Academy Museum "Will Not Shy" From Hollywood's Messy History, New Director Says

Bill Kramer - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy AMPAS

On the eve of a new, $100 million bond offering and 11 months from the institution's opening day, Bill Kramer says he expects the institution to be financially independent within three to five years.

The long awaited Academy Museum finally has an opening date — Dec. 14 — and the massive construction project at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in L.A.’s Miracle Mile is coming to a close. New Academy Museum director Bill Kramer, who officially started in the job Jan. 1, is overseeing the installation of the institution’s first exhibits and pounding the pavement to meet its fundraising goals. Kramer, who had been hired as the museum’s managing director of development and external relations in 2012, left the project in 2016 to work at The Brooklyn Academy of Music as its vp development. He returned after the Academy Museum’s first director, Kerry Brougher, left last August, a departure that seemed to signal that the ambitious and much delayed project was in a state of disarray.

Two days after the Oscars, Kramer sat down in his new office at the museum to discuss the institution’s finances — including a new bond offering — describe a change in vision for its exhibitions and explain how an institution funded by Hollywood will maintain a "church-state divide" when it comes to including the industry’s unsavory moments.

The Academy Museum will issue a new bond offering Thursday. How much and how come?

One hundred million. With interest rates as low as they are, it just made good business sense to do this. Our pre-opening campaign of $388 million, we're [at] 95 percent of that goal, which is great. I have no doubt in my mind we will surpass that before we open. After we open, we’ll launch a phase two, post-opening campaign. And in fact we're already starting to secure early gifts for that. That will be a campaign that raises funds for the additional capital amount for endowment and for programming. Once we're open, we will need programming funds, operating funds. We want to increase our growing endowment that George Lucas helped to set up for us with his gift.

Will the museum eventually be financially independent from the Academy or will it always be reliant in some way on funds from the Academy?

We want this to be eventually a self-sustaining enterprise. Through a combination of earned income from ticket sales, from our restaurant, from our retail store, from rentals plus fundraising from individuals, corporations, foundations, a robust membership program. We already have 6,000 members. We haven't even opened yet. In the early days, The Academy may help us as we're growing our endowment. It's really important for us to create an endowment that will help sustain our institution. That takes many years to do. But I'm hopeful that within the first three to five years the museum will be self-sustaining. It's possible.

Academy members have expressed to me anxiety about the financial burden of the museum. They wonder if it will lead to the Academy having to curtail some of the other things that it does.

We would never want that to happen. This museum is built on the strength of the Academy's library and archive and public programs. It's the largest film-related collection in the world. That needs to thrive. That can't go away. So we quickly want to make sure that we can become a self-sustaining operation for the health of the museum and for the health of the Academy.

Why did Kerry Brougher leave?

I would talk to Kerry about that. Kerry and I are great friends. We had dinner the other night. He's doing extremely well. He's heading back east.

How has the vision for the museum changed since you took the job?

I was hired at the end of September and immediately started working on reconceptualizing the gallery spaces. A lot of the work that we've been doing over the last four months is redesigning spaces to allow us to change stories here and there, even in our core galleries. We are now designing and building something that's very nimble and dynamic to allow us to do that. And that's been a shift.

A shift from…

A shift from something that feels more fixed and chronological. We want to talk about the stories of cinema in a lot of dynamic, interesting ways by genre, by theme, by era. We want to invite film artists, our Academy members, to help us tell the stories of their branch areas.

One person who will be helping you do that is Spike Lee, who is curating an exhibition for your opening. What is it going to be?

Spike is an incredible collector. He's been collecting film memorabilia since he started his career. So his personal collection is spectacular and unexpected and a lot of that will be shown in the gallery. We have other film artists. We are going to announce the full exhibitions plan in a few weeks, but we're asking film artists to help us curate spaces around their area, their discipline, and everyone said yes. It's been an embarrassment of riches and I think the public's really going to respond well to it.

How will the museum deal with people who may have contributed to cinema, but have some unsavory aspect to their stories, perhaps a #MeToo scandal?

They will be included in our exhibitions. We will not shy away from those conversations. This will be a museum that celebrates movies and movie artists, but it will also tell a lot of complicated stories. It's our obligation to do that and it's our pledge to do that.

How do you navigate the tension between the expectations of the museum world and the expectations of the movie industry, which can be quite different in terms of what they think ought to be in this space?

We are balancing all of that. The moviemaking industry has an expectation of a certain amount of boldness. Film is a live medium and this has to feel alive. But we have a team of museum curators who are committed to creating scholarly, important, rigorous exhibitions that combine this sense of experience and excitement. We can do both.

Are the theaters going to be open for business at the same time that the overall museum is open for business?

Everything's open for business. The retail store, the cafe, the two theaters, the exhibition spaces. Our Ted Mann theater, the 280-seat theater, is what we see as our workhorse theater where we will have three to four screenings a day. The Geffen, the larger space, will be programmed a little differently. There will be big events in that space, but also daytime programming linked to our exhibitions. And they will also be rented for premieres. We don't want this to just be a rental house obviously. Museum programming is our number one priority, but it's a great space for premieres and studios are already lining up to secure the space for them.

What has to get done between now and December 14? What does your to-do list look like?

We have to bid out, fabricate and install our exhibitions, test all of our AV, install the restaurant, get the retail store up and running, get our ticketing system up and running. We timelined all of it out and we're on track.

The Dalian Wanda group made an early, $20 million pledge. Has that pledge come through?

They fully paid that gift before the press release went out.

After the museum construction was underway, George Lucas announced that he would be building his museum in L.A. How does that affect you? Will it be a competing institution?

We love George. He's a fantastic partner. There will be moments in our exhibitions that will deal with Lucasfilm. Kathy Kennedy, who runs Lucasfilm, is very connected to the project. Obviously Bob Iger, our campaign chair — Lucasfilm is part of Disney. George gave us a very large gift to ensure that anyone 17 and under can go to this museum for free.

Both institutions are great for the city of Los Angeles. What George is doing is not totally related to what we're doing. I think there's a Venn diagram overlap. I'm sure there will be movie-related exhibitions and conversations in that space, but it is not a museum totally devoted to the history of the motion pictures. So I only see this as helping us and helping the city. I think it will both attract a lot of visitors to the city who will want to do both.

As you mention, some powerful people in the industry are helping with the museum. How does that affect the way you are able to tell stories? Say you're planning an exhibition about the history of the Walt Disney company, does Bob Iger have a say in what goes into that because he’s been such an important fundraiser?

All of our donors understand that there is a church-state divide. Curatorial content, the research, the creation, has no relationship to money being given to the project. We keep those separate. Every donor understands that, and we are toeing that line. And so far, so good. Our donors are so respectful. They've given gifts fully understanding that that's the case. We wouldn't accept the donations otherwise.