New Academy Museum Director Kerry Brougher Reveals Plans (Q&A)

Kerry Brougher
Kerry Brougher
 Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“The Academy Museum is going to just have to accept the fact it is a place that has to meet the needs of a wide-ranging audience,” says Kerry Brougher, who steps into his new post as the first director of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in July. Having most recently served as interim director, deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., he’ll be charting the course for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new museum, scheduled to open on the site of the May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard in 2017. With an eye to both film’s past and its future, Brougher outlines his goals for the museum, talks about how the Academy needs to acquire more artifacts, and suggests the museum should be governed by its own board, vowing that the new museum will be “on the leading edge of things.”

When you were first approached for the job, what were your initial thoughts and why did you decide to accept?

My initial thoughts were how wonderful, what an incredible prospect. I’ve been interested my entire career in the crossovers between film and art. It dates back to my two degrees, one of them in art history and the other in film history from UCLA. All through my career, I’ve tried to create exhibitions and acquire objects for the collection that dealt with the moving image. It’s always been something that I’ve been extremely interested in. I’ve been very interested in cinema in a broad sense, a kind of expanded sense. So the idea of potentially being able to create what will be the first real film museum in Los Angeles, which obviously should have had one a long time ago, decades ago, being able to deal not just with the history of film, which is absolutely going to be a wonderful thing to do, but also maybe to deal with the future of film is extremely exciting. It’s really a dream come true for me.

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What are the challenges you’ll be facing opening the museum, both in creating a permanent exhibition and the initial temporary exhibitions?

I think the concept of a film museum, a museum of motion pictures is a complex one. The challenge is you can do it a hundred different ways. I think the only way to really do it is, first of all, it has to be a multiplatform type of environment. By that I mean the permanent exhibition, or the semi-permanent exhibition because it will no doubt change once in a while, is extremely important, but so are the temporary exhibitions that will come through, several of them a year, and over time will help establish another narrative, another story, that we will try to tell. And then you need a component in the mix of actual film screenings. There will be three theaters, one large 1,000-seat theater that Renzo Piano is designing outside of the May Co. building and then two inside the building, so film programming is very important as well – to actually see the movies the way they were meant to be seen has to be part of the experience. If something was shot on film, I’d love to see it presented on film as much as possible if the right elements survive. At some point the museum may be one of the few places remaining where you can really see a film print being projected.

An art museum can hang a Picasso, it can hang a Courbet, that is essentially the way, generally speaking, the art is meant to be seen. But a museum of motion pictures has the challenge of dealing with films in several different ways, because you can’t show all the great masterpieces every single day. You have to pick and choose and then create a great context around them with the exhibitions. And then another component that is very valuable to have is to actually commission new work and actually be a producer of new projects, which can bring filmmakers together with artists, perhaps with musicians, with many other art forms, to help create new works, perhaps three-dimensional works, installations to that can drive film forward into the 21st century and really help create the future.

At the moment, the very definition of film is changing. So how do you deal with that?

I actually think you absolutely have to deal with that issue. There’s no doubt in my mind that beginning way back in the 1950s and ’60s, films started to change. First of all, it expanded in terms of its size and scale. Then it was brought into galleries, multi-screens appeared, and it was projected onto planetarium domes. It began to become a kind of expanded cinema form and that has continued, all the way to the present. I was just in New York, driving through Times Square, and there was the moving image all about me, and it’s brighter all the time and has higher resolution all the time. And I’m sitting here now with my iPhone in front of me, and that’s another way of watching film, which is simultaneously getting smaller and larger at the same time. I really think we have to be telling the whole story. The story of Hollywood itself is very important and the history of film from the 19th century on. But I also think it’s important to tell the story of how it expanded outward, moving out of the movie theater and into the world.

I’ve just been brought on and talking to the Academy for a few months, but Renzo Piano’s been working on this really incredible film theater to be put on the north side of the building. What I really like about it – and he and I seem to be on the same wavelength with this – is that the film theater, despite the fact that he has kind of created a spherical building for it that kinds of mimics the inside of theater by turning it inside out, nevertheless, the lower level is a conventional film theater. The lights go down, the film comes on, you’re inside of this space. What I like is the fact it has this wonderful sphere on top that I would like to use not only as a panorama – you, of course, will see Hollywood laid out in front of you – but I’d like to use the sphere for some of these projects about expanded cinema, so it can act as a place where we do the motion pictures of the future. What is that going to be? Possibly projections inside the dome, possibly we’ll do screen pieces. I don’t know yet, but we are going to investigate all of these things. It’s extremely important to deal with all these different aspects of film. I’m rather happy the Academy chose to call it the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures because it will be about motion pictures. The term film, although we still use it out of habit, has become problematic because most things aren’t shot on film now.

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How about the gallery spaces that are being designed within the existing May Co. building? Have you made any suggestions about things you’d like to see changed from where they are right now?

Basically, the most important thing from my perspective is to try to get flexible gallery space and enough of it to be able to tell the story of motion picture in a coherent and relatively substantial way. For me, the important thing is to try to open up those gallery spaces enough so we have the flexibility to utilize them in all sorts of different ways. So we’ve looked a little bit at that and looked a little bit at issues of flow and where things should go. I think overall, it is a fixed building, it is a historical landmark, and we’re going to be inside something that has certain parameters already established.

How do you balance the tension between creating a tourist attraction and creating a site for serious film scholarship?

