238: A Film Curator does what?

Archival Spaces  238

A Film Curator does what?

Uploaded 13 March 2020

I have been seeing the verb to curate with increasing frequency in the unlikeliest places, e.g. I was recently on a Delta Airlines flight where you can now purchase a Delta vacation with “the world’s best hotels and curated experiences.” Apart from the fact that my word processing program tells me that “curated” is underlined in red, i.e. misspelled, I wonder what is a curated experience? I didn’t really think much about the Delta pitch or other weird examples of the usage, until I read a New York Times published article (March 3, 2020) last week by Lou Stoppard, complaining that “Everyone’s now a curator.” According to the author, curating is the trendiest term around today, and curators are the new lifestyle superstars, curating food, wardrobes, restaurants, travel, Instagram feeds, even cheese. Having been a real curator for much of my life, I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own, from the front lines, so to speak, which put into context Stoppard’s comment that calling professionals who organize exhibitions curators is a new phenomenon.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “to curate” in fact doesn’t exist; as a noun, a curate is one entrusted with the cure of souls or a spiritual pastor, which doesn’t exactly fit here; a curator has several meanings says OED, but the operative one is: “the officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, or the like; a keeper, custodian.” This definition is relatively broad and doesn’t really specify the duties of a curator in an institution that houses collections of books or works of art, regardless s of medium.

So let’s get specific. My first job at George Eastman Museum back in the 1980s was as Associate Curator, Department of Film; I was promoted after three years to Curator of Film. In that position, I was responsible for both the care and preservation of the film collections, which included physical films in various formats (35mm, 28mm, 16mm, 8mm, etc), as well as film stills (photographs), film posters, and other paper documents, like the personal and corporate correspondence of filmmakers. The latter paper-based documents constitute the material culture of cinema, and are pertinent to any writing of film history. This curatorial work was essentially that of an archivist who must facilitate the long-term survival of materials under his/her care. In the analog era, that meant preserving the original materials as best as possible through proper archival housing and climate control, i.e. proper storage, and in the case of obsolete film formats, copying materials to newer, chemically more stable film materials. In the digital age, it now means moving from a culture of objects (films, paper-based images) to one of digital files, which are created by digitizing original materials. Thus, the curator’s job now entails keeping track of digital files in cyberspace, while still holding on to the original analog materials for as long as possible, in order to facilitate the making of more sophisticated digital files in the future.

Dryden Theatre, George Eastman Museum

But my work as a film curator at Eastman involved not just archival work, as it is traditionally defined.      I was also responsible for programming film series at the Museum’s Dryden Theatre. Film programs were curated both from the permanent collection of films at the Museum, as well as from other sources that make films available for projection, either other museums and film archives, or film distributors, film collectors, etc. Putting together such film programs was not only a matter of organizing and scheduling film prints in a rational sequence, but also of research in film historical texts, biographies, newspapers and magazine, film reviews, online websites, and numerous other paper and digital sources, because film programming has to make curatorial sense, educate and entertain. Furthermore, film programs were accompanied by brochures and other publicity materials that explicated a program’s rationale, as well as providing descriptions of individual films shown.

Catalog for Film and Photo in the 1920s

Even before taking my position at Eastman, I had co-organized an exhibition, “Film and Photo in the 1920s,” a reconstruction of a famous 1929 avant-garde media exhibition, originally conceived by Constructivist artists, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Hans Richter. Shown in Germany at Stuttgart’s Kunstverein and Essen’s Folkwangmuseum, as well traveling to museums in Berlin, Hamburg, and Zurich, “FiFo” included both a film program and a wall exhibition. Not surprisingly, then, given the paper collections at Eastman Museum, the job of film curator included developing traditional exhibitions in the museum’s galleries. Thus, we opened the new museum building in Rochester in January 1989 with “The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood’s Golden Age,” a major exhibition which introduced the Warner Brothers film stills collection that had been in deep storage at Eastman since the late 1950s. The exhibition was accompanied by a Warner Brothers studios film program, and a catalog. Writing and editing that catalog, which made a contribution to film history was also a work of film curatorship.  

George Eastman Museum catalog

Finally, given the realities of the non-profit status of museums in America, curators in recent years usually have to develop strategies for fundraising, in order to finance any part of the job described above. That is usually hard work in and of itself. I’ve had exhibitions fall through for lack of funding, despite great concepts. But film curatorship means there’s never a dull moment.    

Old film stills archive and my office on the 3rd floor of George Eastman House

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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