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A music lesson for LACMA's film program

August 13, 2009 |  5:00 am

Christina Zavalloni It is not without a twang of envy that I watch the film community react to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s announcement that the 40-year-old film program would go the way of the even older Monday Evening Concerts, which was thrown out on the cold street three years ago.

The music community protested. Even prominent collectors protested. Betty Freeman told me that Hockney’s famous painting of her -- “Beverly Hills Housewife” – would hang in LACMA over her dead body. She made sure not even that happened. She died in January, and her collection was auctioned off this spring.

Still, the film guns have been bigger. My colleague film critic Kenneth Turan has impressively led the charge. Cineastes have taken to the street. Martin Scorsese today eloquently weighs in. If popular support continues to build, LACMA might actually be forced to cave this time.

But I caution the film community to step back and look at LACMA’s history of support for the arts in general in recent years. Indifferent support can be worse than none at all. The best thing that could have happened to the Monday Evening Concerts was LACMA’s kick in the pants.

LACMA’s anti-intellectual regimen began when it ended its prestigious Arts and Cultures series of talks five years ago. Run by Paul Holdengräber, these free programs were hot tickets, and even celebrities got turned away to hear serious conversation by major cultural figures. Apparently, this was the wrong image for an institution that began promoting itself as a date-night destination. Holdengräber moved his base of operations to the New York Public Library, where he is now enjoying a similar success.
Next to go were the more sophisticated music programs. Monday Evening Concerts was the oldest and most respected new music series in the nation, and at one time Schoenberg and Stravinsky regularly showed up to find out what’s what.  But the concerts were barely hanging on with minimal museum support and even less institutional interest. These programs, too, didn’t fit date-night demographics.

But a group, including conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kent Nagano, formed to save Monday Evening Concerts.  An ambitious young director, Justin Urcis, was hired and he brilliantly revived the series downtown at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall and at REDCAT. Meanwhile, LACMA doles out a pittance to keep alive a minimal new music series forced, embarrassingly, to stick to themes that relate to exhibitions. One guess which sells out these days.

Film was always meant to be the next to go. The weekend programs end in October with an Alain Resnais retrospective, again not quite date-night material. The Bing Theater is a nice place to watch movies. But I wonder if all the hue and cry might not be better directed toward finding a new home and another Justin Urcis to run it.

Saving the film program at LACMA without significant institutional support won’t be enough. LACMA has to first care as much about once more bringing together a broad arts community as it does about getting its hands on Eli Broad's bank account.

-- Mark Swed

Related coverage:

Martin Scorsese: An open letter to Michael Govan and LACMA

Turan on LACMA plans: 'What are these people drinking?'

LACMA cancels its weekend film program

Photo: Italian soprano Cristina Zavalloni performing for a Monday Evening Concert at REDCAT in 2006 after the venerable series had been deposed by LACMA.  Credit: Jamie Rector / For The Times