As the Museum of Modern Art breaks ground in midtown for its new $650 million expansion project, the powerful arts institution has closed its world-renowned Film Stills Archive indefinitely and let go two longtime staffers, Mary Corliss and Terry Geesken. The museum released a statement attributing the closure and layoffs to the redevelopment, saying the museum “will aim to restore access [to the collection] as the building project evolves.” But many film critics and scholars are calling the decision irresponsible, and even vindictive.
Word began to stir in late November that the Stills Archive—whose special holdings include the D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès collections—would move to MOMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, Pennsylvania (roughly two and a half hours by car from Manhattan). Subsequently, organizations including the Society for Cinema Studies, the cinema studies department of NYU, and the New York Film Critics Circle fired off letters of protest to MOMA chief curator of film and video Mary Lea Bandy and MOMA director Glenn Lowry.
“The Hamlin facility was never supposed to be a place where you could retrieve materials instantly,” says Corliss, who oversaw the archive for the last 34 years. Relocation to the “bunker,” as some have called it, will deny the public ready access to the 4 million photographs in the collection. “When you have something that is such a jewel, it belongs to the world; it doesn’t belong in dead storage,” says Corliss.
“I could understand if the archive were moved to the ‘Factory’ in Long Island City,” says Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, referring to the museum’s interim location, a former Swingline stapler factory. “But Pennsylvania? Surely room can be found closer to the Big Apple for such an important scholarly resource.”
“Even if they had some sort of open-door policy in Hamlin, who the hell is going out there?” asks Newsday critic John Anderson, who is also chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.
No one is likely to be trekking out to suburban Pennsylvania anytime soon, as MOMA officials have given no sign as to whether the stills will be available in Hamlin, or when the museum is scheduled to reopen in 2005.
Many of the nation’s film writers will be affected by the shutdown. “Every book that I’ve written has used some illustrations from the Museum of Modern Art,” says NYU professor Robert Sklar. Local cinemas—including MOMA’s own—will also face hurdles illustrating their program guides. “It will certainly be a problem when we come up with something obscure,” says Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s director of repertory programming. “This is definitely a great loss.”
MOMA’s statement indicates the stills will be safely stowed away in “temperature- and humidity-controlled” vaults (alongside the museum’s archived film prints). But as former MOMA film publicist Harris Dew points out, “We’re not talking about film prints that need to be preserved in cold storage. We’re talking about a more durable medium that is reproducible. And it’s precisely the stills’ reproducibility and dissemination that is their value.”
“Photos are meant for circulation,” says Howard Mandelbaum, president of Photofest, now one of the city’s few alternatives for classic film stills. “MOMA has a superb collection, especially in terms of foreign and early moviemaking. It is crucial that the public be allowed visitation rights.”
Corliss had always planned for the archive to stay open to the public during the museum’s reconstruction. Together with architects from Cooper, Robertson & Partners, she helped supervise the final plans for a mezzanine-level space in MOMA Queens to house the stills.
But then on April 28, 2000, Corliss, along with 250 MOMA staffers, went on strike. And when she returned in the fall after a bitter 134-day walkout, plans for a Film Stills Archive in Queens no longer seemed to exist. According to Corliss, repeated attempts over the following months to find out about the status of the Stills Archive space in Queens were rebuffed.
“I think it’s retribution,” says Terry Geesken, who worked alongside Corliss for more than 18 years. Like many at MOMA, Geesken says she felt threatened and unwelcome by management when she returned from the picket lines. Geesken and Corliss were both active participants in the strike by United Auto Workers union Local 2110 (which also represents most Voice staffers), and they suggest the layoffs are related. The coincidence is not lost on many film scholars. “Mary was a vocal supporter of the strike,” says film historian Eric Myers, “and this is one way they have of getting rid of her.”
The two staffers have the support of the union, and according to Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, the group will “take whatever legal steps to protest this. We’ll file a grievance and go from there.”
At MOMA, no one is suggesting a link between the strike and the layoffs; Lowry told The New York Times that there was no connection. (The Voice‘s requests for interviews with Lowry and Bandy were turned down.) But the ire between management and former strikers runs deep, according to many close to the situation. “In certain cases, there was bad blood,” says Dew, who left his MOMA position shortly after the walkout was resolved. “And there was tension between those who struck and those who crossed the picket lines.”
MOMA director Lowry has received much attention for his vocal (and theatrical) opposition to the strike. An article in The New York Observer (“Hey! What’s the Big Deal at MOMA?” by Andrew Goldman) revealed a scene in which Lowry taunted picketers with a make-believe baton, pretending to conduct their catcalls. Lowry still wears red socks, according to a current MOMA staffer, as a “protest” against the strikers.
An ambitious fundraiser and marketer, Lowry is also known for his willingness to slash staff. During his tenure at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he cut half of the museum’s 400 employees during a fiscal crunch and later fired four curators, according to a 1995 story in ARTnews by David D’Arcy.
This time, the layoffs may be coming at the expense of an invaluable resource. “I can’t believe that the great minds at MOMA would do this unless there were ulterior motives,” says Corliss, who has the right to return to her job if the Film Stills Archive reopens. “But to think they would sacrifice such a beautiful collection? That’s an outrageous act.”