What is 70 feet long, suspended by a 160-foot-tall crane, and will cost an estimated $25 million dollars?—Jeff Koons’s Train, of course. The massive sculpture is now several years along in planning; its realization prolonged by several factors. The most retarding factor: the economy. When and if realized (a big “if”), Train will consist of a replica 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive hung on its end by a Liebherr LR 1750 lattice-boom crane. Twice a day the train’s engine will hum to life, pistons will churn, wheels will spin, and finally jets of steam will explode from the train’s stack , while its whistle screams. Considering its authorship and this suggestive action, it is easy to read Train as a giant orgasmic metaphor.
This sexy piece is commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It will hang over the museum courtyard, behind the BP Pavilion, next to the Broad Contemporary Art (BCAM) and Resnick Pavilion buildings. All of the buildings are recent additions to museum’s campus—part of LACMA’s multi-year, capital campaign called “Transformation.” This western portion of LACMA’s campus is the product of the creative leadership and powerful fundraising accumen of Michael Govan, Wallis Annenberg Director and CEO of LACMA.
Govan, having completed his first five years on the job at LACMA, recently signed another five-year contract, and earned him a $1 million bonus. If this seems like extortion, compare Govan’s salary to other high-profile museum director’s. Or, consider, Govan brought in $251 million in gifts during his first three years alone. He also increased museum attendance by 40% and helped acquire more than 12,000 objects for LACMA’s collection, despite the museum’s lack of a general acquisitions budget.
Govan was recruited to helm LACMA in 2006, little more than a year before BCAM opened. Almost immediately, Govan announced his ambitions plans for turning LACMA into what he called a “world-class institution.” A major part of these plans included bringing permanent installations of contemporary art, like Train, to LACMA. Other projects include Chris Burdens’ Urban Light (above), an installation of 202 vintage street lamps powered by solar energy; and Michael Hiezer’s Levitated Mass (below), a landwork involving a 340-ton monolith balancing over a 456-foot-long trench (opening fall 2011). Govan labeled Urban Light the “icon of the LACMA” and he describes Levitated Mass as “ultramodern” despite having “timeless, ancient overtones of cultures that moved monoliths, like the Egyptians, Syrians and Olmecs.”
Exciting, high-profile projects are Govan’s specialty. Before LACMA, Govan was director of the Dia Art Foundation. His major achievement there was the renovation of an old Nabisco factory in the Hudson River Valley, into Dia Beacon—a space capable of housing many large-scale contemporary art installations. Before Dia, Govan worked under the tutelage of Richard Armstrong at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and helped to develop the Guggenheim Bilbao. Govan’s professional history characterizes him as a builder with a taste for large-scale contemporary works. Train, which Govan said could be Los Angeles’s Eiffel Tower, would be another titanic project under Govan’s belt. Koons has said of Govan: “He bridges the impractical and the practical — bringing these vast or grand gestures into the world through his understanding of institutions and the support of businesspeople.” The other major party involved with this “gesture” is Koons.
Koons’s artwork is known to be expensive, known perhaps because it is expensive. In 2001, Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (above) sold at Sotheby’s for 5.6 million dollars—a record for a sculpture by a living artist. Koons won back this record (held shortly by Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) when his Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) (below left) sold for $23.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. Another work from Koons’s shiny “Celebration” series currently holds the record: Balloon Flower (Magenta) (below right) was purchased in 2008 at Christie’s for $25.8 million. Train is estimated to coast $25 million—of course, these estimates have a way of ballooning. It is highly possible Train could surpass Balloon Flower (Magenta), and become the most expensive Koons sculpture.
Koons has a limited history with public sculpture; his most well-known public work is Puppy, 1992 (below). The comically-giant sculpture of a West Highland terrier has been interpreted as apologetic for Koons’s earlier, “Made in Heaven” series. Puppy is as harmless a bouquet of pansies, which is what it is actually made of: soil and flowering plants woven into a steal armature with an irrigation system. Puppy was first shown in Kassel Germany for Documenta 9, and has also been shown in New York City at Rockefeller Square, in the Koons retrospective at Versailles, and is on permanent display at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao where it is part of the museum’s collection.
