Academy Museum: Generating Income and Luring Younger-Than-Expected Audience

Making Money and Luring Younger-Than-Expected Audience

New director Jacqueline Stewart and COO Brendan Connell Jr. discuss financial successes and uproar over lack of Jewish representation.


Since then, the museum has exceeded expectations by drawing 700,000 visitors (20 percent more than its goal), and it is easily covering its operating expenses via a mix of ticket sales, memberships (24,000 sold to date), successful gift shop (more than $6 million in sales), renting the space for events and its annual gala, which takes place Oct. 15 and honors Julia Roberts, Steve McQueen, Miky Lee and Tilda Swinton.

A still from William Selig’s Something Good — Negro Kiss (1898), with Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.

On the occasion of the museum’s one-year anniversary, Academy Museum director Jacqueline Stewart (who ascended to the position in July after serving as head artistic and programming officer) and chief operating officer Brendan Connell Jr. talk about the institution’s surprising visitor demographics, their response to the critique that the museum lacks Jewish representation and how their goal to lure the “film-curious” is working out.

Did this year feel like a marathon or a sprint?

JACQUELINE STEWART I would say that we’ve been running a marathon at sprint pace. We have a clip in the gallery of that closing moment in The Graduate. He disrupts the wedding, they get on the bus. Then there’s that hold on their faces, like, “And now what do we do?” It was kind of like that. We were so all-hands-on-deck. All of our energy was focused on opening this huge institution, and then it was like, “OK, and now we’re open seven days a week.”

BRENDAN CONNELL JR. We launched galleries, a cinematheque, a store, an event space, a publishing business.

Attendance compared to expectations?

STEWART Seven hundred thousand tickets opening year — it’s just phenomenal. That’s bearing in mind that we were not selling tickets at full capacity part of the year. We were doing half capacity in our theaters through the spring. We were doing timed ticketing in the galleries and really trying to be mindful of numbers so that people could socially distance. So it’s really a testament to the built-up excitement that people had for our opening.

The museum includes exhibition spaces in the former May Company building (right) and a glass sphere that houses the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater (left).
The museum includes exhibition spaces in the former May Company building (right) and a glass sphere that houses the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater (left). COURTESY OF IWAN BAAN

Visitors Demographics

CONNELL Also, a lot of our visitors were from the greater Los Angeles area. In a COVID environment, we were a place to visit when people were a little bit hesitant to fly anywhere. We’re hoping now, as COVID slowly eases up a little bit, that we get even more international visitors.

Which galleries are attracting whom?

STEWART We opened with the blockbuster Hayao Miyazaki exhibition, and so folks who were clearly die-hard Miyazaki fans came from all over to see that exhibition. I’d say the Spike Lee Gallery is always full when I’m walking through the museum. He is someone who attracts such attention in terms of the distinctive style of his work but also his social and political voice. It’s been important to us that we do programs that start to build this sense of being a local resource for film lovers, for people who are film curious. The flagship [screening] series that we launched, Oscar Sundays, and our Branch Selects [programmed in concert with members of the Academy’s branches] have been doing very well with audiences.

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 running through April 9, 2023 includes a gallery spotlighting race films, which were independent productions in the 1910s to the ’40s featuring all-Black casts and designed for Black audiences.
Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 (running through April 9, 2023) includes a gallery spotlighting race films, which were independent productions in the 1910s to the ’40s featuring all-Black casts and designed for Black audiences. COURTESY OF JOSHUA WHITE, JW PICTURES/ © ACADEMY MUSEUM FOUNDATION.

How is the museum doing financially?

Successful opening for a museum

STEWART We have benchmarks that we’re trying to meet on a regular basis. It’s been important for us also to think about how it is that we can reach people who can’t necessarily afford tickets to our museum. We offer free admission for anyone under the age of 17, free admission to California residents with EBT cards. Every week, we’re looking at our ticket numbers, just like one does for opening films. Sometimes, when talking to our colleagues in the industry, we try to point out the ways that opening a museum is not like opening a film, in the sense that it’s not a finished product. We’ve opened an institution that is going to be a citizen of Los Angeles in perpetuity. That’s the goal.

Feedback heard and responded to?

STEWART The most visible note that we got had to do with Jewish representation in the museum the first year, and we heard that loud and clear. Since before opening, we’ve been planning our Vienna in Hollywood Symposium, this international symposium that had at its core a look at emigré filmmakers, many of them Jewish, who had a major hand in shaping the classical Hollywood cinema as a business and as an art form. But we also recognize that it’s incredibly important for this museum in Los Angeles to explain to visitors why it is that the industry ended up located in this city. We’re developing our Hollywoodland exhibition that traces the origins of the studios and the Jewish founders of the Hollywood studios, and that will be a permanent exhibition.

STEWART That’s one of the ways that we recognized that our vitrines [i.e., display cases] could be positioned better for visitors who are in wheelchairs and made modifications to them.

A costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy & Bess (1959), part of the new exhibit Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971.
A costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy & Bess (1959), part of the new exhibit Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971. COURTESY OF JOSHUA WHITE, JW PICTURES/ © ACADEMY MUSEUM FOUNDATION.

Seriousness of Content

STEWART I’m constantly hearing how pleasantly surprised people are by the seriousness of our content. I hope that that inspires more art museums to have film-related content. There are so many ways that film interacts with other art traditions. The key to our success there is that we offer layered experiences. I mean, I met a guy who told me it was his 83rd visit to the museum.