The Battle for the Soul of the Academy Museum

8:00 AM PST 02/25/2014 by Gary Baum, Andy Lewis
Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

As the $300 million shrine to the Oscars and all of film history readies to break ground at the end of this year, insiders and experts reveal the challenge of how to walk the line between serious scholarship and tourist-friendly appeal.

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's a pretty picture: if all goes according to plan, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' big-budget passion project -- a glorious Academy Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, one of the world's top architects, featuring iconic movie artifacts (among them, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the severed horse's head prop from The Godfather) and financed to the tune of $300 million, just to start, by some of the most powerful players in the business (Geffen, Spielberg, Katzenberg) -- will open, after decades of false starts, on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus in 2017.

The heady goal is to create a "world class" institution, according to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one that will be for film nothing less than what the Louvre is for painting. In the former May Co. building department store at the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, an 8,700-square-foot gallery will be devoted to the Academy's history and an only slightly larger one to the entirety of film history. Elsewhere, there will be a high-tech interactive making-of film hall, a pair of touring exhibition spaces and several screening rooms, including a showpiece 1,000-seat theater -- earmarked for premieres, major retrospectives and other red carpet events and symposia -- encased in a glass-clad spherical shell adjoining the historic building's north side.

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Not since the then-2-year-old Academy chose to put on an awards ceremony in 1929 has it embarked on a venture that will so dramatically reshape the organization. The tension inherent in the project -- a serious museum devoted to the study of one of the most popular forms of entertainment on earth -- creates a tricky balancing act for the Academy. Even as the museum hurtles toward ground-breaking later this year, what remains unresolved is exactly what it will be: an elevated backlot tour designed to celebrate Hollywood and pack in tourists, an important institution devoted to telling the real and not-always-laudatory history of film, or a potentially awkward hybrid?

"If you're a natural history museum, you have a definite kind of educational mandate. If you're a museum about entertainment, that border is a little more slippery," says Jan-Christopher Horak, who runs UCLA's Film & Television Archive. "Obviously people come to have a good time, but you want to teach them something."

The idea of a large-scale Los Angeles film museum is older than the Academy itself, with plans first floated in 1925, according to Alison Trope's definitive history of the efforts, Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. The most serious previous attempt took root in the mid-1950s as a partnership between L.A. County and industry heavyweights such as Walt Disney, Jack Warner and Mary Pickford. Before foundering amid city politics and lawsuits over eminent domain, that effort got as far as an October 1963 ground-breaking gala on a site adjacent to the Hollywood Bowl.

While the fundraising and architectural efforts for the current incarnation appear to be well on track, interviews with Academy insiders and outside experts reveal that it has yet to define the specifics and tone of its programming plans during this key early period. Further, the Academy so far has chosen -- conspicuously, in the view of some -- not to bring on a slate of full-time museum professionals, preferring instead to rely on the collective wisdom of its own membership. The few specifics the Academy has announced, such as an interactive attraction allowing visitors to walk a faux red carpet and accept their own ersatz Oscar statuette, already have some scholarly observers wincing.

"They're not really going to do that, are they? I'm not one of those people who sees an opposition between serious and fun," says Jeanine Basinger, head of the cinema program at Wesleyan University and one of the nation's most respected film scholars. "But to assume that we need to pretend to be movie stars?"

Sid Ganis, a past Academy president and current member of the museum planning committee, says the organization is well aware of the stakes. "There are so many interesting ideas for what this museum should be," he says. "Nobody wants to put an underground thrill ride in there. It takes a lot of deep thought. You're talking about more than 100 years of history of cinema. We're figuring it out, on our own, trial and error."

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THR surveyed more than 20 top figures in scholarly film and museum circles -- many experts in precisely the areas the new Academy facility would be expected to address. While all are enthusiastic about the idea of a film museum, the vast majority expressed at least some degree of unease with its potential ultimate quality and the true scope of its intellectual ambition based on the direction made public so far. Fundamentally, they wonder whether the 87-year-old Academy -- a fractious, partisan and innately boosterish group chiefly organized around an awards ceremony -- is interested in or even capable of providing the museum the full independence necessary to pursue the rigorous, often critical and sometimes controversial exhibits found in top-level international institutions.

Observes writer-producer Maria Bell, who in December stepped down after almost five years as co-chair of the board at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art: "It's a learning curve, starting a museum. It's a very, very difficult thing to do. Building the structure is easier to do than figuring out what to do programmatically."

One key museum-world ally of the Academy is LACMA director Michael Govan, who lured the organization to his campus' underutilized May Co. building site from its previously earmarked parcel in Hollywood. ("I told them, 'You do not want your museum next to Ripley's Believe It or Not!' " he says.) Although Govan agrees that creating an environment of legitimate curatorial independence is crucial -- "If the Board [of Governors] has a role in deciding what the programming is in a specific sense, then they would not be operating as a museum should" -- he is confident that the Academy will learn to exercise proper judgment, in part due to what he expects will be his own institution's strong neighborly influence.