Koons’s other large-scale sculpture (which may be considered public art depending on context), includes work from Koons’s “Celebration” series. The series includes the previously mentioned Balloon Flower, and Hanging Heart, and also the Balloon Dog series. There are a total of five Balloon Dogs, all owned by billionaire art collectors. Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad owns Balloon Dog (Blue) (below), it has been on loan to LACMA for the past three years. Head of French luxury conglomerate PPR, Francois Pinault, owns Balloon Dog (Magenta), and has put it on public view at his Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Owner of Brant Publications, Peter Brant owns Balloon Dog (Orange) and lent it for a Koons retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Balloon Dog (Red) was shown at the Beyeler Foundation in 2012 (I wasn’t able to track its shadowy owner down). The final, Balloon Dog (Yellow) is owned by megacollector Steven Cohen; it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum for an exhibition in the summer of 2008.
Much of Koons public-art-scale work is in private hands (even if it is on public view in/frequently). Not only would Train be Koons’s largest sculpture, but it would be one of a few large-scale Koons in a non-profit collection. Even at the initial estimate of $25 million, Train would also be the most expensive sculpture ever commissioned by a museum. Train would surpass the $20 million the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao paid in 2005 for its Richard Serra sculpture group, The Matter of Time (below). Is this flashy label a record LACMA, or any museum, should want or be proud to hold? Govan has stated if Train is realized it would be an “extraordinary international event,” but would it be extraordinary for the right reasons?
Train was first announced at a LACMA Director’s Series event in February 2007 featuring Govan and Koons. Both made grandiose statements about Train. Govan compared it to the EiffelTower–a frequently cited quote, which Govan regrets making. Koons said Train will serve as a clock tower, measuring the time with the explosions of sound and steam, and create a kind of town square for Los Angeles. Govan went further, saying it will be a new icon for the city, a new Hollywood sign, capable of being seen from the 10 freeway and from downtown.
All this may have been an attempt to rally donations for the project. Govan also revealed Train had the support of Eli Broad, a major collector of Koons, although no financial commitment had been made by Broad. Another museum trustee, Wallis Annenberg (through the Annenberg Foundation) had donated $2 million to conduct a feasibility study for Train. Annenberg cites Govan as one of several local visionaries she supports. The initial, estimated delivery date for Train was 2011-2012, with an estimated price tag of $25 million. The delivery date has changed several times. The price tag hasn’t.
Art fabrication company Carlson and Co. was hired by LACMA using Annenberg’s donation to conduct the feasibility study. Carlson and Co. was founded in 1971 by Peter Carlson, who started the business after working for Gemini G.E.L. (a Los Angeles company which produces limited edition prints and multiples). Carlson saw the trend in large-scale, technically complex works being envisioned by artists (and being fueled by art collectors’ tastes), and saw the opportunity to collaborate with artists to realize these projects. Some of Carlson and Co.’s projects include Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen’s Big Sweep for the DenverArt Museum (above), and Robert Therrien’s massive table and chairs pieces (below). Carlson and Co. has also worked with artists like Charles Ray, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ed Kienholz. Carlson also collaborated with Koons previously to produce Koons’s aforementioned Balloon Dog series. Carlson and Co. seemed the perfect choice for the project because of its proven history of artistic collaboration, previous partnership with Koons, and because they were a storied Los Angeles company.
Govan explained the complexities of the feasibility test to the Arts Newspaper in 2009: “A real train was not meant to hang vertically and would have all sorts of environmental problems.” This included making sure Train could withstand an earthquake, and minute details like how to change a wheel or a light bulb. The early stages of the project also included taking digital scans of a Baldwin 2900 locomotive in the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society’s collection. At this point, the museum had spent $1.75 million of the $2 million Annenberg gift. At the end of the summer of 2009, LACMA announced the digital scans were complete, but also pushed back the delivery date of Train to 2014-2015.
This extended date was a result of two issues. First, in spring 2010, Carlson and Co. announced it had “filed for something “akin” to bankruptcy;” this meant many of Carlson and Co.’s works in progress would not be finished. The reason given for Carlson and Co.’s closure was, of course, the economy. The second issue was lack of funds to go further. Train had been announced prior to the recession, so its realization was the subject of much speculative gossip.
The recession was also affecting LACMA in a larger way; forcing the museum to rethink priorities like the capital campaign, Transformation, and projects like Train. LACMA announced it would be holding off on the third phase of Transformation, which was to include a renovation of the unused May Company building into a space for galleries and staff offices.
