After criticism, Academy Museum will highlight Hollywood’s Jewish history

LOS ANGELES — When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a 300,000-square-foot tribute to Hollywood, opened here last fall, it was hailed for honoring, in an industry historically dominated by white men, the contributions that women, artists and of color and people of different backgrounds have made film, an essential American art form.

“We want to make sure that we look at our history in an honest, inclusive and diverse way, that we create a safe space for complicated, hard conversations,” said museum director Bill Kramer, the day after the opening of the museum. museum when he welcomed. guests for a panel discussion entitled “Creating a More Inclusive Museum”.

But one group was noticeably absent from this first celebration of diversity and inclusivity: the Jewish immigrants — all white males — who were central to founding the Hollywood studio system. Through dozens of exhibits and rooms, there’s hardly any mention of Harry and Jack Warner, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn, or Louis B. Mayer, just to name a few of the most famous names in Hollywood history.

The omission, which came at a time of growing concern about rising anti-Semitism across the country, quickly sparked complaints from Jewish leaders, concerns from supporters of the new museum and a number of critical articles, including in Rolling Stone and The Forward, which has a piece with the headline “Jews built Hollywood. So why has their history been erased from the Academy’s new museum?”

“I was there opening night: I was shocked by the absence of Jews in the Hollywood story,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks anti-Semitism and hate crimes.

Now, museum officials say, that’s about to change.

Plagued by complaints, the museum plans to open a new permanent exhibit next spring, dedicated to the origins of Hollywood, and in particular the lives and contributions of the Jewish studio founders who were largely responsible for creating the world celebrated by the sold-out crowds flocking to it. to the new museum.

Kramer said in an interview that the Akademiemuseum had always intended to open a temporary gallery dedicated to the subject. We had this on our list to do for a long time, and we knew it would be in our first rotations,” he said recently over coffee at Fanny’s, the museum’s restaurant. But the criticism prompted museum officials to change course and decide to include it as a permanent exhibit.

“Representation is so important,” Kramer said. “We’ve heard that and take it seriously. When you talk about the founding of Hollywood studios, you’re talking about the Jewish founders.”

The dispute highlights the challenges facing museums across the country in an atmosphere of heightened sensitivities on issues of representation and race and gender. It’s particularly complicated for the Academy Museum, as it tries to walk the inconvenient line between a place of science and a sales tool for an industry struggling to reinvent itself as audiences exit the movie theaters for their living rooms.

“It’s a colossal miss,” said Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. “Any honest historical assessment of the film industry should include the role Jews played in building the film industry from the ground up.”

Some historians said the omission appeared to be the latest example of Hollywood’s strained relationship with its Jewish history.

“You have to understand that Hollywood in its very beginnings was formed out of a fear that its founders — and those who kept the industry alive — would be identified as Jews,” said Neal Gabler, the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” a book on the Jewish studio heads, “It is almost fitting that a museum devoted to Hollywood history should incorporate this fear and sensibility into its evolution.”

Still, Jewish leaders said they were encouraged by the museum’s response to their complaints. Kramer and other museum leaders reached out to rabbis and Jewish scholars, including Gabler and Greenblatt, for their advice on what to include in the new gallery to mend this rift.

“I’m confident they will do the right thing,” Greenblatt said.

What that is, however, is not yet clear. The exhibition is planned for a relatively modest 850 square meter gallery on the third floor of the building. Dara Jaffe, the curator, said the exhibition, which will be titled ‘Hollywoodland’, will provide a broad look at the industry’s origins. It will highlight the biographies and achievements of the founders of the major studios, as well as some lesser-known Jewish filmmakers.

“We want to answer the question: why Los Angeles?” said Jaffe. “Why is this the place where the world capital of cinema flourished? It is no coincidence that many of the founders are predominantly Jewish. It is a specific Jewish story and a specific Jewish immigrant story.”

The exhibition will not open for a year and key details from how it will be presented to what kind of artifacts will be included are still in the planning stages.

Haim Saban, an Israeli-American philanthropist and media entrepreneur who, along with his wife Cheryl, donated $50 million to the museum and became one of its major benefactors, said in an email that the promise of a new gallery “does not just underline how seriously the Academy Museum has taken the feedback, but shows understanding of the critical role Jewish founders had in the founding and shaping of Hollywood.

Saban was one of the main funders of the museum for raising concerns within days of opening. He and his wife were instrumental in financing what eventually became a $487 million project; the main exhibition space in the museum was named the “Saban Building” in their honor.

Some ask how a museum that took such care in highlighting the contributions of people from a diverse range of backgrounds – it set up an Integration Advisory Committee to advise on how to deal with these issues, and called for to “Embrace Diversity and Be Radically Inclusive,” one of its guiding principles – neglected to explain the role of some of the biggest names in Hollywood history.

“There is a historical tendency for Jewish people in the industry to downplay the fact that they were Jewish,” said Rabbi Kurt F. Stone of Boca Raton, Florida, who grew up in Los Angeles and is one of the museum’s rabbis. consulted after the recoil started. “But do I have an answer to why they’re screwing it up like that? Not me.”

Sid Ganis, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a lifelong trustee of the museum, said he was surprised at the depth of the outcry that sparked after the museum opened its doors. “It was vocal and real and something we paid attention to,” he said.

Ganis, a longtime supporter of the museum, said the organizers were always aware of the importance of Jews in Hollywood history, adding that this was no mistake. “We just weren’t ready yet,” he said. “Opening the museum in late October, early November was a huge undertaking. And we have made choices. It was something we always knew we would attend. But now even more.”

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