Slowly but surely, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is heading toward its unveiling December 14. Of course that was supposed to happen earlier this year, or last year; who’s counting anymore?
There have been many setbacks, from design changes — two theaters instead of three — and the restoration and adaptation of the May Company landmark building, as well as complications in erecting architect Renzo Piano’s glass sphere.
And while the Academy kept citing its “original” budget of $388 million (a number that it recently used to suggest that fundraising achieved 95% of the goal), the actual figure was closer to $482 million. The Academy is still $100 million short.
According to new museum director Bill Kramer, there is a road to fiscal wholeness. Kramer came back to the museum in October 2019 as a white knight after indecisive director Kerry Brougher finally left the scene. Kramer has to finalize and install exhibits, and open the museum on time — and finally, the cacophony of powers-that-be in this labyrinthine process are just letting him get on with it.
However, there’s yet another setback: the global pandemic. Construction work on site has halted, and the museum staff directs ongoing activity from home. “At present, and out of an abundance of caution, the staff of the Academy Museum is working remotely,” Kramer wrote in an email. “We continue our work towards the December opening and do not foresee a change in the opening schedule.” Luckily, this time Kramer had already built contingencies and testing into the schedule.
Kramer put in five years on the museum from 2011-2016, raising the first round of funding ($250 million) and navigating city and county approvals and regulatory hurdles to get construction under way. When he left in the beginning of 2016, having made an abortive run for the directorship, museum designs were complete and Braugher had been director for one year, working with architect Piano on the final design touches. The museum was just going into construction.
The Academy and the museum staff welcomed Kramer with open arms when he returned last fall. They needed him. “It’s exciting to come back to something I worked very hard on, as renderings, drawings and ideas,” said Kramer in a phone interview, “and see the physical spaces realized. It is so beautiful and functional — mind-blowingly exciting.”
As he assessed what needed to be done, Kramer delayed the opening yet again. (The new date, December 14, 2020, was announced at the February 9 Oscars.) He wanted to work with designers to overhaul the permanent exhibition spaces on the second and third floors of the Saban building (which is devoted to the stories of cinema) in order to make them more modular and easy to update.
“My desire was to create artist and film-centric spaces to tell the many stories of the movies and the artists,” he said, “designed in a way that was nimble and dynamic and would allow us to change the components of the spaces over time. A fixed permanent exhibition can be dangerous with a serious art form like this, with so many complicated stories to tell. We created a framework to allow us to tell those stories.”
When Kramer left LA in 2016, he worked with progressive arts organizations Rhode Island School of Design and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This gave him a sophisticated understanding of how to “create dynamic spaces that are rigorous and combined with dynamic design,” he said, “and able to tell stories that people want to engage with in a variety of ways, and open a lot of paths for discussion.”
Academy founders envisioned a Hollywood museum 90 years ago. “The Academy and the city have been talking about this since the late 1920s,” he said. “The need and desire for that hasn’t gone away. We build content with review and advice in all areas of the museum. We’re not doing it in a vacuum, but with Academy members and artists.”
Of course Kramer welcomes financial support from Hollywood movie artists and Academy members who are eager to contribute to the museum effort, but he also has to manage donations and loans of objects from the likes of everyone from Steven Spielberg to Leonardo DiCaprio, who led the effort to obtain one of four existing pairs of ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” and is happy to loan posters from his vast collection. The Museum asked Brooklyn filmmaker Spike Lee to curate one upcoming exhibit; other filmmakers will also participate in future installations.
Kramer and his team also created a firm timeline of deadlines to build the exhibits and make the museum ready to receive paying visitors. He said that December 14 opening has plenty of tests and buffer zones built in to handle any tweaking.
The Inclusion Dilemma
The new director’s biggest challenge is creating a cohesive whole from all the disparate voices and forces who want their say in telling Hollywood’s history. This includes protracted debates about how to handle the lack of inclusion in the Hollywood narrative.
