Mary and MoMa: The Case of the (Still) Missing Film Stills

Ten years ago, the Museum of Modern Art's Film Stills Archive was closed, and a priceless heritage denied to the public

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Ten years ago today, a vast, invaluable trove of movie history was capriciously shut down. Executives at the Museum of Modern Art ordered the closing of its Film Stills Archive, a collection of some 4 million photographs documenting more than a century of movies, performers and directors. On the morning of Jan. 11, 2002, Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of the MoMA Department of Film and Video, told the two Stills Archive staff members that at the end of the business day two things would happen: the facility would be shuttered and the staffers would be laid off—until, and unless, the Museum found space for the Stills Archive when MoMA returned from its temporary home in Queens to an enlarged Manhattan premises in 2005. The collection was mothballed in the Film Department’s vault in Hamlin, Pa., where it remains today, inaccessible to scholars and journalists, and to the head of the Archive, Mary Corliss.

That name may be familiar to readers. Since 2004 she has reviewed movies from the Cannes, Venice and Toronto film festivals for this website. That she and I share a last name is no coincidence: we married in 1969, after meeting at MoMA, where for a time I was her intern in the Film Stills Archive. So I can vouch for Mary’s dedication to the Archive, which she had run for nearly 34 years. She spent more late nights there—nourishing the collection, or curating 41 gallery exhibitions on subjects ranging from Warner Bros. cartoons to Yiddish films—than I did at TIME. Indefatigably and lovingly, she made this great collection available to the scholars, journalists, filmmakers and programmers who mined its resources. Literally hundreds of film books and documentaries carried the credit “Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.”

(MORE: Mary Corliss reviews The Artist)

The Archive was, without much exaggeration, Mary’s child; she cared for it and nourished it. Her love can be detected in an essay for Roger Ebert’s book The Great Movies, for which she chose the stills: “I open those venerable filing cabinets in the Archive and find a century’s worth of art and folly, commerce and kitsch, invaluable documentation and, most of all, indelible memories… Film stills freeze the emotion and excitement of an actor, a scene, a film, an era; they are the pin through the movie butterfly that somehow gives this lovely, ephemeral creature lasting life. Stills distill; stills preserve.”

“When I rummage through bulging ‘personality files’ of movie-star stills,” Mary wrote, “I can see a compressed life story: the freshness and gawky promise of a young actor; the radiant maturity as the star’s appeal is complemented by the filmmakers’ artistry; then, as age writes its cruel lines on a face, the poignant battle against decay, waged with heavy makeup and lighting that is ever more carefully soft-focus. Any of these personality files is a flip-book that grants me a God’s-eye view into both the intoxicating nature of human beauty and the inevitability of mortality. In a film still, though, an actor can remain forever at the apogee of his appeal.” That devotion to the Archive may explain why Mary was bereft less for herself than for the collection when she and her longtime assistant Terry Geesken were laid off and the stills and negatives were hauled away to Hamlin, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City.

(MORE: A 2002 story on the closing of the MoMA Stills Archive)

Because I adore Mary, I may be considered biased. But don’t take my word in the MoMA dispute. Listen to the chorus of press comments from a decade ago: reaction was swift and strong. The day after the Stills Archive’s abrupt closing, The New York Times ran an article, sympathetic to the staffers, followed by a stinging letter from Ebert and a Sunday Arts & Leisure piece by David Thomson. The Village Voice and the New York Observer covered the closing and joined the outcry, as did John Anderson in Newsday and Robert Osborne in The Hollywood Reporter. The Society for Cinema Studies and the New York Film Critics Circle fired off protests to Bandy and MoMA Director Glenn Lowry. Martin Scorsese, who had used Stills Archive photos in his documentary My Voyage to Italy, said of the collection’s exile to Hamlin, “I can only hope, for the cineastes here in New York who need access to the files, that this is not permanent.”

