Monday, March 8, 2010

MoMA Film Library

In the late 1920s, three progressive and influential patrons of the arts, Miss Lillie P. Bliss, Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., established an institution devoted exclusively to modern art.

The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929, its founding Director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., intended the Museum to be dedicated to helping people understand and enjoy the visual arts of our time, and that it might provide New York with "the greatest museum of modern art in the world."

Over the next 10 years, the Museum had to move to larger locations to provide enough space for the accumulating modern art pouring in. In 1939 they moved to their current location in midtown Manhattan.

The first Director was Alfred Barr Jr., and his idea was to create a series of separate art departments including architecture history, film and photography, as well as more traditional painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints.

During the early years of development, MoMA held a number of major art shows, including the Vincent van Gogh exhibition in November 1935, the celebrated Picasso retrospective of 1939-40, which was staged in partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Film Library of the MoMA, was founded in 1935 and was the first of its kind in the United States.
The aim of the MoMA's film library was to
create a controlled viewing experience. Unlike normal theaters-which were sites of amusement versus education-films were hand chosen according to theme, period and genre and not discarded after a short run.

The attitude of the viewer differed from normal theater audiences as well; seating was regulated and audiences were disciplined if they did not conduct themselves appropriately during the screening of films.

The MoMA Film Library's first curator, Iris Barry was a fixture in the theater; she had her own private booth with a direct line to the projector's office, who would stop the screening if the crowd became too unruly.

Flash forward to present day, and the contrast of the public's perception of the library is staggering. Instead of wandering oi polloi, audiences of the modern film library come seeking an educational experien
ce versus another night at the movies.

The MoMA continues to follow the curatorial standard it is known for
by showing like films according to historical relevance, auteur and thematic similarities. On an average day at the Film Library, one can expect to see, for example, a showing of excerpts of four or five Sergei Eisenstein films or a selectio
n of Tim Burton films.

What separates the Film Library from other art houses, is its inclusiveness to younger audiences and families, mainly because of its affiliation with the museum. There are often events for young children as well as promotions for school trips.

For the Film Library's older clientele seeking exclusivity (the epistemic search for what high-brow actually is, perhaps) there is a membership program through the museum that offers additional screenings as well as invites to exclusive parties for higher levels.

The MoMA is located on the Upper West Side, between Fifth and Sixth avenue--home to some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. The amount of disposable income within its location is vital to its popularity. The Upper East Side and the Upper West Side have some of the best private schools in the country.

A demographic that includes some of the best educated New Yorkers with arguably the highest amount of disposable income within Manhattan has perfectly molded the MoMA's Film Library into an internationally known art house.

What the MoMA may lack in "indie-cred" it makes up for in visual aesthetic and a large collection of preserved films. The Library currently holds 22,000 films that have been preserved by the MoMA itself.

The theaters where the screenings are held look more like Carnegie Hall as opposed to ones neighborhood multiplex. The elegant red velvet seats are smaller in scale (not very comfortable) for the smaller theater. The screen is a bit smaller than a regular theater, and often, in the lower theater, subway trains can be heard--fortunately this is not the case for the theater on the upper level.

The theaters are in a section of the MoMA called the Education Center. The lobby lends itself to the art house notion of post-film though
t and discussion with the extensive amount of seating areas.
There are two levels of the lobby, the ground level with rectangular black leather benches, and the lower level with tables, presumably for school trips and discussion groups.

The ground level of the Education Center is what one would consider the theater's lobby because of its traditional theater fixtures. The ticket booth is a stark white counter with plasma screens behind instead of movie posters and a bank teller-like box with a clumsy microphone. One could purchase tickets for a film at this counter or at the main museum ticket counter of the MoMA for an additional fee with admittance to the museum itself.

As for concessions, there are three restaurants inside the museum itself, all of which are far enough from the Film Library to not be considered a concession stand; Cafe 2 is a traditional cafe where one pays and orders at the counter, Terrace 5 is a fully functioning middle-grade restaurant and The Modern is an upscale full-service restaurant that contains a separate bar area that is open past museum operating hours--definitely not a concession stand. There is a general impression that bringing food out of the restaurants and into the theater is discouraged.

The stark, minimalist decor of the Film Library lends to the contrast between it and many other art houses. There are a few pieces of modern art, nothing too obtrusive or famous, sheerly for decorative purposes so as not to distract post-film discussions.

The decor of the Film Library is indicative of its desire to lend itself to free thought. Barely adorned glowing white walls serve as the blank canvas, much in the same way the ambiguity of the films it allow audiences to think for themselves.

Many members of the MoMA have responded creatively to the museum's call to action. There have been several installments of videos on Youtube created by members (examples of which can be seen here ---> as well as subway creations by guerilla graffiti artist, Poster Boy.

The MoMA remains an important fixture in the cultural identity of New York City as well as film-art history as a whole. A film library rivaling only Henri Langlois' bastion of the Cinematheque, forever altering the perception of film in American movie audiences by inspiring an analytical and educated way of watching films.

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