vegas museum and LACMA boards. Govan does not expect any conflicts of interest to arise, and points out that many arts leaders occupy multiple board seats across the city and the country. Wynn, who is a LACMA board co-chair, has already given LACMA $50 million — one of the largest single gifts in LACMA’s history — Govan notes, adding that he doesn’t know how much more the L.A. community can expect from the philanthropist.

“We’re thrilled when gifts come to LACMA, we’re thrilled when gifts come to Las Vegas,” Govan said. “It’s unlikely that there would be somebody who would be deciding between the two.”

Govan says criticism that the arrangement boils down to L.A. County shoring up Clark County is misguided.

“There’s no subsidy, it’s the opposite,” he said. “If I’m [urging] somebody to give us a work of art, they’re asking where we’re going to use it. The more regional partners I have, the more likely they are to give work to LACMA. So it is a definite benefit in that sense because I’ve already tested it. People love the idea.”

He also says that L.A. County money, which represents only 20% of what LACMA spends in a year — the rest is private funding — won’t be going to Las Vegas.

“And just to be clear — all our exhibitions, all the contracts, they’re not with L.A. County, they’re with Museum Associates, the private 501(c)(3),” he adds.

Both institutions will decide what exhibitions will travel to Las Vegas in a process expected to unfold organically as the collaboration develops, Govan and Harmon say. Because the museums are relatively close in proximity, Govan hopes the shows can travel in electric vehicles to reduce the carbon footprint of the exchange. He says it’s possible that themed permanent collection shows — the kind that are supposed to be slated for the new David Geffen Galleries, which are heading toward a fundraising goal of $800 million, could travel to Vegas, as well as any number of shows reliant on the permanent collection and free of excessive outside loans. “Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond,” “Kimono for a Modern Age,” the museum’s Robert Mapplethorpe collection or its collection of California photography could go.

Sharing fees have yet to be worked out but Govan stresses that the collaboration is not a profit-making endeavor. He says being connected to a sister city like Las Vegas displays a unique level of “sharing, innovation, friendliness and care.”

“The idea is to cover costs,” he says. “It’s a totally philanthropic enterprise to share with our communities.”

Harmon says the Las Vegas Museum of Art hopes to have three exhibition spaces that are constantly rotating so there is always something new on view for audiences.

“LACMA really makes this initiative possible. We’ll be able to borrow artwork and mount exhibitions, we’ll be able to adapt educational programs and really have the support of their extensive professional expertise,” she says. “That will really allow us to operate with shows from our inception.”

For Govan, the collaboration with Las Vegas Museum of Art is the natural next step in his 21st century-museum paradigm shift. This already includes a 2021 collaboration called Local Access, in which LACMA shares portions of its collection with Lancaster Museum of Art and History, Riverside Art Museum, Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College, and California State University, Northridge, Art Galleries. In addition, Govan says plans to open a museum in South Los Angeles, which stalled out during the pandemic, are slowly getting back on track. He also mentions LACMA’s collection-sharing efforts with Los Angeles Unified School District’s Charles White Elementary School and its exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Fair.

“I’m a West Coast booster,” Govan says. “I think there’s a big pride factor here. [Las Vegas Museum of Art] is a sign of real growth in culture in the West, but also that LACMA is extending the utility of our programs and becoming more efficient as a museum by thinking about regional partnerships.”

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