Why Did MoMA Send Norman Bates To Cold Storage in Hamlin, Pa.?

Since mid-January, phone

calls to the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Stills Archive, one of the world’s

foremost pictorial records of filmmaking dating back to the 1890’s, have

been silently transferred to a voice-mail box

with this recorded greeting: ” Due to the

Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing expansion project, the Film Stills Archive has

been closed and is no longer accepting orders. “

Considering the public outcry that followed a Jan. 12 New York Times article first reporting

MoMA’s decision to shut down public access to the rare archive for the

foreseeable future and ship it to the museum’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation

Center in Hamlin, Pa., the brief recorded message is hardly explanation enough

for the thousands of directors, authors, scholars and publishers that use the

archive. Director Martin Scorsese, who edited MoMA stills into his last film, My Voyage to Italy , said, “I can only

hope, for the cineastes here in New

York who need access to the files, that this is not permanent.”

But the recording is far more information than is being

disseminated inside MoMA’s film department, where current and former employees

say a paranoid atmosphere of secrecy has taken over as museum director Glenn

Lowry plans to shut down the 53rd Street site from late May of this year until

some time in 2005 to complete a $650 million renovation amid a worsening

economy. Employees at MoMA say that the museum’s film department-created by its

founder, Alfred Barr, in 1935, and unparalleled in its role elevating film to an

art form and the director to the status of an auteur-is

being dealt a terrible blow in the name of museum progress. The Stills Archive,

they believe, will not be a priority even when MoMA unveils its big, shiny new

home.

In addition to cutting off access to the Film Stills Archive, The Observer has learned, MoMA has yet

to find an off-site location in which to continue its crowd-pleasing film

screenings-generally two or three shows a day-once the museum closes on May 21.

MoMA shut down the Film Stills Archives on Jan. 9 when it laid

off Mary Corliss, curator of the archive for 34 years, and her co-worker, Terry

Geesken, a 17-year MoMA employee. Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of the film

department and the museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, gave the

women two days to clear out. Neither Ms. Bandy nor Mr. Lowry would be

interviewed for this article.

Ms. Corliss believes her firing and the relegation of the Film

Stills Archive to Pennsylvania are partly retaliation for her active role in

the museum-wide strike of 2000. She and Ms. Geesken played very vocal roles

during the strike, and Ms. Corliss called on her influential friends to conduct

a letter-writing campaign and get publicity for the plight of the poorly paid

MoMA assistants. Returning to the job after the four-month strike, she said the

Film Stills Archive had suffered in terms of MoMA’s film department’s

priorities.

On the day Ms. Corliss was laid off, union members met with Oz

Zager, MoMA’s director of human resources, who told them that Ms. Corliss and

Ms. Geesken’s firing had been totally up to Ms. Bandy. The reason for her

decision, they said Mr. Zager told them, was that “the Film Stills Archive is

not central to the core mission” of MoMA’s film department.

Some characterize MoMA’s film department as a vipers’ nest. “The

film department has a history of being fragmented,” said a MoMA staffer who has

worked with the department for about five years. “There have been turf wars

there that have polarized the department in a pretty dramatic way. There’s a

tremendous amount of infighting and many people have been there for a fair

amount of time, since it’s a pretty coveted position in the community of film

scholars and curators.”

Employees say many of the current problems can be traced back to

the beginning of Ms. Bandy’s reign in 1980. Her climb to director of the film

department, after being hired by MoMA’s publishing department and a two-year

stint as an exhibition coordinator, was somewhat controversial. She came to the

museum with no film studies under her belt, after graduating from Stanford

University and working as an assistant editor at Harry N. Abrams Inc.

A few in the department criticized the appointment, Ms. Corliss

among them. “On a scholarship level, I didn’t feel she was qualified for the

job,” said Ms. Corliss. When Ms. Bandy came on board, the film department

boasted two heavyweight cinema scholars: Adrienne Mancia, who headed

programming and was known in festivals the world over for her daring choices

and intimate knowledge of film, and Eileen Bowser, the longtime head of the

department’s film collection.

Started as no more than an assortment of industry-related

photographs stored in several bound volumes, the Film Stills Archive achieved a

special status in American scholarship. After a 1948 bequest from Photoplay magazine, an industry

publication, of stills from the 1890’s through Hollywood’s golden age, the

archive’s holdings were over a million photos.

When Ms. Corliss first started there in 1967, there had also been

bequeaths of stills of  D.W. Griffith

and Georges Méliès. She brought in donations from the Dell Publishing Company,

Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures, among others. Anonymous benefactors

would send in donations with notes like, ‘We wanted you to have these.’

“The film community is small,” Ms. Corliss said. “So I would hear

people were looking for space for their collection and we’d contact them and

let them know we’d have a happy home for the things they cherished.”

