Time Has Come for Academy Museum (Column)

False starts shouldn't deter fulfilling vision

That there’s still an available building at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures to take over — and that there’s still an Academy Museum of Motion Pictures waiting to be created — testifies to the skepticism one might have for the project.

But I’d prefer to focus on the dream that’s within the grasp of the film academy, and in turn fans of cinema everywhere. This vision long struggling to be fulfilled, at a location long struggling to be properly utilized, could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

I follow the Academy Museum project with more than my fair share of interest. There’s the fact that I cover the Academy – the keeper of the Oscars and a critical treasurer of film history – for Variety. That from the northern windows of our office on Wilshire, I can look down at the former May Co. building on the Los Angeles Museum of Art campus that will serve as the home for the Academy Museum, scheduled to open in 2017. That I, like many other natives of Los Angeles my generation, have experienced or heard tales from previous generations of shopping at the the locally legendary department store. And that, like so many others, I have my own love affair with film, from seeing “Dumbo” at 4, “Blazing Saddles” at 7 and “The Misfits” at 21, each a revelation in their own ways.

Moreover, there’s also the fact that I’ve been an active participant in previous attempts to make something out of the May Co. building. Though I’ve only been at Variety since 2006, I’ve been on the Miracle Mile since 2002, having gone to work at LACMA as that museum was in the throes of its own effort to make something of the structure.

That year, LACMA’s board of trustees approved a visionary plan, designed by Rem Koolhaas, to revolutionize the campus, involving the teardown of most of its existing buildings and the erection of a new structure that would display art in an arguably unprecedented fashion. Among the buildings that would be spared destruction was the May Co. building, dubbed LACMA West after its 1994 acquisition, because it had enough architectural value and functional potential to be a complement to the new LACMA, rather than be an obstacle.

Despite the approval of the museum’s leadership, however, the Koolhaas plan ran aground, failing to generate the nine-figure fundraising necessary for its livelihood. We’ll blame that on a failure of nerve among the city’s monied class, rather than the impeccably sterling proposals co-authored by, oh, I don’t know, someone in the near vicinity of this byline.

LACMA West entered into a kind of limbo, for a time hosting LACMA’s Latin American Art collection, its children’s museum and special exhibitions on the ground floor (you might remember seeing the return of King Tut there in 2005), special events on the top floor, and a random series of offices and storage in between. To walk around LACMA West in those days was to walk around a relic, with a mix of decorative elements from a halcyon era and less glamorous detritus of later years. Inside the building remained, as fans of “The Simpsons” might appreciate, a veritable escalator to nowhere. My first week at LACMA, I was treated to a tour of the building’s innards, complete with tales of murder on its premises and the ghosts that lingered thereafter.

The effort to make something of LACMA West didn’t end with the Koolhaas project — I can’t tell you how many different proposals referred to its Streamline Moderne architecture or its golden “perfume bottle” where the May Co. letters had once stood out so proudly (and that could be renamed for the right level of donation). But with my migration to Variety, it became someone else’s problem.

I was in a new world now, a world that had little to do with fine art and much more with art for the screen. In the ensuing years, you might pick up vague notions of an ongoing Academy effort to create a museum of its own, most notably in Hollywood adjacent to the Academy’s Pickford Center on Vine. But that seemed as visceral to me as the prospect of a transformed LACMA West probably seemed to most of Los Angeles.

Certainly, the last place anyone might have expected an Academy Museum of Motion Pictures might have been Wilshire and Fairfax, not after LACMA in 2009 announced it would be gutting its four-decade-old weekend film program, a decision that provoked a public outcry from membership to famed director Martin Scorsese (though, it should be noted, no earthshattering outlay of community financial support). Ultimately, LACMA reversed field and the film program was reinvigorated, in part through a lively partnership with Film Independent, whose exec director Dawn Hudson, it can’t be forgotten, subsequently became the Academy’s CEO.

Barely two years later, in October 2011, when the Academy and LACMA announced they were partnering to explore the creation the Academy Museum in the May Co. building, you’d be forgiven for shock, skepticism or even ennui. So much talk about the project and the precinct, so little action.

Nevertheless, even with all that history, I’m finding it hard to be a cynic and much easier to see the Academy Museum project — in appropriately Hollywood fashion — as two lost souls destined to find each other.

Subsequent milestones – both in fundraising and in design – have fed my romantic musings. As of this month, the Academy Museum is more than halfway to completing its $300 million capital campaign, and the most recent plans put forth a vision that I think most can easily get behind (though opinions might vary toward the giant golf ball proposed to be teed up in what once served as the May Co. parking lot).

There seems to be a realization that a proper celebration of film’s heritage — Hollywood’s Cooperstown — is long overdue in Los Angeles, and that something the size of what the Academy currently offers (or for that matter the tightly squeezed, TV-focused Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills) didn’t do much justice to such a central part of the fabric of the city.

The long-term plan — if you click your heels and chant “There’s no better ride home,” it might just come true — for a subway station across the street only adds to the feeling that the timing seems right. That the May Co. building was completed in 1939, year of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” is an utterly irrelevant yet nice cherry on top.

If the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures isn’t meant to be, I suppose we’ll know soon enough, and we’ll have no right to be surprised.  But I think it’s time to be believers. Who doesn’t like a happy ending?

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