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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures course corrects on Jewish founders

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ recent decision to create a permanent exhibition showcasing Hollywood’s pioneers allayed the concerns of critics, historians, activists and another important museum constituency: donors.

“Cheryl and I firmly believe that the Jewish contributions to the film industry, from its founding to today, must be highlighted,” said museum lead donor Haim Saban in a Jan. 21 statement to the Forward. “The Academy Museum has taken our feedback seriously and we know that the representation of the Jewish founders is important to them.”

Scheduled to open in 2023, a permanent exhibit on Hollywood’s mostly Eastern European-born Jewish pioneers will explore how and why they established the film industry in Los Angeles and how the studio system contributed to the development of one of the most diverse cities in the world.

“We never had any desire to exclude or not represent the Jewish founders,” Bill Kramer, the museum’s director and president, told the Forward, “We long planned on having a temporary exhibit highlighting them but are now going to make it permanent.”

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In October, the Forward published an article noting that the museum left out almost any mention of Hollywood’s founders. Kramer said the Forward piece sparked conversations about why the Jewish founders were not included when the Museum first opened its doors.

“We take this seriously. This has been a learning experience for us,” he said.

In its initial story, the Forward pointed out that while the museum spotlighted the contributions of people of color and the LGBTQ community to Hollywood, it excluded any substantive or nuanced mention of the industry’s largely Jewish founders and the century of Jewish filmmakers who followed in their footsteps. One of its major temporary exhibits highlighting 1939’s “Wizard of Oz” focused on producer Louis B. Mayer’s alleged harassment of the film’s female star Judy Garland. That was just one of two brief mentions of Mayer, a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant who managed to create the film industry’s most prestigious studio, produced hundreds of classic films and was the moving force behind the creation of the Academy itself.

Acadamy Museum

The museum’s most prominent entry on Hollywood’s founding moguls criticizes Louis Mayer for exploiting and sexually harassing his stars. By Sharon Rosen Leib

Reaction to the Forward’s story was immediate and global. Entertainment news publications The Wrap and Deadline picked up the story, as did foreign outlets including the Daily Mail, The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post. Former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’s featured the story in her Substack, and comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted it out to her 12.2 million followers as did British actor, comedian and author of “Jews Don’t Count” David Baddiel.

The museum heard from donors as well, perhaps most prominently from the Sabans, who made a $50 million donation to the museum – the museum’s largest gift.

Five days after the Forward’s article appeared, Amitai Raziel, executive director of the Saban Family Foundation, reached out to the Forward for further information.

In the meantime, the museum in conjunction with the Austrian consulate, the University of Southern California and the Max Kade Institute launched “Vienna in Hollywood,” a long-planned academic symposium and film series on the influence of Viennese Jews on the industry. The series explored the work of Austrian-born Jewish film artists who fled Nazi persecution in Europe to seek refuge in Hollywood.

But outside the museum, criticism of its lack of focus on Hollywood’s pioneers continued. The blowback peaked January 21on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” when the comedian declared “the Museum f***ed up on day one” by omitting Hollywood’s Jewish origin story.

But by then the museum had already regrouped. In a Jan. 13 Rolling Stone feature, Tatiana Siegel broke the story that the Academy Museum acknowledged its mistake and planned to commemorate Hollywood’s Jewish founders in what will be its only permanent exhibit.

Kramer told the Forward that museum staff concluded the core foundational story of Hollywood’s mostly Eastern European born Jewish pioneers deserved a permanent place as an exemplar of immigrants from humble beginnings achieving the American dream. The narrative, he said, will resonate with visitors from around the world.

This time the response from major Jewish donors was positive.

“We were pleased to learn the museum’s leadership heard the legitimate concerns expressed by community leaders regarding the museum’s exhibitions,” said a representative of the David Geffen Foundation, which gave the museum $25 million, its second largest donation, “and that the Museum is taking meaningful steps toward a more pronounced acknowledgement of the Jewish Community’s significant historic and contemporary contributions to the Motion Picture Industry.”

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