Seven years ago last month, when Michael Govan was named the sixth director in the relatively brief history of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his mandate was clear: overhaul the place.
The ambitious plan was to make LACMA the nation's only general-interest art museum to feature a major program in the rambunctious field of Modern and contemporary art.
Why? The place of the new amid the old was contentious from the institution's start, as it has been for every encyclopedic museum that collects art from nearly every global civilization in recorded human history. But history is dynamic, not static. The singular goal on Wilshire Boulevard has been to use what artists make now to frame what artists made in the high plateaus of ancient Mexico, the painting studios of 17th century Holland or the shogun-era workshops of Japan.
That transformation is a work in progress. It mostly adds up, however, on the plus side of the ledger — with at least one indispensable element, which we'll get to in a moment, left largely unfulfilled.
LACMA's first phase unfolded after the museum opened in 1965 — a nanosecond in the world of art museums, whose European origins date back hundreds of years. It represented an ambitious if frankly impossible dream: Starting virtually from scratch, build an L.A. variant on New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation's greatest assembly of world art dating from before the Modern era.
John Walker, the late director of Washington's National Gallery of Art, also sat on LACMA's board in the early years, and he explained the ambition. "Of course, the Met has a 100-year advantage," he told The Times in 1969. "But I believe Los Angeles to have the financial resources and the civic enthusiasm to build a great general collection [from] AD 1200 to our own time."
It was a promise that could not be fully kept, given the late start. But the notion of a "West Coast Met" did possess the virtue of audacity.
The result has been the growth of an encyclopedic art collection with numerous areas of remarkable strength — pre-Columbian funerary art from western Mexico, Dutch Golden Age paintings, Edo-period Japanese screens and scrolls, 20th century German Expressionism and more. The overall quality is in fact far better than occasional visitors might assume.
And LACMA no longer stands alone in the city. The Getty and the Huntington were modest or sleepy outposts when it started, while the Norton Simon, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer didn't exist. All five are now museums of national or international stature. The proliferation has taken a bit of pressure off LACMA to be all things to all people.
Still, if Met-style encyclopedic depth was a pipe dream, wasn't LACMA destined to be a perpetual also-ran?
Enter LACMA 2.0, designed to change the terms of the debate. "You can never be the Met," Govan told The Times shortly before moving here in April 2006. "You can't go back and get those artworks. Even the Getty can't." But other possibilities abound. Take a walk around the museum's 23-acre campus, and dramatic change is everywhere you look.
Permanent outdoor commissions, endlessly photographed, have drawn fanfare.
Chris Burden's imposing "Urban Light," a glowing car-culture temple constructed from mothballed city streetlights, is a virtual civic symbol. Robert Irwin's magnificent "Palm Garden," hugging several buildings at the site, merges a heavy industrial grid of Cor-Ten steel walls with a collection of primordial trees evoking the prehistoric La Brea Tar Pits nearby. Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" became an international media star last year — a 340-ton granite boulder hauled by flatbed truck from the Inland Empire to balance atop a concrete channel cut deep into a barren desert expanse inserted along 6th Street.
Yet more change is found indoors.
Nearly all the permanent collection galleries in the Ahmanson and Hammer buildings have been reinstalled in handsome rooms of uniformly minimalist design; the ornamental Beaux Arts style of typical museums now merges with Midcentury Modern sleekness. L.A. artist Jorge Pardo fancifully redesigned the nearby pre-Columbian galleries. And as 2013 dawned, fully nine of 11 special exhibitions around the campus examined relatively recent art.
An enormous presentation of 206 Surrealist drawings began with the movement's origins in 1920s Paris and continued through the 1940s in Eastern Europe, Japan and the Americas. The first comprehensive show of its kind, it was the largest Surrealist drawing survey ever mounted at any museum.
Across the sidewalk in a second of LACMA's seven buildings, a big retrospective of sculptor Ken Price (1935-2012) secured the late L.A. artist's reputation as a major figure. The Price and Surrealist shows have closed, but an adjacent gallery houses a five-month presentation of a 2,000-piece sculpture by mercurial New York Conceptual artist Walter De Maria, on loan from a Swiss foundation.