Getting the axe

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Former MoMA Assistant Curator of Film Sally Berger

Museum of Modern Art Assistant Film Curator Sally Berger has been fired by the museum, after 30 years at the museum. This has raised a lot of eyebrows, mine included. MoMA’s Chief Curator of Film Rajendra Roy issued a statement, linking her firing to “…several complex and substantive issues… the result of a long and deliberative process that Sally has been part of.” Sources point to her unilateral decision to cut a documentary on North Korea entitled “Under the Sun” from the museum’s 2016 Doc Fortnight festival, which happened back in February, as the instigating factor in her firing.

As I must have written somewhere before – perhaps on this blog – firings are rarely announced in the museum field. Lower-level staff can be fired without any need for press releases or public notice. In upper management, discretion is paramount. The institution must not be seen to be dysfunctional; being fired rarely looks good on a resume. That it came to this, and not one of the business euphemisms in regular use (“retirement,” “leave of absence” etc.) indicates that a lot more is wrong than just one decision in one film series. That Ms. Berger was fired four months after the festival – and thus even longer since she made the decision to drop the film – speaks of a drawn-out process. This was, judging from the scant evidence available, not an impulsive act.

“Under the Sun” has an interesting history: produced with the approval of the North Korean government, it was altered by director Vitaly Mansky to make apparent the government’s attempts to control the film’s message. North Korea then withdrew its support. Concern about North Korea’s response to MoMA’s showing the film appears to have been what led Ms. Berger to cut it.

Former MoMA curator Laurence Kardish, in an email to the website IndieWire, wrote, “I no longer understand what goes on in my old stomping grounds…Doesn’t a curator have the right to pick and choose what is to be shown under his/her auspices?”

Well, yes and no. All exhibitions go through a vetting process, in which one or more committees, including the Director, have to give approval. This rarely results in alterations within a specific exhibition – that I know of – but it allows for synergy between departments, and for the airing of concerns well before the public even knows about the show. Mr. Kardish knows all this. Mr. Roy’s statement is possibly significant in that the film was cut from the series “without my knowledge or input.” Ms. Berger, after thirty years, knows how important it is to raise issues with colleagues, especially superiors, and a controversial movie such as this should have been discussed. The right to pick and choose has limits and responsibilities in any hierarchical structure.

A petition demanding Berger’s reinstatement has been started, but I don’t expect it to make a difference. Would she even want to go back?

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