The Academy Museum is going to just have to accept the fact it is a place that has to meet the needs of a wide-ranging audience. That audience is going to range from tourists who come to Los Angeles, looking for Hollywood, often unable to find it. Hollywood Boulevard doesn’t really do it. And the museum will offer another place for them to go to grasp the history and appreciation of motion pictures. But, yes, it also has to definitely be for the film scholar, for the cinephile and for the industry itself to some degree, the people who know movies very well. So we have to meet the needs of a diverse array of audiences. But I think that we can do that. I think it’s possible to create a museum with a very high bar in terms of aesthetics and in terms of its ability to tell the story of film and not dumb it down. I don’t think we have to find some real low common denominator here. I give a lot of credit to the people who come to this museum, whether they are tourists or people who know a lot about film. One of the places we are starting is that everybody who comes to the museum to some degree probably likes the movies. That’s quite a bit further along the path than when you start with contemporary, modern art, for example. But what I think I would like them to leave with is not only getting a sense of history, but with the understanding that that the motion picture really is an art form, the great art form of the 20th century and perhaps even the 21st century in the way it’s expanding into many different realms.

How much have you had a chance to look at the Academy’s own collection? Are there particular areas that you feel need to be developed through acquisitions?

The Academy’s collection is extremely strong in areas such as photography, screenplays, posters, in archival materials from directors and others. It’s extremely strong in those areas. We really do want to dig into all that and help it establish what we are doing. One place where the Academy does need to build its collection is in its artifacts. But while I think it’s really important for the Academy to find the very best artifacts, I don’t think artifacts by themselves really make a good film museum. If you have a great artifact, that artifact still needs to be brought back to life. Putting it on display, hermetically sealed, I’m not sure it gives you the sense of what you want to get out of that artifact. So while I think it’s important that the museum builds its collection of artifacts, which definitely needs to happen, I don’t think we need thousands and thousands of artifacts in this museum to tell a proper history of cinema.

How large a staff will you have?

We’re still working on that, but I think it will be over 100 people.

Should the museum have its own board separate from the Academy’s board of governors?

I do believe it would be in the best interests of the museum, particularly in the long term, for the museum to have its own board, made up, of course, of some members of the Academy, but also made up of members brought in from elsewhere, who are interested in film but who are also interested in other cultural institutions. I think we need a broad base of supporters, and it’s also important to have those links on the board, not only for fundraising purposes but also for cultural purposes of linking us to other cultural institutions. So I believe it would be in the best interests of the museum to have its own board. 

Do you have any concerns that you’ll face commercial pressures from people who are in the film industry who also sit on the Academy’s board?

I’ve had quite a few meetings with Academy members. We’ve done a series of what we call charrettes to talk about the programmatic aspects. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness of the people I’ve been talking to so far from the Academy. For the most part, I’ve found them very open to innovative and progressive ideas about how this museum can be developed. I haven’t felt so far any attempts to utilize the museum in any kind of conflict-of-interest way.

Could you see doing an exhibit on what the Oscars got wrong?

I don’t think we should necessarily shy away from the fact there have been occasions when a great film was bypassed by Oscars. It’s part of the story, and I don’t feel that it’s something we need to shy away from should we feel the need to mention it.

How will you work with LACMA, which has its own film exhibitions, and its director, Michael Govan?

I know Michael. I’m assuming we’ll have a very close working relationship with LACMA. I’m looking forward very much to the possibilities of collaborating on various projects, film screenings, etc. But I should say I also would really like the museum to be a place that collaborates well beyond LACMA with other cultural institutions in Los Angeles and even beyond Los Angeles. I think film itself sort of dictates that. Raymond Durgnat called it “the mongrel muse.” It’s made up of all these other different art forms that together create a new, modern art form. I think it would be really fascinating, really interesting, to be able to collaborate not only with other film institutions, but with art museums internationally, also opera, music in general, dance. I think all these possibilities should open up for the new projects I was talking about. I think we have almost a commitment be a collaborative institution to tell the story properly.

Exhibitions can take a couple of years to develop, so are you likely to begin with temporary exhibitions that are developed with other institutions?

I think it’s very important for the Academy Museum to be a leader in the field. In other words, I think we shouldn’t just be taking exhibitions from elsewhere. We need to be doing our own exhibitions, but those can be collaborations or they can be something the Academy Museum actually creates by itself.  But I think that we need to be on the leading edge of things and we need to be establishing the way forward with the temporary exhibition program, so that other people then take our exhibitions and our profile remains very high – not only in the film community but amid cultural exhibitions in general.

Are there types of films or moments in film history that you’d like to see explored in the initial exhibitions?

We’re just now starting to think that through, so it would probably be premature of me to discuss it in any detail. I will say one of the things I’m very interested in, and it’s early days on this, is the many ways one can put together a history and appreciation of the motion picture. There are -isms, there are genres, auteur theory, all kind of different ways of doing it. But for me what might be the most interesting way for the Academy Museum, at least for the first go-around, is to take the name of the Academy itself as a kind of launching pad for the approach to doing the permanent exhibition. It’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I find in the arts and sciences idea, the art and technology idea. It becomes interesting to me to ask what are those great moments, where art and technology came together in new ways that seemed to drive the cinema forward. I can think of wonderful films – and in many different areas, too, features, documentary, experimental films – where the technology either caught up to the art or the art caught up to the technology. As one of the participants at one of the charrettes, this great young director Jason Reitman said, “You have these aha moments.” I’m particularly interested in finding those moments and seeing if we can construct a history out of those.

One other thought: We held a charette with a lot of wonderful people from the film world and they’ve come up with some wonderful ideas -- people like Steven Spielberg and John Lasseter. One thing that was brought up by the artist Doug Aitkin: The actual museum is a sort of platform to do things on, whether they be actual exhibitions or events that happen in and around the museum or projects inside or outside the museum. It should also be seen as a place that has metaphorically a giant radio tower that radios out this information to the world. Of course, all of us in the room thought of the RKO logo at that moment. I think it’s really true: We need to be doing these things physically in Los Angeles, but somehow we also need to be using technology, digital technology, to get a lot of this information broadcast out internationally.

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