Published: September 28, 2021
By Karla Klein Albertson
LOS ANGELES – Not far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the fossil-rich La Brea Tar Pits, there stands a new institution devoted to how cinematic dreams are turned into reality. When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens on September 30, it reveals a feast of offerings for every type of movie fan from the casual rerun watcher to the consumer of “making of” documentaries.
The main museum structure is the repurposed 1939 May Company department store building on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, opened in 1939 – the same year that The Wizard of Oz was released in a happy coincidence. Designed by Albert C. Martin and Samuel A. Marx, the building with its spectacular Streamline Moderne façade was declared a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1992.
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop, well-known for their work with cultural institutions, was chosen as architect for the Academy Museum. The revamped May store was renamed the Saban Building for generous donors Cheryl and Haim Saban, and a shining glass and concrete spherical addition was constructed to the north, linked by glass bridges to the main building.
The completed museum contains 300,000 square feet with six stories of space for permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, an education studio and event space. Best of all there are two state-of-the-art -what else? – theaters. The 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater in the sphere will have daily screenings and can handle all film formats from the oldest to the newest. A smaller 288-seat Ted Mann Theater can be used for anything from children’s movie showings to panels of experts on cinema topics.
The inaugural schedule of over a hundred screenings and programs can be found on the website.
Visitors entering the Saban Building will walk directly into the Spielberg Family Gallery -what a legendary name to start off with – and be surrounded by a history of moving pictures from the Lumiére brothers’ work in the late Nineteenth Century to the present day. Then traffic moves into the museum’s core exhibition – “Stories of Cinema” – which can be found in multiple galleries covering 31,000 square feet on two floors.
Capturing the heart of the industry, these displays bring together all the essential pieces of a successful movie from the original screen plays and casting calls to costumes, make-up and special effects. All of these are on view in a special behind-the-scenes look at The Wizard of Oz. An “Encounters” gallery featuring many well-known characters in cases allows for a face-to-face experience with See-Threepio (C-3PO) as well as some far creepier creations. Another room chronicles moments in “Academy Awards History,” which includes some memorable red carpet couture.
One can imagine visitors sprinting from one eye-catching attraction to another. A clever adjacent gallery titled the “Oscars Experience” creates an immersive environment where anyone can enjoy the experience of walking out on the famous stage at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard to pick up that Oscar they always dreamed about.
The multilayered building also houses the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery for changing exhibitions, devoted on this first go-round to celebrated Japanese director of imaginative films, Hayao Miyazaki. His 2001 creation Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Drawing from the archives of the Studio Ghibli, which he founded, the show will include sketches, character designs, storyboards and film clips from his productions.
After Miyazaki, the next exhibition in 2022 will be “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” which will focus on the history and contributions of Black artists in the industry from the very earliest films to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
The Academy Museum will also have a publishing arm dedicated to furthering scholarship on the history of film. Available first, to coincide with the special exhibition, will be an illustration-filled catalog devoted to Hayao Miyazaki. Coming in April 2022 will be Spike Lee: Director’s Inspiration and Pedro Almodóvar: Installation – both legendary filmmakers created special curated experiences for the “Stories of Cinema” exhibition. The museum will continue to add volumes to a series on important directors.
For classic antiques collectors, the most interesting exhibition in the building may be “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection” located in the Special Collections Gallery. Balzer (1944-2017) was many things – an author and documentary photographer, an organizational consultant – and, above all, a passionate collector of pre-cinematic optical toys and devices. His widow, Patricia Bellinger Balzer, donated the assemblage of more than 9,000 objects to the museum.
In an announcement, Jessica Niebel, exhibitions curator, said, “The magic of the movies began with a sense of wonder at seeing still images come to life. No one was more dedicated than the late Richard Balzer to the marvelous history of pre-cinema. No one did more to preserve these riches and make them available to the public.”
The collection holds now-obscure optical devices and visual mechanisms which can be far better explained and demonstrated in a museum setting than in print. They include early illusions such as shadow puppet shows, magic lanterns with exotic views and more complex creations like the praxinoscopes which could be spun to create the impression of a moving image.
Assistant curator Ana Santiago came into her position at the new museum with a dual degree in film and art history and experience at both a photography museum and the photography department at Christie’s. When she spoke with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, she admitted that it was exciting working in the historic building on this collection: “It makes me think about history and film history in particular, which is what the Balzer Collection is all about.”
“I worked with Jessica Niebel, the exhibitions curator, and something we wanted to highlight in the exhibition is the idea that cinema did not come from nowhere, it was not born into a void. There are all these optical toys that were around before then that really set up a lot of the effects we see in movies today. For example, we start off the exhibition highlighting shadow play – that was really the first form of projection, and you see that throughout the world.”
She continued, “My personal favorites are the vues d’optiques.” This device plays with the effects of light and could change a scenic view from day to night through adjustments. In the gallery, visitors can find an installation of scenes transforming, and indeed presentation and installation is the key to viewers understanding the effect of what were scientific breakthroughs in their day.
“If it’s just a box sitting there, you don’t understand how important this device was in 1800,” Santiago explained. “We’re trying, as much as possible, to make people understand what’s so magical about these devices.”
Also on display is a montage of films by the French Lumiére brothers, Auguste and Louis, who, beginning in 1895, had devised a way to project moving images using a cinematographe. Unlike the three-hour film of today, however, their short subjects only lasted for under a minute due to the early techniques involved. Eventually, there will also be magic lantern show in the gallery, created using original slides from the collection.
Santiago concluded, “What I think we would want people to take away from ‘The Path to Cinema’ is an appreciation of this history. A lot of people when they consider filmmaking will usually just think of newer things like recent Marvel movies – and the museum has that for people as well. But I want people to also appreciate where cinema came from, whether that is the zoetropes and praxinoscopes or the Cinematographe theatre.”
If a trip to Los Angeles and the Academy Museum is still on the wish list for now, the website www.academymuseum.org has collection highlights, all the latest programs, and a sign-up form for the newsletter. Of course, there is a museum store – every child’s first stop – and there will be excellent presents for Christmas. Also note, since there is so much to see, the museum offers onsite dining in Fanny’s Restaurant and Café.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is at 6067 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, 323-930-3000.
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