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Remembering Maurice Berger, a Tirelessly Critical Voice in the Arts

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Last year I invited Dr. Maurice Berger to an event that I curated. He was unable to attend, but when I told him that his writing inspired me to be a curator, he replied, “I am SO honored to hear this, Teri!” The ability to be in conversation with someone I had always aspired to be half as brilliant as was astonishing to me. We had been Facebook friends for a couple of years, and before that, I studied his canonical article, “Are Art Museums Racist?” for an independent study on Black Art & Religion at Texas Christian University. That seminal text, published in 1990 in Art in America, was a clarion call to his fellow white art critics, curators, and academics, and was one point in a continuum of advocacy that Berger consistently displayed throughout his career.

A few years ago, Berger posted an offer on Facebook, inquiring if anyone needed access to the piece. I asked for a copy and he emailed it to me immediately. I love that he was so genuine when many people with his level of accolades, awards, and sheer brilliance were anything but. In every possible way, he was a wholly authentic, good human. Berger was an active and incisive Facebook personality, a photographer, a husband, and a mentor. He died on Sunday, March 22, 2020 in New York from complications related to COVID-19. He was 63 years old and is survived by his husband, Marvin Heiferman, and a sister, Beverly Berger.

A profound cultural critic and art historian, Berger was a research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Among the exhibitions he organized at the CADVC were traveling retrospectives of Adrian Piper and Fred Wilson; he also curated exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum, and, possibly most famously, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the CADVC. His books include White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (1999) and How Art Becomes History (1992), along with countless exhibition catalogs. He was prolific and opinionated and his writing has been featured in Artforum, Art in America, Aperture, Village Voice, Brooklyn Rail, Pen America, Wired, National Geographic, and the Los Angeles Times.

Hearing of Berger’s death was the first time I cried since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I got the email alert in my inbox I just blinked, because I could not comprehend what I was reading. Berger was the first person I have personally interacted with who has died from COVID-19. I admired him so much and was certain that soon our paths would cross, in real life. I would tell him that the clarity and brilliance of his words astounded me and compelled me onto a curatorial path, and I would thank him for inspiring me towards clarity and brilliance in my own writing.

Cover for Adrian Piper’s 1999 retrospective catalog (published by UMBC, image via Printed Matter)
Pablo Delano, “A group of newly made Americans at Ponce, Porto Rico,” H. Zahner, Niagara Falls, New York, 1898. Pigment print on Hahnemühle rag paper, 2019. Part of Museum of the Old Colony at UMBC, organized by Maurice Berger

Berger grew up in a predominantly Black and Hispanic housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was this upbringing that made racism real for him—in “Are Art Museums Racist?” he wrote, “I’m used to the experience of witnessing social and cultural indifference to people of color as a white person on the inside.” He wrote from this experience to critique the art world for remaining stubbornly resistant to being inclusive and sharing venues with people of color. Specifically, he examines the “complex institutional conditions that result in the exclusion or misrepresentation of major cultural voices in the United States.” The fundamental structures that keep people of color out of the art world, Berger concludes, have not budged, and in order to address this imbalance white cultural critics like himself have to examine their own whiteness and privilege in relation to people of color. He makes it very plain in the final lines: “When it comes to the question of why we ignore the art of African Americans and other people of color, simply learning how to listen to others is not enough. We must first learn to listen to ourselves, no matter how painful that process might be.” 

I was on autopilot before Berger’s death, but this news woke me to a new reality. How many more of our heroes, colleagues, lovers, friends, family will perish? How much will we mourn? And when will we be forced to continue? I appreciate the ability to mark and remark on his passing. I feel we are getting to a point where we will rapidly see more people we know falling ill or worse. Suddenly there is so much shifting, so much quiet, so much death, so much change, and so much loss. The social distancing and COVID-19 closures have forced me to pause and meditate on my own regrets, pondering phrases I should have said, ventures that I should have pursued. I wish I could have gotten the chance to shake Maurice Berger’s hand and tell him in person how much I respected him and his work, and I know his research included people like me and countless other scholars, critics, and curators. 

Maurice Berger

In his award-winning “Race Stories” column for the New York Times’ photography section Lens, Berger moved past surface-level evaluation of artistic work and deeply explored how race informed the artistic practices of Black artists. Writing about Gordon Parks’ 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft, Berger discusses the relationship between the film and Parks’ early photographs in which the artist “attempted to challenge how mainstream media portrayed African-Americans and crime.”

Berger championed Black artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, and Latoya Ruby Frazier, through critical elevation of their work. His approach and veneration was innovative, centering the voices and the stories of the Black artists that he profiled. When he spoke of his own race or position, he only did so to offer context. He could have easily written beautiful and empty things, instead his life’s work was naming racism and calling out the art world’s whiteness. He used his white privilege to amplify the voices and stories of Black artists, bringing their work to new audiences. 

Berger’s advocacy as a white curator and critic was intentional and genuine. He wanted to tell artists’ stories because he believed it was the right and just thing to do, and because he marveled at their talent. In a short documentary for the International Center of Photography’s 2018 Infinity Award, Berger said, “The ordinariness of racism hasn’t changed really at all for a really long time.” His unending drive to confront and examine race reflected this sentiment. I think that Berger’s refusal to ignore race, and his ability to discuss the implicit whiteness and white privilege in the art world in his time, was brave. 

Years ago, at the start of my development as a Black, queer curator, reading Berger’s words helped focus the type of work I wanted to do. Now I want my words and my exhibitions to echo his bravery and his legacy. Berger was never afraid to name and make racism obvious, in spaces that were predominantly white and that often wanted to pretend that racism did not exist. The foundation of my own curatorial practice is my belief that Black people, Black creators, are cultural architects, a belief that Maurice Berger echoed through his tirelessly consistent work. 

 

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