Maurice Berger Dies, He Was A Fearless Anti-Racist Art Historian

Duane Townsend

Art News - March 24, 2020

Maurice Berger, an art historian and curator whose areas of focus included whiteness in the art world and the political implications of photography, has died at 63. On Twitter, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote that Berger died of coronavirus-related causes, which was confirmed in an obituary by New York’s Jewish Museum, for whom he had organized an exhibition about art and television in 2015.

As a curator of incisive photography shows dealing with whiteness and an unforgiving essayist who paid mind to race long before many of his colleagues were willing to do so, Berger has been an influential figure to many. He tore into the mainstream art world’s myopic views, calling out major institutions for not engaging diversity. And in a regular column called “Race Stories” for the New York Times photography blog Lens, he considered how camera-made images can be tied to complex political contexts.

“I’m very interested in writing about the things that would normally not be written about—like the issues of race people have not been comfortable with,” Berger said in a 2018 documentary hosted online by New York’s International Center of Photography.

“Are Art Museums Racist?,” Berger’s most famous essay, first appeared in a 1990 issue of Art in America (a publication currently owned by the same company as ARTnews). The time was that of the so-called culture wars, with right-wing politicians seeking to defund artists and institutions, and many in the art world who had not previously thought much about diversity were beginning to do so. While institutions had made some progress in representing more non-white narratives, for Berger—and many others—it was not enough.

His clear-eyed prose takes institutions such as the New Museum, the Whitney Museum, and others to task for only half-heartedly exhibiting black art, often sans necessary context needed to place it in history. White curators, administrators, and officials at such museums “reflect the interests of the ruling caste of cultural institutions,” he wrote, and therefore museums “can never stray too far from the interests of their white, upper-class patrons or their principally white audience.”

“Is the art world merely mirroring social changes or can art institutions actually play a role in challenging the conditions of institutional racism in America?” Berger wondered. “Sad to say, with regard to race, art museums have for the most part behaved like many other businesses in this country—they have sought to preserve the narrow interests of their upper-class patrons and clientele.”

Written three years before a watershed Whitney Biennial placed a then-unprecedented emphasis on artists of color, Berger’s essay now reads as almost shockingly predictive. He closed with some suggestions for museums going forward—enact greater measures to bring aspiring non-white curators into institutional pipelines, open satellite spaces in historically underrepresented neighborhoods—that are now being instituted in the museum sphere. ...
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