The future Academy Museum will reside in the Streamline Moderne former May Co. department store on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Mid-City campus. Click the photo to view the Academy Museum Gallery.

"A good museum knows how to balance the pressures, and that's where LACMA can be helpful," he says. "We've been doing this for a long time. We walk those lines all the time in the art world; Jeff Koons is a big business, too. You're aware of special interests and make sure they recuse themselves. It makes it easier when you're not doing this in isolation."

In interviews with THR, Bill Kramer, the Academy Museum's managing director, declined, at least at this time, to offer more concrete assurances of complete curatorial independence, such as the enactment of a separate museum governing board, which museum professionals typically believe is necessary to attract first-rate talent and achieve truly respected programming. "That is something that we will discuss," Kramer promises, as part of an ongoing series of conversations with the museum's 10-member planning committee made up of Academy grandees, led by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and brainstorming sessions with rank-and-file Academy members and handpicked outsiders. Out of this, Kramer expects an executive director to be named by fall.

"That's the beauty of the Academy," he says. "We have experts in all branches of moviemaking who are helping to shape what we are doing in the museum." He also plans a series of "focus groups" for various "stakeholders," including "arts patrons, film scholars, tourists, families and kids under the age of 13." Says Kramer, "It's too soon to talk about the formal structure beyond that." Ganis adds: "We haven't gotten too granular yet. We're getting there."

Working with the Hollywood professionals is just one museum consultant, whom the Academy refuses to identify, as well as an ad-hoc array of specialists called upon for niche advice. Such a lopsided ratio between Hollywood insiders and museum professionals may betray a lack of full awareness about what is unique about museums. "A lot of people don't understand museum management," says Ellen Endslow, chair of the Curators Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. "That doesn't have to do with intelligence. It's just a different world."

"It's a spider's web," says USC Cinematic Arts Library assistant director Sandra Garcia-Myers of the Academy. "It's so political. I do think they have a real challenge. Will they ask the tough questions? And if not answer them, at least discuss them? You'll be able to tell within a year -- even just from the exhibitions they open with -- as to whether it's a serious curatorial mission or a sort of Disney ride."

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Historian Timothy Naftali is intimately familiar with such spiders' webs, having been appointed to run the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum when control of that institution transferred in 2007 from a foundation run by loyalists of the 37th commander-in-chief to the National Archives and Records Administration. "Funders have in mind one approach -- usually positive," he says. "There's a constant tension. The Academy will face the same challenges. Legacy organizations are difficult."

For his part, Kramer dismisses such worries. "We will not pander to any studio or member," he says. "The museum's mandate speaks to a world beyond our 6,000 members. We'll tackle hard issues." Says Ganis: "There's no whitewashing that's going to go on here. This is about what this saga has been, where it is today and where it's going. If there's some laundry that isn't so spotless, we'll have to talk about it. We can't censor the truth."

Carl Goodman, director of New York's Museum of the Moving Image -- which is currently partnering with the Academy on a Chuck Jones exhibition -- believes the museum can successfully achieve a dual mission of entertaining visitors while embracing scholarship. "You don't have to choose between public appeal and intellectual rigor," he says. "We've certainly found that. There's room in their mission -- and certainly their building -- for all of it."

The concern, of course, isn't all-encompassing breadth but the proposed museum's willingness to engage in serious debate. "This is a town that hasn't proven to be particularly interested in its past," says director Peter Bogdanovich. How might the Academy, often maladroit in its response to the first whiff of controversy when it comes to its awards ceremonies, handle knotty issues involving both its own history as well as that of its byzantine melange of members and financial supporters, including China's Dalian Wanda Group, The Walt Disney Company, NBCUniversal and every other major studio?

Exhibit A: Planning committee chair Kennedy herself. When the inevitable George Lucas exhibit is mounted, will Lucasfilm willingly share its wares, even if curators want to talk freely about the negative critical and fan reception that accompanied the director's later Star Wars recuts or the arguably questionable racial overtones of Jar Jar Binks? Or would Disney and its CEO Robert Iger, co-chair of the museum's capital campaign, support a warts-and-all look at founder Walt? (The Academy didn't make Kennedy or other members beyond Ganis available to talk.)

A rendering shows the spherical, 1,000-seat premiere theater named after $25 million donor David Geffen that will feature a rooftop terrace with views from Hollywood to the Pacific Ocean. Click the photo to view the Oscar Props Gallery.