In that first Times report, Lowry said, “My own feeling is that it makes a great deal of sense to have all our film material together, but we have several years to figure that out.” Film Department curator Steven Higgins assured David Callahan of Film History magazine that the Museum’s intention was “to get access open again and to get people using it. Otherwise, it’s of no use to anyone. We recognize that.” Yet in 2005, when MoMA reopened on a property more than seven times as large as the earlier site, Lowry, Bandy and Higgins could find no room there for the Stills Archive. In Dec. 2006, Jim Emerson, the film critic and historian who runs the Scanners blog on Ebert’s website, wrote: “For five years now, one of the great film resources in America has been unjustly imprisoned, boxed up and sitting in the corridors of a film storage facility in Hamlin, Pennsylvania. It’s a scandal, a tragedy, and an enormous disservice to film scholarship.”

Why, then, would MoMA keep the Archive closed and unmaintained? Could there be a motive aside from the Museum hierarchy’s indifference to one of its most valuable collections? The Village Voice story, by Anthony Kaufman, provided a reason. “Geesken and Corliss were both active participants in the [four-and-a-half-month] strike [in 2000] by United Auto Workers union Local 2110…, 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 union filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, and the case consumed more than four years. In late 2006, Mary sent this message to friends: “This September, I received a document signed by the three Republicans appointed to the Washington office of the NLRB…. In their ruling, they not only fully agreed with MoMA’s arguments; they reversed those points that the judge in the NLRB trial had decided in our favor. … That verdict represents the end of the legal battle. But the struggle to keep the Stills Archive alive does not, cannot end there. Since MoMA argued that the Archive was closed for temporary lack of space, it follows that, when even more space was made available, the Archive would reopen. That was Terry’s and my understanding when we took a low severance in order to have recall rights to our jobs of 34 and 18 years, respectively, returning when the Archive reopened.”

Tributes to Mary and the Archive continue to appear. Last year, on the TCM Classic Film Union website, the blogger “klaatukat” wrote: “Apropos of this evening’s feature on the MoMA film archives, I would like to salute Mary Corliss, who worked for almost 35 years as the Curator of the Film Stills Archive at MoMA. I met her several times and not only is she knowledgeable and astute, she is a gracious person. MoMA lost a valuable curator when she was summarily dismissed. Thank you Mary.” No thanks from  MoMA, though. If bloggers were to visit the Museum’s own website and search for the Archive, they would read: “As part of the long-term plan to expand and renovate the Museum, the Film Stills Archive has been closed temporarily and moved to The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, Pennsylvania….” Temporarily, as in 10 years and counting.

In the intervening decade, Mary and her partner Michael Smith have opened a design store, Adelaide, in Greenwich Village. Mary tried to put aside the painful memories of the MoMA struggle. But as the 10th anniversary of what she wryly calls “the Archive’s own 1/11” approached, she was contacted by scholars preparing studies of the Archive and its demise. One, Jason Simon, interviewed her for a gallery monograph to be published in conjunction with a gallery exhibition in April. Mary’s answer to one of Simon’s questions reveals her abiding care and concern for the Film Stills Archive:

“What bothers me is that there’s no conscience, no morality to what they’ve done. There’s no making a wrong right here. And again, it’s not about me, because I’m out of it. I’m gone there. But they still have this majestic collection that is inaccessible and I wonder how, or even if, it’s being preserved and maintained. That’s what angers me more than anything. … Somebody at MoMA has to realize that there is this historic collection, a record of cinema’s glorious past, and it’s just collecting dust and deteriorating. Does anybody at MoMA care what condition the Film Stills Archive is in? This is a museum, and it’s a museum’s collection and it’s a museum that made promises. I made promises to filmmakers on MoMA’s behalf that their collections and their work would be preserved and honored and be there for generations to behold and to study and learn from. Keeping that Archive closed is a violation of all that. They broke their trust as a museum: to care for these visual artifacts and make them available to the public. That’s the real tragedy.”