Each branch of the Academy has a task force that, along with an inclusion advisory committee, can contribute to how each exhibit tells Hollywood’s history, behind and before the camera. Westerns, especially, present indigenous people on screen in ways that require analysis and interpretation, and Kramer does not intend to steer away from that history.
“We have finalized the opening exhibition,” said Kramer. “But we’re continuing to work with the task forces and inclusion and advisory committees on what will change. We have lots of moments of celebration, and moments talking about our complicated history. We can’t shy away from that.”
The museum’s 50,000 square feet of gallery space includes the 1939 Saban building’s second and third floor, which house the core “past, present and future” exhibits of costumes, music, props, cameras, editing bays, recording mixers, posters, scripts and designs, with one section focused on the “invented worlds and characters” of sci-fi and fantasy genres. The fourth floor devotes 11,000 square feet to the museum’s temporary exhibition space, with “deeper dives into certain areas of filmmaking, artists, genres and eras,” said Kramer. “That’s where the Hayao Miyazaki retrospective will be. It’s the only place you can see it in the U.S. It’s not going on tour.”
Walk into the museum from the corner of La Brea and Wilshire and you’ll eventually see a splendid new glass-cornered restaurant (from a well-known and innovative restaurateur, still to be announced; Academy-friendly Wolfgang Puck comes to mind) beneath the stunning iconic gold-mosaic column (comprised of 350,000 one-inch-square gold leaf mosaic tiles, 35 percent of which were replaced by Italy’s original manufacturer, Orsini). The spacious first-floor lobby will include an introductory gallery to give a taste of what’s to come on the upper floors, as well as a gift shop. A Metro line will open at Wilshire and Fairfax in 2023.
Building two theaters instead of three was a design decision made before Kramer left the museum. The 1,000-seat blood-red David Geffen theater (way too small to host the Oscar ceremony) is nestled inside the stunning Piano glass dome, and the 288-seat Ted Mann is downstairs, which can project in any medium —nitrate; 16, 35, or 70 mm; or 4K digital. “It was the right thing to do,” Kramer said. “They created a fantastic workhouse theater, perfect for three to four screenings a day, just the right size, from a content delivery standpoint. Theaters are a key part of our programming and exhibition plan.”
The theaters will be programmed day and evening, with repertory cinema, panel discussions and symposia connected to the exhibitions as well as standalone series. And of course, the Academy museum will rent them out for screenings, events, and premieres. Above the Geffen is the Barbra Streisand Bridge — a see-through elevated crosswalk from the Saban to Piano’s stunning Dolby Family Terrace rooftop, covered by a glass dome with 1500 glass panes with shades that move with the sun.
“Let’s go the edge,” says a guide, as we take in the splendid views of the city from seven stories up, from the Griffith Observatory to the Hollywood sign. The staff is already talking about booking premieres and events in December and beyond. One welcome source of content is the ongoing digital restorations of classic studio titles. But the most exciting source of programming is the Academy’s own carefully preserved print archives, with over 230,000 film and video assets.
But where are the bathrooms? One thing Kramer has to fix is how to direct attendees at the Geffen back to the restrooms in the adjoining Saban building. “We have bathrooms, as we do in [the Academy’s] Goldwyn [Theatre], but they’re not in the movie theater screening space,” he said. “They’re on the mezzanine, and there are easy paths to that. People will know where they are and how to get there. It’s a way-finding challenge for us, but the mezzanine of the Saban is connected to the lobby space of the Geffen.”
The museum contains two great unknowns: First, exactly how many people are still interested in a Hollywood museum. To pull in audiences, Kramer touts “a robust international marketing plan for the film community, for LA, for tourists and for international film lovers.”
And the second: Will the museum be able to make its money back, or will financial burdens be the Academy Museum’s albatross? “It is my hope to that we will achieve that goal before we open,” Kramer said, “and launch a Phase Two campaign raising additional capital to cover the cost of the project. We will have bond financing paid back over many years with the second phase of campaign, and we will raise additional funds for the capital and endowment grant funding, and build endowment for the museum.”