Omissions may prove just as contentious. Annette Insdorf, the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, worries that a too-narrow-minded focus on the history of cinema through the strict prism of Oscar nods -- given the considerable exhibition space devoted to the Academy's own history -- may marginalize those who were never nominated (Jerry Lewis, Myrna Loy, Edward G. Robinson) or never won (Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Montgomery Clift). Another land mine: how to handle winners whose controversial lives (and who are, in many cases, still living) have become essential parts of how they are perceived and judged, from Roman Polanski to Woody Allen.

"You have to mention the biography in context," says Naftali, the former Nixon library director, who argues that unflinching honesty is key to establishing overall legitimacy. "It can't be whited out like some kind of Stalinist history. The credibility of the good stories depends on the accessibility of the less-good stories. One argument I made to the Nixonians was, the story of the opening to China would be more believable in a museum that deals with Watergate honestly."

Kramer says the treatment of thorny topics -- the blacklist, the production code, gay life in Hollywood -- already has come up in brainstorming sessions. "The interpretative plan we're creating will tackle them," he says. "There will be a healthy amount of criticism in the programming."

Instead, Kramer believes the Academy's biggest challenge will be presenting the story of film in a way that requires visitors to actually set foot in the museum: "Especially with an art form that you consume frequently and can consume at home, how do you create an environment that's more thrilling than what you can do at home or in the theater?" Taking its lead from newer museums like Seattle's Experience Music Project and L.A.'s Grammy Museum, the Academy's plan leans on technology and interactive displays. "We don't want this to be an artifacts-heavy museum," says Kramer. "This has to be immersive and has to be inspiring, thrilling."

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Ultimately, though, artifacts are going to be an important draw. "A lot of people hunger to be close to things like Dorothy's red shoes," says Horak. "These objects have a kind of aura to people. It's a kind of visual pleasure. There's a fascination with the original object."

Kramer's aversion to an "artifacts-heavy museum" may reflect the fact that props, costumes and memorabilia are the Academy's weak link, long neglected as its Margaret Herrick Library on La Cienega Boulevard built an illustrious archive primarily of scripts, production notes, photos and personal papers. Indeed, there have been many missed opportunities to amass a collection. In 2011, Debbie Reynolds auctioned her own sterling collection (which she had hoped to use as the basis for a museum), which included Marilyn Monroe's sequined dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the 1918 Ford Model T used in some Laurel & Hardy films. In 2012, the Academy didn't pursue an offer from a private collector to work out a friendly deal for one of the two remaining Cowardly Lion costumes.

Joe Maddalena, head of L.A.-based Profiles in History, one of the biggest memorabilia auctioneers in the business, says the museum "needs 300 or 400 pieces that aren't paper -- starting with Chaplin's cane and going through the whole history of Hollywood. It can't just have [the] Rosebud [sled]. It needs Orson Welles' costume [from Citizen Kane] as well."

The new theater will attach to the historic May Co. building structure. Click the photo to view the Academy Museum Gallery. 

Kramer acknowledges the museum will need such physical artifacts to "punctuate the conversation" in the exhibits, but thinks a collection can be assembled. "We will borrow some and acquire others, but in the interim, people are coming to us and offering iconic pieces because they've heard about the museum." He adds that the Academy also has quietly entered the memorabilia market over the past year and has several big acquisitions to announce in the near future. (The Academy confirmed to THR that one such piece is the severed horse's head prop from The Godfather that had been put up for auction late last year.)

The museum also has been approaching current filmmakers, particularly Oscar nominees, about donating objects from recent movies, especially those in the awards race. "You want to have these conversations before they reach the auctions," says Kramer. "You plant the seed; you develop the relationship."

Enthusiasm among many Academy members certainly is high. Director Brett Ratner donated $1 million unsolicited after being inspired by the recent Stanley Kubrick exhibition co-sponsored by LACMA and the Academy. Ratner himself is a collector whose objects include the scissor hands from Edward Scissorhands and director David Lean's viewfinder from The Bridge on the River Kwai. "I would loan them" to the new Academy museum, he says, adding, "That would be an honor."

But beyond securing specific artifacts or building interpretative exhibits, there remains the fundamental question of the museum's philosophy and its purpose -- and thus the future of the Academy itself.

"They are in a unique situation in that they get to start at the head of the class," says USC's Garcia-Myers. "They can start there and stay there, or they can fall back. The awards bring in money; they run like clockwork. Nothing has really differed over the years. Here they have an opportunity to redefine who they are."

Adds Bell: "They can really write the history. That's an enormous responsibility. Everyone will be watching."

In this, the true believers agree. Notes Goodman: "If they do what I expect they'll be able to do, several years after they open, people won't be able to ever believe there wasn't an Academy Museum -- that people came to Hollywood to commune with Hollywood by looking at a sign and cavorting on a boulevard with costumed characters."

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