Ian Birnie sees encouraging signs from turmoil at LACMA
By By David Ng
Sep 11, 2009 | 12:00 AM
In his role as the head of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ian Birnie said his professional relationship with his boss was distant verging on nonexistent. And the majority of the museum's curatorial staff showed little or no interest in the film department during his tenure.
The final insult came Saturday when he was officially demoted to a contract position with the awkward title of "consulting curator" for the film department.
If he's angry about the situation, however, Birnie hides it well.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, he said that he has made peace with the museum's decision, though he added that the recent events "have been hard on me." He said he is pleased that the film department is finally getting the public's attention following the museum's July revelation that it would be ending its 40-year-old weekend film series. And though he suggested that his time as a consultant could be short-lived, he still has ideas on how the museum could strengthen its film program.
Birnie was first told by LACMA his job was coming to an end in June. "I was definitely surprised. I had no warning," he said. "In large institutions, you don't have much say in it. No one likes to have change thrust upon them. But I'm not going to play sour grapes."
Birnie insists that he's trying to maintain a positive outlook, especially in light of recent news that LACMA is receiving a $150,000 gift from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV.
The donation effectively gives the imperiled film program -- which was scheduled to end after an Alain Resnais retrospective in October -- a stay of execution through June 2010.
Birnie has spent the last few weeks planning film programs for those extra eight months. But the good news for the film program doesn't necessarily mean that LACMA will hire him back.
"There has been no discussion of that, but they haven't said they won't do it," Birnie explained. "They have to come up with a foundation going forward, and by next spring, there might be a new temporary definition in place."
Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, said in a statement that Birnie will be working as a programmer for the museum "through this year while we look for longer-term support." Govan, who was not available for an interview Wednesday, added that Birnie will be involved in future curatorial discussions about the fate of the film program.
He has told various people that LACMA plans to raise $5 million to $10 million toward the effort, though the museum's press office said the range is actually $5 million to $6 million.He also said he would like to increase the department's annual budget to $500,000 from its current level of around $350,000.
"There wasn't much of a relationship with Govan before," he said. "We were in the back pocket of LACMA so there was no reason to have one.
"Now the controversy has provoked a relationship. The involvement of someone that senior is good. It's going to take input from Govan on a semi-regular basis. The worse thing is for Govan to lose interest in this."
Though some have expressed skepticism over the museum's big-budget approach to its film problem, Birnie said he is optimistic about the future. He has even drawn up an informal wish list of changes he'd like to see take place.
Top among his desires is a new screening room that would supplement the programming at the museum's Bing Theater. He would also like to expand the department's two-person team, which consists of Birnie and Bernardo Rondeau, the department's coordinator, who is still on staff.
LACMA's film program has operated on a shoestring since it was founded by Phil Chamberlin in the late '60s. When Ron Haver took over during the '70s -- running the program until his death in 1993 -- the department grew in scope and size but seldom exceeded a staff of a few people. Birnie took over in 1996 after working 17 years in New York at various film institutions and festivals.
LACMA's skeleton film crew pales in comparison to the film department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which employs a staff of about 25, including nine film curators.
MoMA, which declined to disclose budgetary figures, maintains a permanent collection of prints. LACMA typically rents prints for its screenings, which can cost from $350 for a readily available studio movie to a few thousand dollars for a rare foreign import, Birnie said.
Both museums say they are fighting a generational shift that has seen the popularity of repertory cinema decline in recent years. "It's a problem -- you don't want empty houses," said Rajendra Roy, the head of MoMA's film department, on the phone from the Venice Film Festival.
Roy said that even MoMA is trying to shift its traditionally esoteric programming to include filmmakers with more universal appeal, such as Tim Burton and Spike Jonze.
At LACMA, Birnie said that he recently replaced a planned retrospective of Russian gloom auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, which was scheduled for the fall, with a more upbeat series on Audrey Hepburn. (The Tarkovsky retrospective will run in 2010.) "I didn't want to end the year on a down note," he explained.
Those who admire Birnie's work at LACMA single out his intelligent and adventurous choices in programming movies.
"Ian has a knack for organizing programs that allows classics and more obscure works to both feel vital," said Kyle Westphal, a member of Save Film at LACMA.
For now, Birnie said that he is planning only for the short run since his contract with the museum doesn't guarantee long-term employment. "Maybe they'll renew it, maybe they won't," he said.
"I'd be quite happy not to go to any more budget meetings."