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Martin Scorsese: An open letter to Michael Govan and LACMA

August 12, 2009 | 12:31 pm

Martin-Scorsese

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

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