By Tom Christie
Michael Govan and Ian Birnie sat on the patio at the L.A. County Museum of Art today and explained the dismantling of their film department. Which is to say, Govan planted an IED and Birnie did his best to throw his body over it. The fact that the bomb won't actually explode until late October wasn't enough to hide Birnie's pain. "Let's put it this way," he said gamely, "I'd prefer evolution rather than revolution."
But revolution it will be.
"Evolution hasn't worked for 10 years, so we're going to try something else," said Govan, the CEO and Wallis Annenberg director of the museum. Praising Birnie for his "admirable" program - widely respected in film circles and reasonably popular among filmgoers - Govan did a kind of institutional "It's not you, it's us." He blamed the program's ancillary status within LACMA and its ever-decreasing budget as the probable reasons for its continuous operating losses -- $70,000 per year over the last three years and $1 million over the past decade. (Some 23,000 tickets were sold in the past year, more than 6,000 of which were for the Tuesday matinees.)
The current budget is in the low $200,000s, said Birnie, and that includes his salary and benefits as well as that of another staffer. To properly fund (and market) the program as it is now contstituted would require $400,000 or $500,000 a year, both men said. "Believe me," said Govan, "we've looked [for support]." That it hasn't come from Hollywood players, he added, "is frankly because running a small ancillary program at LACMA is not in their interest."
Nor is it in Govan's interest. "We really need to raise the bar," he said. "Film is a fundamental art and it should be a core curatorial program, equal to all other programs. This museum has a lot of competing needs and it's hard to get everyone's attention, especially when it's business as usual. It's not business as usual. Let's be clear: We are going to have a reset."
Existing programming will continue through October, then the reset will begin. That would include fundraising ("it's going to take $5-10 million") and rethinking content and scope. Programming could be more responsive to exhibitions, Govan said, calling the 2007 show "Dali: Painting & Film" the tip of the iceberg. There could be more varieties of film, he suggested, and more of a back and forth between film and art. Plans are already in place for a small outside film theater to be built in collaboration with Sci-Arc. Classics and international film would continue to play an important role, he said.
Govan admitted to the possibility of losing the film program's audience, but said he hopes they will come back - and join other, newer audiences - in the future. "As a museum, we need to grow the diversity of our audience."
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Wondering about a potential issue, I asked Govan if he felt the current film audience was too old. Birnie, perhaps hearing an accusation, answered for him: "I think we have the most diverse audience in town."
The men are cordial and respectful to one another but you sense the worlds separating them. Birnie is in his early 60s, a film man through and through. Govan, 45, studied with Allan Kaprow (of "Happenings" fame) and learned the curatorial ropes from Thomas Krens at Williams College and at the Guggenheim. Birnie's previous job was at Janus films; Govan's was at the Dia Foundation. Birnie talks of the Judy Garland festival; Govan talks of Jeff Koons. Birnie wears a sky blue shirt open at the collar; Govan wears a dark suit and tie.
"If I'm the conductor," Govan said at one point, with a sweep of his arms, "I need to create a museum in this city's image. And film is a big part of that image."
In the end, of course, it's Govan's orchestra and he'll choose both the score and its players - it's what he was brought here for. In October, after 13 years of directing the film program, Birnie will become a part-time consultant. This week, as his James Mason festival wraps up, one film in particular must resonate: Odd Man Out.