Museum Piece: Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium: One of Hollywood's ... um ... cultural offerings
Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium: One of Hollywood's ... um ... cultural offerings

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been long overdue in providing its hometown with a museum that both it and the film community can be proud of. ‘Tacky’ is a word all too often (and deservedly so, I hasten add) used to describe Hollywood’s cultural offerings. Consider the slew of shamefully shabby tourist trap ‘museums’ that clutter Hollywood Blvd. Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The Hollywood Wax Museum. The Hollywood History Museum has much potential, but feels more like an antique flea market than anything else. And so film lovers here in LA breathed a sigh of relief when the Academy recently announced its plan to unveil a world-class film museum rivaling the Walt Disney Concert Hall in transformative power. (Just look at the good Frank Gehry’s experimental edifice has done for downtown.) Even the proposed site, around the corner from the Cinerama Dome, seemed inspired: the museum would be christened in the very part of town where the whole Industry began a hundred years ago. (yeah, I know, Biograph was in Downtown L.A.—but I’m talking generalities, people.) The hope of the Academy was that such a museum would put there ‘there’ in Hollywood: a place commonly thought of as having ‘no there there.’

Artists rendering of proposed Academy Museum.
Artists rendering of proposed Academy Museum.

This wouldn’t be an ‘Oscar’ museum by any means. It would be something much more important: a place to ‘celebrate and explore how film has reflected and shaped world culture, and to help us all better understand what the movies have meant – and continue to mean – in our lives.’ And when LA Magazine featured an in depth article on the project a few months back, I was swooped into eager anticipation.

And so it is particularly bittersweet that today’s Hollywood Reporter features a report on the status of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures project, which appears to be approaching indefinite hiatus thanks to our stalled economy. With programs being hacked countrywide, Alex Ben Block’s report was inevitable: “… Despite a multiyear battle to purchase the land—bought, as it turns out, at the top of the market—and despite an investment of about 35 million, there is no indication that the museum will go ahead any time soon. For insiders, the whole ting is beginning to seem eerily reminiscent of the last time the Academy explored creating a movie museum, back in the early 1960s, when it bought land near the Hollywood Bowl, hired a famed architect to design it, but saw the project founder because of one sole property owner who wouldn’t budge. This time the Academy has all the land. It just doesn’t have all the money. If completed, images of such stars as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and directors like D.W. Griffith will be returned to the very site where they once gave birth to movies. But without the funds in place, and with no clear indication of where they will come from, that’s a big if.

The Academy now owns the 8 acre stretch of land near sunset and vine--with the $27 million mortgage to prove it.
The Academy now owns the 8 acre stretch of land near sunset and vine--with the $27 million mortgage to prove it.

“The city estimated that the new museum would create 160 full-time jobs. Because of this, the Academy wasn’t alone in its enthusiasm. Local politicos were thrilled about what it could mean for the ongoing development of Hollywood. ‘This is the museum that the neighborhood always wanted but never had,’ L.A. Councilman Eric Garcetti explains, ‘a world class museum of the highest caliber.’ And it would have been, if not for the financial meltdown. Now everything is frozen. After nearly eight years of development, the whole project has been put on hold. [Academy President] Ganis says it makes no sense in the midst of an economic downturn to launch a $300 million capital campaign. That means there is no firm timetable when, or even if, fundraising will proceed. “

Adding insult to injury? “The Academy must now wait out the financilal crisis while making payments on $27.8 million mortgage.” Ganis insists that the museum will open by 2014. “This is a multiyear project we are well into … I’m very confident it will happen. It has been a dream for too many of us for too long and we won’t let it fail.”

Here’s hoping, Mr. Ganis.

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

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