Two years ago, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures had all the attributes of a true Hollywood disaster in the making. It was out of budget and overdue. Amid delays and a controversial debate over the museum’s mission and purpose, he parted ways with its founding director, and the museum’s board of trustees traveled the country to bring back its former head of collecting fund, Bill Kramer, to save a project that now threatened to tarnish an already besieged Academy. Then the pandemic struck.
Last week, the Academy Museum arrived with the kind of glamor and stardom that only Hollywood can muster. Yes, it was supposed to cost $ 250 million and open in 2017, when the final price was over $ 480 million and was almost four years late.
But it opened, 22 months after Kramer’s return, with festivities, celebrities (Lady Gaga, Cher and Jennifer Hudson) and, for the most part, good reviews. “The Oscars are a lousy gauge of movie history,” the Los Angeles Times read. “The Academy museum is already doing better.” Located next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it has become a hallmark of the city’s landscape. The spherical addition to the old department store that houses the museum has been cinematically dubbed the Death Star – which should give tourists looking to get their hands on cinema history something more satisfying as mimes and beggars along the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
It was not easy. Kramer, working with Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s artistic and programming director, and a team of curators, helped him cross the finish line amid a pandemic that threatened fundraising and attendance, and in the midst of a renewed debate on fairness and justice that involved Hollywood as much as any other American institution.
“I don’t envy him at all,” said Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix and chairman of the museum’s board. “But he does it all very elegantly.”
Kramer is all in good spirits and effervescence, always an addition to the sight of the bright side of life in Los Angeles. He spoke about his return from New York and the challenge of rethinking the museum after the racial justice and sexual assault calculations following the murder of George Floyd and the conviction of Harvey Weinstein. “The world is changing,” he says. “And it’s fantastic. We were not only prepared for this, but looking forward to having these conversations. “
With every appearance, Kramer, 53, who has spent the past decade moving back and forth between prominent artistic positions in New York City and Los Angeles, holds one of the most prestigious museum jobs in the country. .
The Academy Museum has been a dream of the self-revering Hollywood film community for over 50 years, a shining symbol of the Los Angeles campaign to expand its cultural and tourist footprint. For Kramer, this offered the opportunity to elevate a still young art form that often feels looked down upon by the serious art world. Overnight he found himself on the Hollywood A list, with the promise of parties, fundraisers, red carpets and being on a first name basis with Tom Hanks, Spike Lee and Barbra Streisand, who have all been involved in the creation museum.
But even before it opened, the museum risked appearing out of touch with its time. This feeling has only increased during this pandemic. Designed to celebrate cinema as an art form, the museum now arrives when many cinemas go bankrupt – including, in Hollywood, the ArcLight Cinemas, which among moviegoers was one of the most revered theaters in the country – as streaming services are becoming the dominant distribution channel of the media.
Kramer is an answer to all this gloom, when it comes to the board, a very Hollywood figure, a showman and a salesman and a storyteller. He is a circulation director at the center of a cultural and societal maelstrom, balancing the interests of contributors, celebrities, politicians, museum curators and an army of trade unions.
This means dealing with conflicting demands to make this museum a sophisticated representation of cinema as art while presenting treasures to attract tourists: it can display a tribute to director Pedro Almodóvar in a room and a pair of ruby slippers. of Dorothy in another. (After a debate, museum executives set up a virtual reality room that allows visitors to pretend they are entering the Dolby Theater stage to accept an Oscar – “It’s in very good taste,” said said Kramer – because, well, how could they not?)
“In Korea, we have expressions that a swan on the lake looks so graceful, but it paddles like crazy underwater,” said Miky Lee, the film producer whose credits include “Parasite.” , and who is the vice-chair of the museum’s board of directors. “Bill reminds me of the swan. His feet move like crazy underwater.
Kramer was the museum’s development director in 2016, when the board turned to a more established face in the museum world, Kerry Brougher, the former chief curator of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, for become its director. Kramer then left for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
When Brougher left as the museum struggled with cost overruns and delays, Kramer was waiting backstage. Rajendra Roy, chief curator of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a member of the academy, praised the energy he brought. “When he left I saw it as a loss for the museum,” he said. “The fact that he came back as a director and that he kept the passion for this place gave us a lot of confidence. “
Even before his arrival, the museum had started lobbying to reflect Hollywood’s history of racial and gender discrimination. For example, there is a gallery that shows how wigs and makeup have been used to perpetuate racial stereotypes.
But the museum went further to rethink its exhibitions. And Kramer helped him move away from his plan of devoting much of his space to a large permanent exhibit giving a chronological history of the film to something more thematic and dynamic. Most of the exhibits are not permanent, which spares the museum criticism of omissions, and gives tourists (and Angelenos) new reasons to come and donors new motivations to write a check. A gallery currently devoted to “Wizard of Oz” will highlight another film next year (Kramer knows what it is, but he doesn’t).
Kramer has not followed an obvious path to this position: he is not a product of Hollywood or the museums. He studied actuarial science at the University of Texas – “I was a math specialist,” he said – and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University.
But more than anything, Kramer was a fundraiser. The ability to understand an organization and the diplomacy and persuasion skills that get people to write checks have proven to be helpful. Charming and deferential when needed, he avoided the internal feuds and feuds that characterize the life of many museums or studios.
“We have almost 10,000 academy members and they don’t hesitate to voice their opinions,” said Dawn Hudson, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “There is a lot of consensus that Bill is doing well. “
Hudson said Kramer figured out how to balance the educational demands of a museum with a fun place to spend an afternoon. “It was never the intention that you were going here to go to school,” she said.
And Kramer was certainly having fun showing off some of the museum’s treasures. Here is the painted backdrop, 30 feet high and 39 feet wide, of Mount Rushmore that Alfred Hitchcock used in “North by Northwest”. There was the mane Bert Lahr wore as a cowardly lion. There was (spoiler alert) Rosebud. And there, the typewriter was writing the screenplay for “Psycho”.
“Bill has seen these objects on paper and in real life 100 times, but you walk around the museum with him and I’m sure you feel like he’s doing it for the first time,” Sarandos said.
This showed up throughout a 90 minute tour of the museum. “Oh, you’re going to love this,” he said, stopping in front of a window. “These are handwritten script pages from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, which are surprisingly readable and well preserved. Instead of “There’s no place like home”, it’s “I’m going back to Kansas, I’m going back to Kansas.” Oh my God!”
For the museum, crucial questions arise. Will tourists come back to Los Angeles? Will people be ready to go to museums in large numbers? Most importantly, has the glamor of Hollywood faded now that many people are watching the latest studio hits in their living rooms?
Kramer, of course, is all sun and roses. “People are ready,” he said. “We are vaccinated now, many of us. We know more about the virus. I think we are living in a very different time now than it was just six months ago. “
“And if we have to pivot,” he said, “we will pivot. “