INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: 34 Years and Counting; MoMA Stalwart Larry Kardish Adjusts to New Digs

by Wendy Mitchell/indieWIRE

(indieWIRE: 10.07.02) -- In 1968, Larry Kardish arrived for his first day of work as a curatorial assistant in the Museum of Modern Art's film division. His mandate at the time was to create Cineprobe, a forum for independent and avant-garde filmmakers. He succeeded, and 34 years later, Kardish remains at MoMA. He became a full curator in 1984, with the particular responsibility of coordinating the museum's Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters. In April, 2000, he was appointed senior curator of the film and video department.

In addition to co-curating the ongoing Cineprobe series, Kardish organizes an annual presentation of new films from Germany and has also served on the selection committee of the annual New Directors/New Films festival, presented in cooperation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, since its founding in 1972. Kardish has also written extensively for catalogues and publications by the Museum and other film archives and festivals. For the past twelve years Kardish has also been a member of the National Advisory Committee for the Sundance Film Festival. In 1995 he received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Grade de Chevalier, from the government of France.

"MoMA's uniqueness is that it is the only institution I know that incorporates cinema as an art equal to the art of the past centuries."

In June, MoMA shifted its operations to Queens to accommodate to the complete reconstruction of the Manhattan facility, which is scheduled to open in 2005. The film department, however, will continue to screen its programs in Manhattan, at the fabled and newly-renovated Gramercy Theater on East 23rd Street. The location opens to the public on October 11. For his monthly industry spotlight column, indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross spoke with Kardish about his career at MoMA, the value of museum film programming, and the future of his department in light of recent changes in the industry.

indieWIRE: How did you first arrive at MoMA

Larry Kardish: I was finishing my studies at Columbia, and I wrote to the Museum of Modern Art. I asked if they needed anybody, and at that point everyone was about to expand. I got the job.

iW: Why have you stayed so long?

Kardish: Basically, with MoMA, I've always had a sense of solidity, stability, and it was to the culture of cinema. It's such a unique institution. The culture of cinema is only a little over 100 years, there still is a great deal to learn and there are aspects to the cultural of film that I am still learning. There is no other institution in the world that treats film as comprehensively, and extensively as MoMA does. We have a rather fine archive of film as well, and we have a study center and a circulating library, and we are part of a larger context. The context is modern art.

iW: You said earlier that the MoMA has a unique place in cinema. How would you describe that uniqueness?

Kardish: MoMA's uniqueness is that it is the only institution I know that incorporates cinema as an art equal to the art of the past centuries. When the museum was founded in 1929, it was part of the charter that film would be collected and exhibited and studied and cataloged and enjoyed, as are the other arts.

iW: You would say that MoMA is different in that respect than LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), or SF MOMA (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)?

Kardish: LACMA, as far as I know doesn't have a collection of film, it certainly doesn't have an ongoing film program. LACMA also isn't integrated into the daytime operation of the museum.

iW: Would you say that the MoMA film department has a given mandate that it tries to meet on consistent basis? Do you feel that MoMA lives up to that mandate?

Kardish: Yes. The goal is congruent with the goal of the museum. Charted as an educational institution, it is to bring the culture of cinema to the public and to present it in the context of the other art of the 20th century and now, the 21st century.

iW: Have you succeeded?

Kardish: I think so, yes.

iW: I know your home at the Gramercy Theater is only temporary while MoMA is under renovations, but you will still be screening your films there until 2005. Does this location provide specific opportunities or, conversely, limited opportunities than the Titus Theaters at the old MoMA.

Kardish: We are actually quite excited about the location, not only because it's close to a number of schools, like the school of Visual Arts and Baruch College, but it's a much more residential area than 53rd Street. For me what is exciting is that basically the watershed event of modernism in the U.S. occurred three blocks away on Lexington and 26th Street, when the Armory show opened 90 years ago. That was the art exhibition that introduced the modern to a general public. So there is a history to the area.

iW: How essential to you is the student population?

Kardish: Well, it's important to us that we get a new generation of museum visitors and filmgoers. I think it's very important for us. We are very keen on attracting students into the Museum of Modern Art, and into MoMA at the Gramercy Theater.

"From the word go, many filmmakers have told me that they have seen some of their favorite films at MoMA. So both as an exhibiting and a collecting institution ,we like to think we are close to being in the forefront."

iW: New York is arguably the cultural capital of the world, and certainly the capital of the American independent film scene. How would you describe the MoMA film department's role in promoting and expanding independent film?

Kardish: We have been instrumental in collecting both the independent and the avant garde. From the word go, many filmmakers have told me that they have seen some of their favorite films at MoMA. So both as an exhibiting and a collecting institution, we like to think we are close to being in the forefront.

We also have the New Directors/New Films series, which we do with our colleagues at Lincoln Center, as well as all the retrospectives that we have done over the years. We also have our ongoing program since 1968, called Cineprobe up until this year, which shows an independent or avant-garde film every two weeks.

iW: What's that program up to right now?

Kardish: Well, we just changed its name to MediaScope. As the art of cinema is conflating with the art of video and the art of digital image making, we are recognizing that and we will be including not just filmmakers, but video artist and installation artists as well in this program. Our opening program in MediaScope will in October with the French artist Brice Dellsperger, whose strategy is the digital remaking of feature films in whole or in part. We're going to be showing the work that he did, in taking the soundtrack of Andrzej Zulawski's 1975 film "The Important Thing is to Love," which stars Romy Schneider & Jacques Dutronc.

iW: You've curated everything from experimental works to a retrospective of the best television commercials of the year. How do you make your programming decisions with such a wide array of material to work from?

Kardish: Well, I do it with my colleagues, and we try to do a mix of old and new work, always trying to keep an international focus, but with the recognition that independent filmmakers should be encouraged.

iW: What trend have you noticed in the film scene at large, from changes within the non-profit world to film programming in general, in the last year?

Kardish: Well, it seems that New York has a richer field of programming and of alternative cinema than it has in any time in the past 20 years. With places like the Walter Reade, and Film Forum and Two Boots, and even the commercial programming at Cinema Village. I find that very encouraging. Also, not just in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn and in Queens, with BAM and AMMI. Things are looking good, in my opinion.