The Academy Movie Museum That Time Forgot Digs Toward 2018, Or Beyond

As we enter the waning part of 2016 (yes, really), 2018 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away. For half the country, give or take, that might be a scary thought; by 2018, we’ll be well into the presidency of a Trump or a Clinton II, either of whom is going to make someone unhappy. At least we can look forward to the Film Academy’s new movie museum, which is set to open late that year.

Of course, we’ve been looking forward for a while. “An academy museum has long been an academy objective,” Jean Hersholt wrote on April 30, 1949.

It’s right there in the 1948-1949 report of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which Hersholt was then president. “We own many pieces of old equipment such as a Pathe camera, a nickelodeon, old projectors, etc.” Hersholt explained. “Within the past month,” he added, “arrangements have been made to set up an embryo museum exhibit in our present building. We are confident that a comprehensive museum collection will grow from this small beginning and that a museum building will someday be provided to house it.”

Twelve years ago — time flies when you’re having fun — Bruce Davis, then executive director of the Academy, and Frank Pierson, then president, told James Bates and me, then reporters for the Los Angeles Times, that the promised building was at hand. Pierson died in 2012. Davis retired. The museum, once meant to occupy Academy-owned land in Hollywood, eventually migrated to the Miracle Mile, where it will someday nest near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a building that used to house the May Co. department store, and in a new, Renzo Piano-designed sphere, with glass bridges and a 1,000-seat theater.

That project isn’t the only one chewing up mid-Wilshire Blvd.

From 6-8 PM on Wednesday, LACMA is hosting a public meeting on its campus to tell the public about its own planned makeover, a $600 million expansion that will obliterate some existing buildings, and send a new, Peter Zumthor-designed exhibition hall snaking right across Wilshire. Work is supposed to start in 2018, just as the Academy museum is scheduled to open, and it won’t be done until 2023, exactly when construction of the Metro Rail Purple Line, which has already turned Wilshire into a no-go zone, is set to wrap. If all goes according to plan, most of the rubble should be clear in time for the movie museum’s fifth anniversary.

An Academy spokesperson said Bill Kramer, who departed last year as the museum’s chief fundraiser, should have a replacement “in the near future.” In the future, too, is the intended appointment of a separate board to govern the museum.

Academy Museum

Meanwhile, the Academy project is roaring along. Well, sometimes whimpering along, as the museum builders often have to schedule around the Purple Line diggers. At 3:32 PM last Thursday, things were pretty quiet. A construction elevator was jerking up and down the east side of the gutted May company structure, presumably servicing a crew that wasn’t quite visible, though the entire back of the five-story building is missing. Someone was using a jack-hammer, deep inside. Outside, 10 hard-hats were carting lunch-buckets and leaning on fences, next to a pit full of pilings that might have something to do with that planned sphere.

Maybe the hard-hats were prepping for a Tuesday visit by Gregory Pomish, of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. No stranger to the site, Pomish has stopped by at least 68 times since March to check on compliance with a supplemental micro-pile permit issued earlier this year. On Tuesday, he’s supposed to look at some concrete slab that was OK’d under an “early start foundation” permit from 2015. That one has already triggered 56 inspections, according to the records.

On the upside, according to a helpful person who answered the phone at the Los Angeles planning department, “once you’ve cleared a condition” through the inspectors, “it’s good forever.”

Presumably, the Academy won’t need forever; but it’s not hard to imagine the $388 million museum project, which was once set for completion in 2017, slipping again, even though it is burning through donations and the proceeds of more than $340 million in so-called “Oscar bonds.” After all, the new museum is planted in and around the La Brea tar pits, where the hazards include stray methane (which once blew a manhole cover as high as my head in the middle of Wilshire) and an eerie indifference to time.

Those hard-hats were lounging near a mound of black dirt that may or may not hold scraps from the Ice Age. In the middle of Wilshire, a 50-foot boring machine is crusted with asphalt: Test drilling churned up fossils that say this used to be the beach. A few hundred yards away, paleontologists and volunteers were using chisels and dental picks to work through 23 crates of hardened goo that had been removed when LACMA built its underground parking, right next to the movie museum site. “We don’t know how long it will take,” says a visitors’ guide, to pick through the crates, which weigh up to 123,000 pounds each, and hold the remains of dire wolves and giant camels who used to live here up to 30,000 years ago.

“LIKE, MAN. I’M TIRED, (OF WAITING),” declares a sign that looks down from the side of one LACMA building. (It is a work of art by Sam Durant.)

“Be calm, and dig on,” responds a placard at the paleontologists’ work site.

Nearby, the Academy, its hard-hats and Inspector Pomish — sharp-eyed as a teratorn, risen from the muck — seem to be doing exactly that.

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