Saturday, December 4, 2021

Academy Museum to get $200 million for expansion

On Tuesday, the academy museum board of directors announced plans to build a headquarters for the museum on an underutilized park next to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The new headquarters, slated to open in 2022, will cost the museum a whopping $200 million. The museum will receive a $50 million pledge from Chinese film company Wanda and that sum will be matched by more than $30 million from the Chinese embassy in Washington. Wanda acquired the American theater chain AMC Entertainment and the European cinema circuit Odeon & UCI in 2016 and 2017. As a Chinese company, Wanda carries the dual curse of providing access to the world’s most valuable box office revenue for Hollywood films, and also causing the U.S. government to keep watch on how Wanda deals with its films.

Given the ambitions of the new museum, to be located in the Penn Quarter district near the Mall and the Verizon Center, there is bound to be much hand-wringing about what is at stake in terms of compromise, vetting and control. During the announcement on Tuesday, board president Jeffrey Kahn strongly suggested that the museum would not make the announcement if it were unsure that it could even proceed. He also bristled a bit when talking about potential issues involving the “strategic alliances” of the theater operator and its request to be considered as an industry source for a major piece of research.

In a move that was ironic if not political, the academy board announced that it will allocate $5 million to “harness the audience potential of the arts.” The announcement said the museum would focus on “creating awareness of the power of the arts in building a better world.”

The best story so far about the museum is one written by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday:

“Academy President John Bailey said in a separate statement Tuesday that Wanda Group had promised $20 million in cash and land. With the new money, the museum will be able to finance its construction and expand the academy museum and field’s faculty and facilities beyond its current 4,100-square-foot building downtown. The $200 million construction cost represents 75 percent of the academy’s goal. The academy museum plans to spend the remaining money, which has yet to be determined, to acquire artwork, set up an endowment for future museum operations and expansion and stock the academy museum’s endowment.”

The decision to be sensitive to fundraising questions suggests that the academy had some hesitancy about publicly announcing the pledge by Wanda for $20 million, which the Chinese government was helping to fund. The Chinese companies are not known for putting up public money for the arts. Wanda’s offer was made to the museum under the theory that the company would guarantee $200 million in private contributions. So there is some potentially negative symbolism in how the world’s richest company invites Western funders to pony up cash in exchange for cultural respect.

The academy should probably be praised for claiming to be sensitive to the tough issues surrounding Wanda and the oversight. One cannot expect well-intentioned, good people to bend the rules that are imposed to ensure openness and transparency in such huge companies as Google and Facebook, or those deemed “bad.” The board is expected to make a greater donation and grant, to be administered by the academy, which will allow for a review of Chinese finances. Some institutions are inclined to oppose Wanda even if the donation does not exceed the donation. “We always told Wanda that this would be one of the most expensive donors we have ever gotten,” said Oscar-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman, who was not involved in the academy’s fundraising. “I still don’t think the Chinese will do business with us, ever, just for those reasons.”

In June 2017, a committee of top members of the Congressional Black Caucus was investigating a report that Chinese hackers may have breached defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s computer network. A CNN investigation traced the source of the alleged hack to China’s state-controlled think tank, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where ties to Wanda’s film business were exposed. The committee could not gather evidence of such a breach and did not recommend a legal response to the allegation, but told CNN that the group does not want to accept any gifts from the Chinese state or company.

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