Academy Museum’s Kerry Brougher gets to merge interests in art, film

Kerry Brougher takes over as the new head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum on July 1.
Kerry Brougher takes over as the new head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum on July 1.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

He may be the first museum director who can call KTLA’s “Shock Theater” a formative text in his arts education.

Kerry Brougher will step into his new role as director of the future Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum on July 1. Slated to open in 2017, the Academy Museum carries with it the high ambitions of academy members, big-ticket Hollywood industry donors and serious film scholars.

For Brougher, currently the interim director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the job marks the convergence of two tracks of interest in art and film that he first discovered while watching Universal monster movies on TV as a child in Garden Grove — or, as Brougher put it, “a suburb of Disneyland.”

“From watching ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ I became interested in German Expressionism, shadow and light,” Brougher told The Times in a recent interview on the site of the future museum, at the historic May Co. building next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I understood that the score they were using for ‘Dracula’ was actually Tchaikovsky. My whole world just expanded outwards from this moment when I was very young, watching these late Friday night shows.”

A curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art from its opening in 1983 to 1997, and then the director of the Modern Art Oxford museum in England, Brougher, 61, brings with him both art world bona fides and film world taste.


At MOCA, he curated the show “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” an exhibition that featured works by popular directors like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, as well as experimental work by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow; at Oxford, he programmed a show about Alfred Hitchcock; and at the Hirshhorn he organized a 2008 exhibition called “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image,” which featured works by Steve McQueen, the English artist who would go on to direct this year’s best picture winner, “12 Years a Slave.”

That Brougher combines the administrative know-how to run a museum with a cinéaste’s sensibilities was a large part of his appeal, according to academy Chief Executive Dawn Hudson.

“If you want to make a film, we’ve got 6,000 members who can help you do that, but we don’t have museum experience,” Hudson said. “Kerry could talk with our editing branch governor about [Russian film director] Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of editing, and then he knows where to put the loading dock. Those are unusual qualities to combine in one person.”

Brougher will need to serve a broad array of museum visitors, from film buffs to casual travelers.

“For the scholars we’ll be doing hopefully very high-level exhibitions,” Brougher said. “For the tourists who come to L.A. looking for Hollywood, the Hollywood they usually can’t find, we maybe now give them a place they can come and feel like they have gotten a taste. You’ll come in knowing you like movies. But hopefully you’ll leave knowing film is a real art form.”

The museum, which the academy had been discussing for decades, is a high priority for the group of movie industry artists and professionals. Two years into the five-year capital project, it has raised two-thirds of the $300-million budget.

The academy’s search for a museum director took more than a year, as a committee headed up by Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy solicited referrals from 400 people in 13 countries before naming Brougher in April, Hudson said.

During what he called his “screen test,” Brougher met with dozens of academy members including Steven Spielberg, Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter and director Jason Reitman about their ideas for the museum.

“The fortunate thing here is that many of the stakeholders in the museum are artists themselves in one form or another,” Brougher said. “I feel very much like it’s their museum; they’ve helped shape it and form it. They’ve had a piece of the process in creating this, even more than an art museum stakeholder.”

One challenge Brougher may face in directing the museum, however, is keeping the artistic interests of its curators pure of the commercial interests of its influential Hollywood donors. Spielberg and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg have each given $10 million to the museum, and the Dalian Wanda Group, the Chinese owner of AMC Theatres, gave $20 million.

Brougher didn’t seem concerned about a conflict — and said he doesn’t envision exhibitions linked to, say, current movies in theaters.

“I don’t think a film which just happens to be out or extremely popular is going to deeply influence us,” he said.

Among the museum’s more controversial facets has been its design, by Italian architect Renzo Piano (L.A. architect Zoltan Pali, who had been working with Piano, left the project last month). Some in the architecture world, including Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, panned Piano’s early renderings for the museum, which will include some 300,000 square feet of galleries, exhibition spaces, theaters and screening rooms. A 1,000-seat, dome-shaped theater Piano nicknamed the “spaceship” came up for particular scorn.

Brougher said he is a fan of the design, part of which he hopes to use for newly commissioned work.

“For me personally, what [Piano] has created is ideal,” Brougher said. “Let’s take the giant 1,000-seat theater he’s created.... The lower level is the history of film, it’s the way film was presented, in a beautiful theater environment, the lights go down, the film comes on and you go on a journey into this realm of light.

“But this sphere on the top is an expanded form of cinema that began back in the ‘50s and is really picking up now. Film is spilling out of the movie theater. It’s being fragmented and splintered and it’s becoming 100 different kinds of cinema that exist everywhere,” he added, “from your iPhone to Netflix to being projected onto a building and creating liquid architecture, to LED screens in Times Square and Shanghai.... We may be able to do projections or create multilayered screens, we can commission new work. You’ve got the history of film presented in the conventional way downstairs and then the way film is moving upstairs.”

Artist Doug Aitken’s “Song 1,” a 360-degree video projection Brougher commissioned for the circular facade of the Hirshhorn, may give some indication of what he has in mind.

Brougher, who received a master’s degree in the history of film and television from UCLA and a bachelor’s degree in art history from UC Irvine, is married to independent curator and vice president of the nonprofit Americans for the Arts Nora Halpern. He said moving into a Spanish-style home not far from the museum fulfills a longtime dream to return to L.A.

“This is a community made up of creative people, of artists, musicians, filmmakers, composers,” Brougher said. “Washington, D.C., is a wonderful museum town, but you don’t have that community of different kinds of artists. I’m excited to get back to that.”

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