With the launch of the Screen Worlds exhibition, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image comes of age.
WITH a little help from its famous friends, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image catapulted itself into a new era yesterday – one that has been a long time coming.
Star attraction Cate Blanchett kept everyone waiting just that little bit longer, arriving on the red carpet an hour late in heels so high one onlooker suggested that if they were any higher she’d suffer a nose bleed.
But there was no denying that the red carpet presence of Blanchett, alongside Hugo Weaving, Adam Elliot, Geoffrey Rush and the self-proclaimed ”King David” Gulpilil, gave the relaunch of ACMI a welcome touch of glamour and occasion.
As cultural institutions go, ACMI has been one of Victoria’s, if not the country’s, most mystifying. Spread over two rambling and cavernous storeys at Federation Square, ACMI for a long time struggled to project a clear image of itself – not helped by a ponderous name and mission.
Part art-house cinema, part exhibition space, part production studio, part games lab, with vast empty spaces of cold, hard concrete in between, it was meant to celebrate, promote and explore the moving image in all its forms – film, television and digital culture. But what did that mouthful of a mission actually mean?
Seven tumultuous years after opening, the centre’s image problems finally seem to have been rectified. ACMI came of age yesterday, launching an $8.95 million ground-floor gallery dedicated to the history of the moving image.
The new gallery, called Screen Worlds: The Story of Film, Television and Digital Culture, is a free and permanent exhibition space that cements ACMI’s place as a cultural institution, and completes its aim of educating the public about the moving image – it’s the missing link that was screaming to be there from the start. Importantly, the new gallery gives ACMI’s ground floor a sense of arrival and purpose – when you walk into Screen Worlds, it is clear that ACMI is a museum about moving pictures.
In a concise and entertaining manner, and with an unashamedly Australian focus, the 1600-square-metre gallery tells the story of how moving pictures began and are made, and where they are headed. The exhibition ranges from 19th-century magic lanterns to the arrival of film and television, the advent of video games, the internet and moving pictures on mobile phones – and beyond. Several ”spotlight” sections focus on key Australian actors, directors, animators, filmmakers and artists, including Gulpilil, editor Jill Bilcock, cinematographer Chris Doyle, artist Tracey Moffatt, and, of course, Blanchett, who reportedly ransacked her attic to donate some of the items in her section, such as her Oscar for best supporting actress for her part as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.
The construction of Screen Worlds began last September and is the initiative of ACMI’s British-born director, Tony Sweeney, who was appointed by the Bracks government four years ago.
Sweeney succeeded the previous director, John Smithies, who resigned in March 2004 amid low staff morale and financial strife. Smithies, who attended yesterday’s launch, would eventually blame the Bracks government for ACMI’s difficult beginnings, saying the government had forced it to open underfunded in October 2002, in the lead-up to November state elections.
That tricky history was swept under the red carpet yesterday – the long, congratulatory speeches focused purely on the positives. Great expectations lay with the arrival of Sweeney, the former director of Britain’s National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. He was hired to revive the struggling institution by making it culturally relevant and financially sound.
His arrival signalled a change in pace and attitude – Sweeney had no qualms about being populist if it helped raise ACMI’s profile, revenue and the public’s ability to understand what the centre did. The extremely popular Pixar and Game On exhibitions happened under his watch, which helped boost ACMI’s self-generated revenue from $5.32 million in 2006-07, to $7.99 million in 2007-08. Pixar alone drew a crowd of 147,246, an international record for the exhibition. (ACMI also received $17.5 million in State Government funding in 2007-08, slightly more than the $17.4 million it received in 2006-07).
Sweeney was not averse, either, to making unpopular decisions. He alienated hundreds of metropolitan members of ACMI’s home-lending collection when he announced in August last year that ACMI would no longer function as a video library for city users. ACMI’s 60-year-old, 40,000-title collection of films, videos and DVDs would only be posted to regional centres from 2009 – city people would have to travel to ACMI to see the collection.
”This is an archive for the future, it is a learning and research resource. This is not a sort of Video Ezy set-up,” Sweeney said at the time.
The end of the home-lending collection for city users paved the way for Mediatheque – a funky, architecturally designed space with 12 viewing booths, like mini-lounge rooms, where people could drop in and watch films, television clips, and new media and artworks from ACMI’s collection.
Mediatheque opens to the public today, before the Screen World opening on Sunday. Both were fundamental to Sweeney’s new vision for the cultural institution. Internally, Sweeney gave his mission an evangelical title – ”The Way Forward” – which must have prompted a few cringes among ACMI’s talented staff.
The past seven years have not been easy for them: since its opening in 2002, ACMI’s staff numbers have dropped from the equivalent of 176 full-time jobs to 102.
But the cultural institution the staff are now a part of has a grander and more cohesive sense of purpose. To get to this point, Sweeney kept asking one simple question: ”What is a centre for the moving image?”
Perhaps when ACMI opened, it was too clever for its own good.
Lumbered with an alienating name and building, it had the right intentions, but struggled to communicate them to a broader public.
Sweeney, in keeping the message simple, has succeeded in making the centre more accessible, fathomable and exciting.
Open day Sunday, from 10am to 6pm.