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Martin Scorsese: An open letter to Michael Govan and LACMA

August 12, 2009 | 12:31 pm


On July 28, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced it would be scrapping its 40-year-old weekend film program, a result of declining audiences and losses of about $1 million over the last decade.  LACMA director Michael Govan said the museum considers this "a pause for re-thinking" while the staff creates a more adventurous program. Since then, several supporters of the program, including a group that calls itself Save Film at LACMA, have spoken out about the decision. LACMA's film program is scheduled to cease after its final offering, "The Classic Films of Alain Resnais," Oct. 2 to 17.

The following is an open letter to Govan and LACMA from film director Martin Scorsese. 

I am deeply disturbed by the recent decision to suspend the majority of film screenings at LACMA. For those of us who love cinema and believe in its value as an art form, this news hits hard.

We all know that the film industry, like many other institutions and industries, has to be radically rebuilt for the future. This is now apparent to everyone. But in the midst of all this change, the value and power of cinema’s past will only increase, and the need to show films as they were intended to be shown will become that much more pressing. So I find it profoundly disheartening to know that a vital outlet for the exhibition of what was once known as “repertory cinema” has been cut off in L.A. of all places, the center of film production and the land of the movie-making itself.

My personal connection to LACMA stretches back almost 40 years to when I lived in L.A.

during the '70s and regularly attended their vibrant film series, programmed by the legendary Ron Haver. It was actually at LACMA, during a 20th Century Fox retrospective, that I first became aware of the issues of color film fading and the urgent need for film preservation. Ian Birnie, a programmer of immaculate taste and knowledge, has continued in the tradition of Ron Haver, who was so well-versed in cinema past and present. I do not understand why this approach to programming needs to be re-thought. I am puzzled by the notion of pegging future film programming to “artist-created films,” as stated in the letter announcing this shift – to do this would be tantamount to downgrading the worth of cinema. Aren’t the best films made by artists in the first place?

Without places like LACMA and other museums, archives, and festivals where people can still see a wide variety of films projected on screen with an audience, what do we lose? We lose what makes the movies so powerful and such a pervasive cultural influence. If this is not valued in Hollywood, what does that say about the future of the art form? Aren’t museums serving a cultural purpose beyond appealing to the largest possible audience? I know that my life and work have been enriched by places like LACMA and MoMA whose public screening programs enabled me to see films that would never have appeared at my local movie theater, and that lose a considerable amount of their power and beauty on smaller screens.

I believe that LACMA is taking an unfortunate course of action. I support the petition that is still circulating, with well over a thousand names at this point, many of them prominent. It comes as no surprise to me that the public is rallying. People from all over the world are speaking out, because they see this action – correctly, I think – as a serious rebuke to film within the context of the art world. The film department is often held at arms’ length at LACMA and other institutions, separate from the fine arts, and this simply should not be. Film departments should be accorded the same respect, and the same amount of financial leeway, as any other department of fine arts. To do otherwise is a disservice to cinema, and to the public as well.

I hope that LACMA will reverse this unfortunate decision.

--Martin Scorsese
New York, N.Y.

Related coverage:

LACMA cancels its weekend film program
Films at LACMA: A thing of the past or the future?
Turan on LACMA plans: 'What are these people drinking?'
LACMA getting an earful about axed film program
LACMA's cruelest cut
LACMA's Govan says donors step forward for film program
Save Film at LACMA, Michael Govan plan to meet

Photo: Director Martin Scorsese. Credit: Andrew Medichini / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (49)

We all have to contribute and join hands to save this and save cinema before it disappears.

$1 million over the last decade??? Come on, surely one of the big studios or a combination of several, could donate $100, 000 per year in order to save this program.

On behalf of Save Film at LACMA, and the myriad fans and admirers our great American film artist, Martin Scorsese, we wish to salute him for his majestic letter.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and experience with us, Martin.

Regards, Debra Levine & Kathleen Dunleavy

Why doesn't Martin just make a donation to LACMA? Then this disservice can be avoided.

Cinema is probably the most important art form of the last century. Today new art form look at it to learn. it had the power to change us; to change our relation to our life and to others. it teach me love and melancolia, it teach me to dance and to seduce girls when i was in College, even let's be honnest it teach me to give a perfect kiss. later it help me to deal with grief, solitude. it even teach me to speak english. It save me.
Cinema is the last great medium that speak with respect to everyone everywhere without fontiere.

I Love american cinema. it's my mythology.
Love to all of you : script, director, technicien, make up artist, editor, actors producers; to all of you who work proud of their dreams.

JC Husson Paris

I am so thrilled that heavy hitters in the film world are speaking up against Govan's decision. Scorsese's letter is not only eloquent but it also hits the nail right on the head. Film is art. For any art museum to call itself such is to continue to screen films with the idea that it is a valid artform in and of itself.

Amen and God bless. It's a foolish mistake to cancel this series.

Wow. Scorsese makes a lot of excellent points. Hate to say it, but this really makes Govan look like a fool.

I love Scorsese, but he should put his money where his mouth is and pony up the $1M deficit or at least rally some wealthy friends to do so.

I would be first in line at the LACMA screenings if Scorsese himself introduced the movies. The man is very passionate and articulate about films!

"Show me the $"

As embarrassing as this is, I am a film major and I had no idea LACMA had a film program until I saw the LA Times coverage. If the museum does decide to keep the program, I'll make sure to attend

Crazy idea but perhaps, instead of writing open letters and signing petitions, these people actually went and saw a film there every now and again the program wouldn't be losing so much money every year.

Why doesn't he just donate the money to support the program?

Maybe you want to fund the film series instead of writing a letter?

It's nice to lend your voice to support, Marty, but can I assume you're cutting the LACMA a nice check to get the ball rolling? With a few phone calls, you could make up their shortfall and put them in the black for another decade. Your salary for Gangs of New York alone was $6 million. It's your money and you have the right to do what you wish with it as everyone does, at least for a little while longer, but if you were a ballplayer or a football quarterback making this plea, people would complain about how much you earn. Somehow, Hollywood is exempt from such criticism.

Well Martin...why don't you open your checkbook.

Hey Marty,

why don't you come shoot something in Los Angeles?

I agree with Mr. Scorsese, it is unfortunate for us to loose this program, just as it is unfortunate for us to loose the Children's Museum, close 50 to 100 state parks in California, and allow the City Council to hijack the plans for expansion at the Autry.

Non-profit organizations are business too! Although they meet their bottom lines in a different way, if the revenue streams (i.e. earned or contributed income) are not there, they are forced to make cuts. As a fundraiser, I read articles like this all the time and it always seems as if the solution is to restructure and make cuts elsewhere in other programs, or make little cuts to every program in order to save everything. This is not prudent business practice, just as having the Autry continue to pour money into the Southwest Museum when it can never fully be restored to its originally glory or ever fully accommodate its collections in a proper way.

The answer for LACMA is to revamp its business model and perhaps bring its movie program back in a reincarnated form that does not cause the organization to loose money. If supporters of the program do not agree with that, then they have an option - step up, be philanthropic, and donate to supplement the funding for this program.

Perhaps Mr. Scorsese's check to endow this program in perpetuity is already in the mail and we will finally have some good news about non-profit organizations to report in the LA Times? I doubt it though since LA likes to complain more and keep their purse strings tied shut!

Dear Mr. Scorsese:

If you think the LACMA film program is so important, forget petitions. Put up or shut up. You could fund the whole program yourself.

I back you Marty ! And I will now go now that I know about these screenings. Maybe sad/bad press is what they needed so we even know that they were even happening.

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