Like a game of hot potato, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted Tuesday night to put the development of a long-planned—and stalled–Museum of Motion Pictures into the hands of LA County Museum of Art chief Michael Govan. While the Academy spin does not suggest that the Academy is admitting defeat, that is in fact the case. The Academy is betting that partnering with LACMA and using an existing facility instead of building from scratch will help them to raise the hundreds of millions they could not get in an unforgiving economy. But they now need half of the $400 million they needed before.
The Academy has been talking about a movie museum since the 60s. They developed plans for a hi-tech interactive celebration of Hollywood, hired and fired museum design firms and French architect Christian de Portzamparc, and sought helpful suggestions from the industry’s best and brightest (from Leonard Maltin to Steven Spielberg), but yielded little progress beyond a controversial $50-million construction site on Vine that still needs to be cleaned up. Some early members of the Museum committee feel strongly that the long-awaited museum should be located in Hollywood on those blocks adjacent to their Mary Pickford Study Center, which houses the Academy’s film archives and theater. The Academy will hang onto the property, says president Tom Sherak, who hopes to turn it into an outdoor theater and exhibition site while the museum gets up and running. According to Sherak: “The idea of our museum being part of a larger cultural center for the arts, in this city that we love, was incredibly compelling to the Academy Board.”
The Academy and LACMA are hoping to have a completed museum within five years, tops. “My belief is that the museum will occur in my lifetime,” adds Sherak.
The Hollywood Reporter’s August report What Happened to the Oscar Museum bought into the idea that the Academy’s “ambitious plans are on hold.” But in fact, the Academy was actively negotiating with Govan to take over the LACMA-owned art deco May Company Building on Fairfax and Wilshire instead of moving ahead with building the museum on their long-held Vine Street site. The Academy not only sank some $50 million into the Vine Street 3.5 acreage (buying up several businesses including a yoga studio at top market prices), but also funded the cost of several international trips taken by various Academy governors, architects and staff to visit other international museums since 2005.
Talks between the museum and LACMA started in spring 2010 with a casual conversation between outgoing president Sid Ganis and Govan, who offered to lend his expertise, having built some 12 museums over the years, some from existing sites. Govan later met with Ganis, Sherak and executive director Bruce Davis. Govan eloquently described his vision of “a world class museum celebrating the culture of film in the city of Los Angeles.” He believes that such retro-designs as David Geffen’s MOCA and the Academy’s own La Cienega library demonstrate “the power and efficiency of adaptive reuse. We can seize the history of L.A. in a cost-effective way that will be powerful emotionally and historically. This is an awesome opportunity.”
New Academy CEO Dawn Hudson also parlayed her relationship with Govan, who turned to her when she was at Film Independent to run his museum film program, into a closer partnership. Hudson helped to convince the board to put building the Academy museum in Govan’s hands. The Academy hopes to sign a long-term lease on the May Company (built in 1939), LACMA West, which boasts 300,000 square feet of space. Hudson discovered that former presidents Walter Mirisch and Bob Rehme had also explored the May Company as a possible site. “They took a detour with the idea of building their own museum from scratch,” she says. “It was an expensive project at 144,000 square feet. The May Company building is twice that, a beautiful solid building in place. It felt very meant to be.”
Davis had hoped that the museum would be his legacy, but now Hudson believes that Govan can realize the Academy’s dreams for a museum. The governors and LACMA signed a memo that now makes it possible for the two organizations to discuss details of a future contract, and for the Academy to begin fundraising, designing and modifying the site. She’ll look smart if it all works out–but can blame Govan if it doesn’t. He will lend his expertise on museum design and such details as security, parking, and ticket sales. As a major museum, LACMA knows a lot about curating art, but does not know much about movies. The LACMA film program is now run by Film Independent hire Elvis Mitchell, who has lined up celebrity appearances from Jason Reitman to Johnny Depp.
Who exactly will run the museum and be responsible for its contents will be part of the ongoing negotiations, but The Academy, insists Hudson, will be in charge of all of the future motion picture museum’s exhibition and programming. As multiple priceless Hollywood memorabilia collections such as Debbie Reynolds’ go on the auction block to be parceled out all over the world, the Academy’s policy is to wait for loans and donations. The Academy expects the museum to feature both permanent and rotating exhibitions.
Said co-chair of the LACMA Board of Trustees Terry Semel, who ran Warner Bros. with Bob Daly for 20 years:
“It is appropriate and long overdue for the city that is home to the motion picture industry to recognize this art form with a museum of its own. The LACMA Board is delighted to be facilitating this important cultural event, which has special resonance for me, having spent most of my life dedicated to the great art of movies. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will provide a much needed destination for cultural tourists and Los Angelenos to learn more about cinema, and the setting could not be more ideal, nestled next to the largest encyclopedic art museum in the Western United States.”
“Finally, our industry will have a dedicated space where we can inform and excite people about the endless range and possibilities of motion pictures. This new facility will make our resources and activities – our programming, our archives, and our library – even more visible and accessible all year round.”
As for Govan, he declares that:
“This represents a seismic shift in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, and an extraordinary new resource for residents proud of their local history, and for fans of cinema worldwide.”