In August 2011, a lengthy article was published in the Los Angeles Times announcing LACMA’s bond rating had been downgraded, despite bouncing back a combined 26% in the two years after the recession. The bonds have been taken out by LACMA to help finance the construction of BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion. The Times also reported favorably that the museum had already raised $335 million against the bonds, with only $48 million left to raise before the bonds began to retire in 2030. Those sounded like favorable odds for LACMA. But the downgrading meant LACMA had to maintain a certain amount of liquidity or unrestricted assets (included real estate) in the event LACMA defaulted on the bonds. This also meant LACMA needed to play conservatively, and needed to explore new sources of income.
Expensive projects, like Train, were put on hold. Govan also needed to get creative, and find new assets. The biggest unyielding asset LACMA had was LACMA West, the old, empty, and unused May Company building, whose renovation had been postponed. In October 2011, the museum announced it was exploring a collaboration with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The possible collaboration would involve the Academy paying rent to LACMA to develop a long-planed museum housed in the LACMA West space. This was a way for LACMA to realized untapped financial resources from a currently unyielding asset.
Financing aside, there were other issues with Train, mainly over the originality of the work. Critics pointed out similarities between Train, and a wok by Scottish artist George Wyllie called Straw Locomotive (above), which was show in 1987 at the Glasgow Garden Festival. The full-sized train was made from straw and was, like Train, hung from crane. Straw Locomotive hung for several months before being ceremoniously burned. Other than consisting of two similar parts (train and crane) the similarities seem to end. But when dealing with ready-mades, are even these few similarities too many?
Koons says his moment of inspiration for Train came when he was in Sweden attempting to devise an idea for a site. “I really didn’t have any ideas, but I saw off in the distance a crane out in the field… And I thought, you know, the crane’s such a great image, it’s a wonderful readymade, it’d be really nice to do something with it.” (An interesting side note involving big money: the “site” mentioned in the above story was not originally LACMA. The original site for Train was for a proposed museum on the Seine in Paris built by François Pinault. The project never came to fruitition because of Parisian politics and historic preservationists, and Govan scooped up the idea.) Where the train came from has never been explained by Koons, but Train isn’t the first time he has used a train for his pop art. In 1986 (before Wyllie’s Locomotive), Koons was inspired by a Jim Bean Turner Train (actually a disguised liquor service), and recreated it in aluminum (below). Trains have been part of Koons’s iconography for several decades.
What is the status of the project now? In a May 2011, Govan said he was “not completely certain” Train would be built and that, “We don’t have a final method of construction, and I don’t have a final fundraising plan.” Several months later, however, in a Los Angeles Magazine Q&A, Govan dropped a nugget of information: Train was still alive, the method of construction being explored by a German firm, Arnold AG. Arnold AG is an industrial metal working company, which does not specialize in artworks, but has worked with artists like Sol Lewitt in the past. Arnold AG has also worked with Koons to help him realize his Balloon Flower series. Train lives despite loosing two of its initial supporters. Eli Broad has ceased all his involvement at LACMA (his souring relationship with Govan a whole other issue). Wallis Annenberg seems to have lost interest in the project also; she told Vanity Fair in 2009, “I personally think Los Angeles deserves a much finer icon than a train hanging from a crane,” and was leaving it to other museums trustees to finish funding the project. Ouch.
Should this massively expensive project be realized? “It’s a delirious, death-defying feat of engineering and imagination, and, if it indeed gets built, it will become the first iconic monument of the 21st century.” This is high praise, but it comes from Esquire magazine, not necessarily known the zenith of art criticism. Govan does not seem comfortable realizing the project without getting the work funded wholly by private sources. This is how he realized Levitated Mass; it was funded completely through gifts and corporate sponsorships. No public money was spent to realize Levitated Mass, which was one of the ways LACMA defended the landwork, which many find silly. Could the same argument made against/for a big rock also be made against/for a big hanging train?
Govan seems optimistic and opportunistic: “We have to get a crane…They were tough to come by in the old economy—you used to have to get on a waiting list—but it’s getting easier.” And if anyone can charm money out of people to realize this project, it is Govan. With statements like: “If you’re not dreaming in the business we’re in, the art business, then you’re not doing your job,” how could a rich lady donor deny him? If Train is realized, it may be more a testament to Govan’s skills as a fundraiser, rather than a monument to the artistic genius of Koons. In the meantime, a spot is still being held for Train next to the Resnick Pavilion.