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With the Academy Museum director out, big questions about what happens next

The unexpected departure of Kerry Brougher as director of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Monday, just as the organization was purportedly entering the final stages of construction, has turned the project’s story arc from something of an epic drama into a mystery.

The $388-million museum — after years of cost overruns, political infighting, fundraising challenges and an opening that has slid from mid-2019 to late 2019 to an unspecified date in 2020 — now must push ahead with a litany of questions instead of a leader.

Why is Brougher leaving? Why now, when the museum was months — perhaps weeks — from finishing construction? If various accounts indicate the building is close to completion, why do the installation of exhibits and the opening of doors seem like a far-off reality?

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How quickly will Brougher be replaced? And to what extent will the loss of the director mean further delays to the premiere of the Renzo Piano-designed museum at Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard?

On Tuesday the museum offered few answers, saying only that Brougher was on vacation and not available to speak, and that the search for his replacement is imminent. “The museum is still committed to creating the best motion picture museum possible,” a spokeswoman said via email. “As soon as we have a more specific opening date, we’ll reach out.”

Brougher, 66, came to the Academy Museum after 14 years as the chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.

His future with the museum had been subject of much recent speculation. A source close to the museum, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said critics called Brougher an indecisive, ineffective leader who had little interest in, or talent for, fundraising. The source said Brougher and Deborah Horowitz, who in April left her post as deputy director for creative content and programming, were “needlessly secretive” and did not collaborate well with the museum’s board of trustees or with various branches of the academy. This created a rift, the source said, that impeded planning and led to high employee turnover.

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Opening a museum is not for the faint of heart, and museum directors speak of the difficulty in overseeing the construction when their training may lie more in courting donors, strengthening board relations and helping to shape the overall vision. At the Academy Museum — which will be the largest devoted to film in the country — that comes in the form of 50,000 square feet of exhibition space and two movie theaters.

With the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum embarking on expansion plans, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art under construction in Exposition Park, and the Broad, the Marciano Art Foundation and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, all expanding the museum landscape, L.A. has become a nexus for an ambitious cultural evolution. For the Academy Museum, though, the director’s departure seems to come at a particularly inopportune time.

“Where they are right now — making that transition between heavy construction and the other things a museum does — is the most fragile and sensitive time for any organization,” said Justin Jampol, director of the Wende Museum of Cold War History, which opened in Culver City less than two years ago. “It’s a big switch and it has a very stressful impact on the organization.”

Jampol said a director’s departure so far along in museum construction was “a pretty severe move.”

“It’s either saying, ‘This individual did something wrong,’” Jampol said, “or something larger went wrong with the overall project.”

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