Maurice Berger, who as a curator and a writer was a forceful voice against both overt and subtle racism in the art world and other arenas, died on Sunday at his home in Craryville, N.Y. He was 63.
His husband, Marvin Heiferman, said the official cause was heart failure. He said Mr. Berger had been exhibiting severe symptoms of coronavirus for five days but was not tested for the virus either before or after his death.
Mr. Berger, who was white, spent a lifetime being conscious of how race determines opportunities, attitudes and much more, in his own life and in society at large. His writing exploring those influences was blunt and provocative. There was, for instance, “Are Art Museums Racist?,” a 1990 essay in Art in America.
“Art museums,” he wrote, “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.” Who were, of course, mostly white.
And there was a series of essays he wrote for the Lens blog of The New York Times under the rubric “Race Stories.” One, from August 2017, talked about the photographs of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where racism and other ugly sentiments were on full display — images that, he said, captured not the aftermath of hate, as many famed pictures did, but the perpetrators of it.
“These people are sons and daughters, siblings, spouses and parents who today have traded Klan hoods for polo shirts and khakis,” he wrote. “Many are college educated and employed in white-collar jobs. They look like people we know — friends, co-workers, neighbors and family. And they have one thing in common: an allegiance to a scurrilous ideology bent on intimidating, disempowering, and even annihilating African-Americans, Jews and others they view as foreign or racially impure.”
Mr. Berger also wrote of the beauty and honesty he found in the work of the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, the documentary photographer Jill Freedman and many others.
“Maurice’s work was groundbreaking,” the photographer and curator Deborah Willis, chair of the department of photography and imagery at New York University, said by email. “He questioned and challenged our collective past, and he lived an extraordinary and focused life sharing his love of stories and images that ranged from tragedy to joy.”
Among the most prominent exhibitions Mr. Berger curated was “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” which was seen in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington (which was then part of the National Museum of American History) and toured widely. In a telephone interview, Rhea Combs, curator of film and photography at the museum, reacted to Mr. Berger’s death.
“It’s really a tremendous loss to the art world,” she said, “because he was so fearless and so committed and so clear about the things he believed in, and unapologetic about it.”
Maurice Berger was born on May 22, 1956, in Manhattan. His father, Max, was an accountant, and his mother, Ruth Secunda Berger, was an opera singer and actress.
The family lived in a Lower East Side housing project that consisted predominantly of black and Puerto Rican families, and Mr. Berger early on saw the difference between having white skin and having brown. He could walk into a department store unnoticed, for instance, whereas his black friends would be followed by security guards.
“As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism,” he wrote in Lens in 2017. “As a gay man, I have known homophobia. But neither has seemed as relentless as the racism I witnessed growing up — a steady drumbeat of slights, thinly veiled hostility and condescension perpetrated by even the most liberal and well-meaning people.”
He wrote frankly about his mother’s hostility toward her neighbors. She was a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew who thought her skin tone kept casting directors from giving her parts, and in his book “White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness” (1999) he recalled watching her, when he was a boy, putting on her thick makeup, a “mask of pure whiteness.”
“My mother was driven to create for herself an idealized whiteness,” he wrote, “a rigid, carefully measured whiteness she could always count on, a whiteness which would ensure that she would not be mistaken for the black or Hispanic denizens of the projects she hated so much.”
Mr. Berger earned a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College in 1978 and a Ph.D. in art history at the City University of New York in 1988. By then he had already been teaching for some years at Hunter, and in 1987 he and an anthropology professor there, Johnnetta Cole, organized an exhibition at the college art gallery titled “Race and Representation.”
“We were the first large-scale art museum project to broadly examine the question of white racism as an issue for artists, filmmakers and other visual culture disciplines,” Mr. Berger told Smithsonian magazine in 2011, “and that really started me on this 25-year path of dealing with two things that are most interesting to me as a scholar: American race relations and the way visual culture affects prevailing ideas and alters the way we see the world.”
Mr. Berger became senior research scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2006, advancing to research professor in 2010. The center collaborated on “For All the World to See” with the National Museum, which was then in a formative stage.
“It was extraordinary to have someone so steeped in visual culture identify this museum as a place where they wanted to create a major exhibition,” Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the museum, said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Berger also curated exhibitions at the International Center of Photography, the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and other New York institutions, in addition to numerous exhibitions at his university in Maryland. His other books included “How Art Becomes History” (1992), and he wrote countless exhibition catalogs.
In addition to Mr. Heiferman, himself a noted curator, whom he married in 2011, Mr. Berger is survived by a sister, Beverly Berger.
One of Mr. Berger’s goals in being outspoken about issues of race was to get others, especially white people, to examine and discuss their attitudes.
“White folks rarely talk about these things either among themselves or with their friends of color,” he told The Burlington Free Press in Vermont in 2004. “It isn’t part of the social contract, and I think it has to become part of the social contract.”
Ms. Conwill said that one of his less flashy attributes was encouraging other scholars and curators who were interested in such issues.
“There was nothing better than to have this deeply intellectual, deeply passionate man say your work was important,” she said. “It felt like a benediction.”
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