Here’s another of those stories that got started while I was on vacation but has many twists and turns to come. A few weeks ago the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced that starting in October it would be “suspending” its longtime weekend film program, in order to “rethink” it, which sounded like an euphemism for sweeping it out the door. That series, which has been bringing classic films to the museum since 1968, became a nationwide model of smart programing under the direction of the late, great film historian and preservationist Ron Haver. LACMA’s director Michael Govan says the decision to “rethink” is based on money — thanks to dwindling audiences the film program lost about $1 million over ten years. But his announcement sparked an immediate backlash, including an impassioned open letter from Martin Scorsese imploring LACMA not to mess with the program.
It also produced a considerable reaction in the pages of the L.A. Times, which has been spanking Govan in public ever since, running numerous stories and opinion pieces bemoaning the decision. I suspect that anger over the film program announcement is also the subtext to the skeptical attention that the Times has given lately to Govan’s annual compensation from the museum — $1 million, a figure placing him among the most highly paid museum directors in the U.S.
If you don’t live in LA, why should you care? For one thing because LACMA is a major American museum and its practices are watched by other museums all across the country. If LACMA — an institution in Los Angeles, the movie making capital of America — doesn’t think film is important enough to subsidize, why should museums anyplace else give it much priority? If that kind of thinking takes hold, it will become even harder than it is now to see classic films in the theater environment where they were intended to be seen.
This was one of the points made last week in that open letter from Scorsese. And LACMA does more than just show films. It will often combine screenings with panel discussions like the great series I attended a few years ago at which the critics Andrew Sarris, Mollie Haskell and Richard Schickel illuminated Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. It would also be a kind of public service to rest of us for LACMA to keep classic films in the cultural conversation of the city that produces the movies the rest of us have to see, to remind film makers there that it’s not all about Transformers and G.I. Joe. Can it really be so hard for a museum with a budget of $74 million last year to cover a loss that averages out to $100,000 a year?
It could be objected that LACMA is “an encyclopedic museum”, with a collection that attempts, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to represent all times and places. We don’t expect the Met to run a film program. But the difference here is that LACMA, which has an entire contemporary art museum on its campus, is much more strongly devoted to modern and contemporary art than the Met. And you can’t fully understand modern art without a working knowledge of the films that were being made at the same time.
What that means, for instance, is that you understand Schwitters’ collages differently when you think about them in connection with the editing techniques of Soviet film makers like Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov. You understand the big canvases on the New York School differently when you think about widescreen film. (And yeah, I know that the first big AbEx canvases predate the spread of widescreen cinema in the early 1950s, and that everybody from Frederic Edwin Church to the Mexican muralists can be claimed as proximate sources for the AbEx embrace of scale. But I’ve always felt that by the ’50s Cinemascope in some way validated the very idea of a wide visual field as a general signifier of modern-ness. Discuss among yourselves.) And I won’t even bother to belabor the obvious argument that film is, in and of itself, one of the most important artforms of all.
The good news, maybe, is that some re-thinking already seems to be underway — a rethinking of the whole idea of abandoning the program. Govan may have been taken by surprise by the backlash to his decision about the program. (There’s also a Facebook page and an on-line petition to support the program here that has attracted about 2400 signatures so far. Meanwhile the museum has established an on-line forum about the film program crisis here.) Govan has said from the start that a $5 million endowment would be enough to put the program back up and running. (More recently he’s mentioned $10 million as an even better number.) On Sept. 1 he plans to sit down with members Save Film at LACMA for a “popcorn summit” at which supporters of the program hope to come up with ways to avoid even a temporary “suspension” that many people suspect will become permanent. Govan happens to be a peerless fund raiser, and LACMA’s board of trustees includes people from the film making community like Ron Howard’s producing partner Brian Grazer and Terry Semel, who used to head Warner Brothers.
Could it be that the Hollywood studios can’t unite to scrape together a few million to underwrite a program devoted to the history of what they do? More than that, can LACMA really be thinking of walking away from its cultural responsibilities in an area this important? If that happens, you can paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: “The pictures are still big. It’s the museums that got small.”