Most of the images are the work of set photographers capturing

key moments in a plot line: Virginia Cherrill offering a flower to Charlie

Chaplin in City Lights , Anthony

Perkins with his hands clasped over his mouth in horror in Psycho . Alphabetized by actor’s name are studio portraits of Garbo

and Dietrich by the great Hollywood photographers George Hurrell and Ruth

Harriet Louise. Until it closed, the archive, including 4 million stills and a

half-million portraits, was accessioning donations on a daily basis.

“The MoMA Stills Archive has more early material than any other

archive,” said Howard Mandelbaum, president of Photofest, New York’s biggest

commercial archive of film stills. In 1999, MoMA stills from Erich von

Stroheim’s Greed , a film that had

disintegrated out of existence, were used in a Turner Classic Movies

reconstruction of the film, interlaced with bits of salvaged footage. More

recently, Knopf author Jim Harvey stopped the presses on his book, Move Love in the Fifties , after he found

a picture of Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan at Kazan’s birthday party on the set

of A Streetcar Named Desire in MoMA’s

archive.

Clients would write or e-mail a request and within a week,

wearing cotton archival gloves, could sort through images culled together by

Ms. Corliss or Ms. Geesken. More often than not, they’d hit pay dirt. Copies

cost $15 to $20 apiece and were usually ready in 48 hours. When The New York Times needed a photograph

of Robert Bresson in 1999 for his obituary, however, the department made copies

available in 20 minutes.

“There were always things there you didn’t expect and you didn’t

even know existed,” said Robert Sklar, a professor at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of

the Arts Cinema Studies Department and author of City Boys , a book about Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John

Garfield.

By 1980, when Ms. Bandy took over, Ms. Corliss was overseeing the

Film Stills Archive in a townhouse on West 53rd Street where the museum’s

library was also located. Around 1984, both were moved to the east wing of the

central building; the library first and then the archives, onto a mezzanine

above the library. She and Ms. Geesken sat at desks near a viewing area in the

east wing. The rest of the film department was on the fifth floor of the west

wing.

When programming was still the turf of Ms. Mancia, Ms. Bandy

wasn’t allowed into programming meetings. But, within a few years of Ms.

Bandy’s arrival, Ms. Bowser retired and Ms. Mancia left in what several

employees described as a tense contest with Ms. Bandy, and the tables were

turned. With Ms. Bandy gaining power, there were no more invitations to

employees to special screenings. Department-wide memos reached only some

employees, some said. And many employees complained that they were always kept

away from meetings with the museum’s film committee trustees. “When I first

started there, we were always invited to things, openings and screenings,” said

Ms. Geesken. “That no longer happens.”

Ms. Corliss was promoted only once, from curatorial assistant to

assistant curator, during her 20 years under Ms. Bandy, despite her widely

praised work, the 41 exhibits she had curated, credits in countless films and

books and the acquisition of more than a million stills for the Archive.

Employees say Ms. Bandy was directing the mission of MoMA’s film

department away from scholarship and the department’s standing was suffering.

The 1996 opening of the $11.2 million Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center

in Hamlin, Pa., where the museum’s film collection was moved, was due to Ms.

Bandy’s efforts. Some museum employees complained that she was essentially

focused on fund-raising. “The way people watch movies has changed,” a

department member commented. “The world has changed, and change is a healthy

thing. But I can’t say that the department changed in a healthy way.”

Ms. Bandy’s appointment to assistant director of curatorial

affairs in 1993 seemed to indicate that Mr. Lowry-a director fond of crowd

pleasing exhibitions-and MoMA’s board had signed off on her leadership of the

department, and its new emphasis away from the archives and scholarship.

“Archives used to come above programming in the annual report,”

said one employee. “It seems small but it says a lot. Programming is on top

now.”

The culminating scene of this drama was the museum-wide strike of

2000. On one side were Ms. Corliss and Ms. Geesken, both active participants in

the strike. Ms. Corliss obtained the support of prominent Hollywood big shots

in an open letter to the museum and her husband, Richard Corliss, wrote about

the strike in Time . On the other side

was Ms. Bandy, ironically head of the museum’s union before she came to the

film department.

To say Ms. Bandy opposed the strike is putting it mildly. A

replacement worker, Helena Robinson, was hired to fill in for Ms. Corliss. (Ms.

Robinson is currently a research assistant.) Many department members crossed

the picket lines, including Charles Silver, former union member and head of the

Film Study Center. “I believe this strike is based on manipulation,” Mr. Silver

told The New York Times in 2000.

“These people have engineered a strike for their own purposes.”

Until the strike, the archive was set to move to MoMA QNS, the

160,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City, Queens that the museum had

bought in March of 2000 partially as a place to go during the renovation. A

former Swingline staple factory, it was planned to house temporary exhibits and

collection highlights until MoMA reopened in Manhattan.

