Films at LACMA: A thing of the past or the future?


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The weekend film program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- the one you may have known and loved for 37 years -- is going away in November.

The chronically underfunded program has lost about $1 million over the last 10 years and the audience has diminished, partly because many people are watching films at home, says Michael Govan, the museum’s director. During the last fiscal year, 22,754 people attended films at LACMA, including 6,228 at its Tuesday matinees, which will continue.


The demise, Govan says, is ‘a pause for re-thinking’ while the staff creates a more adventurous program, attuned to LACMA’s mission, and finds donors to support it.

Efforts to raise funds for the existing program have been unsuccessful, Govan says, so it’s necessary ‘to shake people up a little bit and ask how we are going to arrange the museum’s priorities.’ Now is the time, he says, ‘to take stock of where film sits in the development of recent art. I have a firm belief that the history of 20th-century art will be re-written in terms of film and photography.’

Calling a halt to the weekend program is ‘kind of a call to arms,’ says Govan, who has recruited high-profile members of the film world to the museum’s board of trustees and hopes they will rise to the challenge, along with other patrons. ‘We cannot be the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and not have film as a core program, not an ancillary education program, but a core program,’ he says. ‘It has to be a world-class program and it has to be sustainable.’

Film has had a presence at American art museums since the 1930s. The standard approach is to show films that are directly related to the institutions’ exhibitions and collections, but some leading museums have developed extensive, international programs appealing to a broad audience.

The leader is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which claims on its website to have built “the strongest international film collection in the United States.” With a holding of more than 22,000 films and 4 million film stills, MoMA presents about 1,300 screenings a year to an audience of nearly 200,000. Film is also an important part of the program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which attracts about 32,000 people a year to 224 screenings, including festivals co-organized with other organizations.

In Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art occasionally present films in conjunction with exhibitions. The Southwest Museum and the Museum of the American West, under the umbrella of the Autry National Center, organize film series that illuminate their missions. The Skirball Center’s film program covers a broad range of subjects in 35 to 50 screenings a year. The Hammer Museum, a relative newcomer that opened its Billy Wilder Theater in 2006, presents exhibition-related films and serves as a venue for festivals co-organized with the UCLA Film and Television Archive.


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-- Suzanne Muchnic

Photo: Bing Theater at LACMA, where most films are screened. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art