The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is partnering with L.A.'s Film Independent on a new film series, sponsored by the New York Times, starting in September. And they are starting the search for a new film curator to run that screening program. Together. "We're helping to hire that person," says Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson. "Why wouldn't we know that community? We're offering our connection to the film community and programmers and our ability to assemble a team to oversee the program at LACMA. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Under new museum director Michael Govan, LACMA's film program has been under duress and was saved from suspension in October 2008 by an outcry from the film community, including director Martin Scorsese, who wrote to Govan:
“I find it profoundly disheartening to know that a vital outlet for the exhibition of what was once known as ‘repertory cinema’ has been cut off in L.A. of all places, the center of film production and the land of the movie-making itself."
The museum's film program was saved by grants from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV. For the past two years, LACMA film department consulting curator Ian Birney has limped along as lame duck head of the museum's film program. Revenues from LACMA's new film club, which charges extra to members, do not seem to have benefited the film department's bottom line: its budget has been curtailed in the last year. As of this fall, Birnie is out of a job, and one of the world's major museums (with some 30 curators covering everything from photography, fashion and sculpture to Korean art) is farming out its film programming to indie film organization Film Independent, which mounts the annual Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is run by producer Rebecca Yeldham and Newsweek critic David Ansen. According to Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson (pictured), while all of her organization's resources will be brought to bear on the new film program, their first order of business is finding a new screening series curator, to be based at LACMA. She adds: "Michael is not letting go. It's merging two institutions. He's asking, 'How can I get the film community involved in this program?'"
On the phone from London, after a trip to the Cinematheque Francaise to research Stanley Kubrick, Govan explained that unlike the other arts at LACMA, the film department has been showing no growth, losing audiences and has landed "zero" funding. The HFPA offered LACMA more money to "reconsider our programs and collaborations and study the possibilities," he says. "One thing we lacked was a big constituency for our films and a big network in that world." Govan is looking to rebuild the film department, with the screening program as a catalyst to attract support. He wants to bring more filmmakers into the mix, as he has done with artists such as John Baldessari. He's working on a show on cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in Mexico. "We're going to hire more people and attract high level curation and expertise as we steadily grow our film screenings, acquisitions and programs," he says. "Our Film Independent partnerhship will help us get a leg up and move faster and give us access to a constituency, expertise and filmmakers."
Both Film Independent and LACMA were looking to expand and improve their year-round film programming while seeking backers. Film Independent wanted to be able to show more films without distribution, for example. As they talked about their common goals, says Hudson, they started to think about pooling their resources at a time when funding is hard to come by. Hudson had already lined up the New York Times (which has a film club) as a major sponsor (more are needed) and was happy to find a home at LACMA. "Finding resources and supporters is an ongoing challenge," says Hudson. "We became like-minded about what a great film program could be." Part of the problem for LACMA are multiple ongoing film programs in LA, from the American Cinematheque to UCLA.
Govan believes that collaboration is the key to institutional success, and points to LACMA and the Getty Museum's pooling of resources to acquire the Robert Mapplethorpe collection. He considers Film Independent to be an artists' organization. "It seemed exciting to link to that network of artists that we didn't have, they have a lot of supporters and a great track record of finding sponsorships after our film program was struggling with so many turndowns and false starts. They felt they could help with fundraising and growth. We've been through a lot in this economy."
Former Warner Bros. chief Terry Semel, who is LACMA's co-chairman after having served on the museum board of trustees for two years, had promised more strong film programming, which has been under threat. “I am determined to make film and filmmakers a more integral part of this museum,” he said at a museum event for Clint Eastwood last year. “We will continue to introduce programs that celebrate the art of film and give it its proper place at LACMA.” Semel said that the museum hopes to attract more filmmaker events tied to DVD releases. Now Semel states: “LACMA’s assessment of its film program has resulted in a deeper commitment. The museum will present major exhibitions focused on the art of film, including the upcoming MOMA-organized Tim Burton, Gabriel Figueroa in 2013, and Stanley Kubrick next year. We wanted to strengthen the series, not compete with what other presenters are doing, which is why Film Independent is a natural choice."
The new weekly Film Series will launch in September 2011 with:
"previews of feature-length narrative and documentary films; archival films and repertory series; conversations with emerging and established filmmakers and artists; international showcases; family films; and special guest-curated programs. In addition, monthly post-screening receptions will bring together the Los Angeles creative community by offering a gathering place for film lovers, artists and the general public. The current LACMA film program, as well as Film Independent’s year-round Film Series will continue through mid-September. Additionally, LACMA will continue its Tuesday matinee series and film programs presented in conjunction with special exhibitions."
Birnie's final film series will be a Tim Burton retrospective this summer complementing the Tim Burton exhibition opening May 29. “We are enormously grateful to Ian for his substantial contribution to LACMA’s film program over the last fifteen years,” says Govan. “His commitment, discerning vision, and hard work have been invaluable.”