Two years ago, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures had all the trappings of a full-fledged Hollywood disaster in the making. It was over budget and behind schedule. Amid the delays and a contentious debate about the museum’s mission and purpose, it parted ways with its founding director, and the museum board reached across the country to bring back its former fund-raising chief, Bill Kramer, to rescue a project that now threatened to tarnish an already beleaguered Academy. Then the pandemic hit.
Last week, the Academy Museum arrived with the kind of pomp and celebrity that only Hollywood can muster. Yes, it was supposed to cost $250 million and open in 2017, while the final price tag was over $480 million and it was nearly 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, to good reviews. “The Oscars are a lousy gauge of film history,” read one headline in The Los Angeles Times. “The Academy Museum is already doing it better.” Located next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it has become a distinctive mark on the city’s landscape. The spherical addition to the former department store that houses the museum has been christened, cinematically, the Death Star — which should give tourists looking to get their hands around movie history something more satisfying than the mimes and panhandlers along the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
It was not easy. Kramer, working with Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s chief artistic and programming officer, and a team of curators, helped bring it across the finish line in the midst of a pandemic that threatened fund-raising and attendance, and amid renewed debate on equity and social justice that implicated Hollywood as much as any other American institution.
“I don’t envy him at all,” said Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive officer for Netflix and the chairman of the museum’s board of directors. “But he does it all very elegantly.”
Kramer is all good cheer and effervescence, an always-look-at-the-bright-side-of-life addition to Los Angeles. He spoke about his return from New York and the challenge of rethinking the museum after the racial justice and sexual assault reckonings following George Floyd’s murder and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction. “The world is evolving,” he said. “And it is fantastic. We were not only prepared for that but eager to have those conversations.”
By every appearance, Kramer, 53, who has spent the past decade bouncing back and forth between high-profile arts positions in New York and Los Angeles, is holding one of the most prestigious museum jobs in the nation.
The Academy Museum has been a dream of the self-reverential Hollywood film community for more than 50 years, a glittering symbol of Los Angeles’s campaign to expand its cultural and tourist footprint. For Kramer, it offered an opportunity to elevate a still-young art form that often feels slighted by the serious art world. Overnight he found himself in with the Hollywood A list, with the promise of parties, fund-raisers, red carpets and being on a first-name basis with Tom Hanks, Spike Lee and Barbra Streisand, all of whom have been involved with the museum’s creation.
But even before it opened, the museum risked seeming out of touch with the times. That feeling has only increased over the course of this pandemic. Conceived to celebrate cinema as an art form, the museum now finds itself arriving when many movie theaters are going out of business — including, right in Hollywood, the ArcLight Cinemas, which among cinephiles was one of the most venerated theaters in the country — as streaming services become the medium’s dominant delivery route.
Kramer is an answer to all that glumness, as far as the board is concerned, a very Hollywood figure, a showman and salesman and story teller. He is a traffic director at the center of a cultural and societal maelstrom, balancing the interests of contributors, celebrities, politicians, museum curators and an army of craft unions.
That means managing conflicting demands to make this museum a sophisticated portrayal of cinema as art while presenting treasures to draw tourists: It can display a tribute to the director Pedro Almodóvar in one room and a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers in another. (After some debate, museum executives went ahead with a virtual reality room that lets visitors pretend they are walking onto the stage at the Dolby Theater to accept an Oscar — “It’s very tasteful,” Kramer said — because, well, how could they not?)
“In Korea, we have an expressions that a swan on the lake looks so gracious, but it’s paddling like crazy under the water,” said Miky Lee, the film producer whose credits including “Parasite,” and who is the vice chairwoman of the museum board. “Bill reminds me of the swan. His feet are moving like crazy under the water.”
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 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to become its director. Kramer then decamped for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
When Brougher left as the museum struggled with cost overruns and delays, Kramer was waiting in the wings. Rajendra Roy, the chief curator for 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 director and retained passion for this place gave us a lot of confidence.”
Even before his arrival, the museum had begun to push to reflect Hollywood’s history of racial and gender discrimination. For example, there is a gallery that displays how wigs and makeup were used to perpetuate racial stereotypes.
But the museum went further to rethink its exhibitions. And Kramer helped steer it away from its plan to devote much of its space to a large permanent exhibition giving a chronological history of film to something more thematic and dynamic. Most of the exhibitions are not permanent, which spares the museum the why-not criticism of omission, and gives tourists (and Angelenos) new reasons to come and donors new motivation to write a check. A gallery that is currently devoted to “The Wizard of Oz” will highlight another film next year (Kramer knows what it is, but he’s not saying).
Kramer did not follow an obvious path to this position: He is not a product of Hollywood, or museums. He studied actuarial science at the University of Texas — “I was a math-head,” he said — and earned a masters in urban planning at New York University.
But more than anything, Kramer was a fund-raiser. The ability to understand an organization, and the skills of diplomacy and persuasion that get people to write checks, has proved useful. Charming and deferential as needed, he has avoided the infighting and feuding that marks life at many museums or studios.
“We have nearly 10,000 members of the academy and they are not shy about expressing their opinions,” said Dawn Hudson, chief executive officer of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “There’s a lot of consensus-building that Bill does well.”
Hudson said Kramer understood how to strike the balance between the pedagogical demands of a museum and a fun place to spend an afternoon. “It was never the intention that you are going here to go to school,” she said.
And Kramer was most certainly having fun as he showed off some of the museum’s treasures. Here was 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 that Bert Lahr wore as the Cowardly Lion. There was (spoiler alert) Rosebud. And over there, the typewriter used to write the screenplay for “Psycho.”
“Bill has seen those items on paper and in real life 100 times, but you walk the museum with him and I’m sure you got the sense that he was doing it for the first time,” Sarandos said.
That showed throughout the course of a 90-minute tour of the museum. “Oh — you’ll love this,” he said, stopping by a display case. “These are handwritten draft script pages from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ which are surprisingly legible 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, there are some critical questions ahead. Will tourists return to Los Angeles? Will people be ready to go to museums in large numbers? And most of all, has the glamour of Hollywood faded now that many people watch the latest big studio hits in their living rooms?
Kramer, of course, is all sunshine 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 moment now than even six months ago.”
“And if we have to pivot,” he said, “we’ll pivot.”
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