Ms. Corliss met with an architect on the project to plan the move

in early 2000. They agreed on a 1,800-square-foot space on the mezzanine level.

The last meeting with the architect was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on April 28,

2000, the first day of the strike. When she returned to work, Karen Davidson,

MoMA’s deputy director of policy, planning and administration, told her that

Glenn Lowry was reevaluating the plans.

In November 2000, MoMA received a $5 million grant from Gov.

George Pataki for the renovation of the Swingline building and announced that

the site would house “the Museum’s archives, a portion of its library

collections and its renowned film stills collection.”

But, at a museum all-staff meeting on Jan. 31, 2001, Mr. Lowry,

responding to a question, said there would be no space for the Stills Archive

at MoMA QNS. A month later, Mr. Zager, the museum’s director of human

resources, told Ms. Geesken at a union meeting that “we’d been jockeyed out of

a position there.” MoMA’s Film Study Center, repository of scripts and other

printed matter, had not.

In July of 2001, Ms. Corliss was told that the archive would move

to the Celeste Bartos center in Hamlin, Pa. The 135 file cabinets were to be

crammed into 300 square feet in hallways. A desk for Ms. Corliss would be

worked into the conference room. “It’s a beautiful facility, state of the arts,

you can’t fault it,” said Ms. Corliss of the Film Preservation Center. “It’s a

temperature and humidity controlled vault, but still, that’s it. It’s in the

hallways.”

When the decision seemed irreversible, Ms. Corliss contacted many

frequent users of the archive-the New York Film Critics’ Circle, the faculty of

Tisch’s Cinema Studies Department and the Society for Cinema Studies. Each

wrote the museum. “It would be a major loss for film scholarship were the MoMA

Film Stills Archive to become unavailable,” wrote the faculty at Tisch. “The

incomparable variety of the Archive makes it … a crucial component, along with

the MoMA Film Study Center, in maintaining MoMA’s supremacy and leadership in

the field of cinema studies.”

MoMA’s defenders argue that it could not help but suffer from a

space crunch. Plus, times were not flush: the museum tightened its budget,

impacting available space. MoMA is currently trying to sub-lease about 30,000

square feet of space on 52nd Street, which now houses its membership,

development and information services departments.

Even MoMA’s board of directors was apparently caught by surprise

by the decision to close public access to the Film Stills Archive once it was

shipped off to Pennsylvania.

In a letter dated January 10, 2002 and signed by Agnes Gund,

MoMA’s president and a film committee member, and obtained by The Observer ,

Ms. Gund said the Hamlin center was to be the new location since the museum had

“undertaken a thorough review of … the best ways to ensure that our collections

are  … able to be accessed and

appreciated by the widest audience possible.” The letter shows no knowledge of

the museum’s plans to cut off access to the archives, made clear the previous

day when Ms. Bandy laid off Ms. Corliss and Ms. Geesken and announced she was

putting the archive into cold storage.

Within 48 hours, both employees were taken off the computer

systems and sent packing. “What a way to go,” commented one employee. “No happy

trails, no goodbyes, and your life’s work in cold storage.”

Since then, MoMA has remained as silent as the stills themselves.

After speaking to the New York Times

for their piece, Ms. Corliss was swamped with e-mails, and was interviewed by

Leonard Lopate on WNYC. Film critic Roger Ebert, who used the MoMA stills in

his upcoming book The Great Movies ,

wrote the Times from the Sundance

Film festival: “If the archive is not available to most of its users, of what

use is it?”

MoMA’s only statement said “the building project will require a

temporary contraction of services and a retrenchment in staff in order to

realize the permanent expansion of resources when the museum reopens in 2005.”

But the statement does not address the fact that several MoMA

film department employees told The

Observer that no alternative space has been found for the department’s

popular film programming series. They said that everything past May seems to be

on hold. “How the department will serve the public during this time … it’s

anybody’s guess,” said one museum employee.

But finding a home for the film series has its own incentives:

the film screenings-including the annual “New Directors/New Films” series-are

an important factor to MoMA’s membership base, a bonus with memberships or the

admissions fee. Currently, only one of the Roy and Nina Titus theaters is in

use. Both theaters will be closed by summer.

John Anderson, a Newsday

film critic said, “It seems like the people who are really devoted to film are

of the lowest priority there. The people devoted to the bureaucracy seem to

control what’s going on.”

“Many of us have come to associate MoMA with access to

film-related as opposed to merely static art material,” said Annette Insdorf, a

Columbia University film professor who said she started her cinematic education

on 53rd Street, “but perhaps we’ve been spoiled.”

Why Did MoMA Send Norman Bates To Cold Storage in Hamlin, Pa.?