Just when you thought it was a dead duck, it’s back and quacking.
For those who have had the dream of a world class movie museum coming to fruition in L.A., film capital of the world (count me in on that), last night’s announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have begun the process of finally making that dream come true is good news all around. And that longtime dream museum, which was turning into more of a nightmare for the Academy, is going to be right down the street from the Acad’s own Beverly Hills headquarters (at least that’s the plan).
The Academy is saying the project housed in the historic old May Co. on Wilshire Blvd now known as LACMA West will take three to five years to complete. “We are on the fast track but it will be determined by fund raising,” said the Acad’s new CEO Dawn Hudson, who spoke with me today in a conference call with Academy President Tom Sherak and LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan. Hudson wasn’t throwing out official figures but says she expects it will cost less than half the rough estimate of $480 million that the Academy had targeted for their earlier foiled plan to erect this museum in Hollywood where they spent about $50 million so far buying land (which they now own outright) near their Pickford Center on Vine Street. But the idea to house the museum instead at the already existing 300,000-square-foot space on Wilshire actually goes back decades when it was even broached by former Academy Presidents Walter Mirisch and Bob Rehme. It heated up again about a year and a half ago with a casual conversation between another Govan and another former Academy President Sid Ganis, who then introduced the museum head to Sherak and then CEO Bruce Davis.
“For about an hour and a half I did something I rarely do. I just listened to someone talk who had a vision and a dream about what this could mean to the City of Los Angeles to bring different art forms, especially our two art forms together in one place,” said Sherak, who emphasized that the Board wanted a museum in their lifetime but that the Academy didn’t know how long it would take them to raise the money and build one themselves. Govan came to the rescue. “Being in the museum world, I see film programs at museums in Paris and Frankfurt. I wanted that in Los Angeles and I knew the Academy had a dream and they had a great resource. So the question was what could we offer to help and that was the beginning of the conversation,” said Govan.
Sherak explained the Board approved further exploring the alliance with LACMA and put a committee together. But after June 1 when Davis retired and Hudson arrived, things really started moving. Before she left her previous job, Hudson forged an alliance with LACMA and Govan in which Film Independent would take over running the museum’s troubled film program so she already knew him and sparked immediately to the new museum idea.
“It was like going to target practice and hitting the bulls-eye 15 times in a row. Before anybody knew it, including me, there were budgets, and she was like Road Runner. Next thing I knew we were all in a room and finally negotiated an M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understanding) and he presented it to his Board and we presented to our Board last night and we decided we were gonna see a museum in our lifetime,” said a clearly energized Sherak.
The significant process cannot come at a better time as it seems major collections that conceivably might have been a part of the new museum are going on the block and being sold piecemeal to private collectors, many out of the country. Seven hundred items from the John Wayne estate including key costumes, awards, scripts and personal documents are going for auction this weekend, while Debbie Reynolds is continuing to sell off her invaluable collection of costumes after fruitless attempts to get a museum going herself. “Not that I could say to you that we ever could have bought the Debbie Reynolds collection as a whole. We couldn’t have done that. The collection’s worth a lot of money, you would have had to put an oil well up,” said Sherak.
But Hudson wants to emphasize what the Academy already has on its own. “As you well know the Academy has made a lot of investment over the years in building this world-class archive and film library like none other so now our year-round work will have a home, a place to display it, a distillation of all the Academy’s missions that the general public doesn’t know enough about, ” said Hudson in pointing out that there is much more to the organization than just the Oscars. “We have 42,000 movie posters and 10 million catalogued movie photographs. We have such beautiful artifacts of our film history and there hasn’t been a public place to see those or access those.”
Sherak points out the Academy is always looking out for acquisitions. “We have more stuff stored than Carter has liver pills. The bottom line is we never stop doing that. And it is in all facets of the business from the first printing press of motion picture one-sheets. We have stuff stored that would spin your head, that nobody knows about. It’s a continuing thing for us,” he says. And Govan thinks the new museum will even breed more. “From a museum perspective I personally have talked to a lot of people about the artifacts and posters and things they have and I think there’s that sense that if there were a museum people would donate. Cities build great museums and people feel like there’s a home for the objects they have cared for during their life and they know the public can benefit from that,” he says.
Sherak also wants to make clear they have not abandoned the Hollywood site (although I am told key figures at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce were caught by surprise — and not happy campers — when they read today of the Academy’s proposed new location for their museum). “We own that land. It’s ours free and clear and we’re now in the process of spending money to raze those buildings and to make it a place to go. We’ll probably do some exhibits there. We’ll do some stuff with the land. I’ve always had this dream of running an outdooor theatre there which I really believe in. We’re definitely in Hollywood. The Pickford Center sits there. We’re invested. We’re not going anywhere. The plan is to make that land useful to us,” Sherak says.
But clearly the momentum has moved from Hollywood to the historic building that sits on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax and which was built in 1939, the year many still feel was the greatest ever for the movies. “It just seemed like the timing was right,” Hudson said. “All the pieces fit together.”