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"By Any Means Necessary": Dave Kehr Goes From Critic to Curator

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by Sam Adams
October 24, 2013 4:35 PM
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(c) Ray Pride

On Monday, New York's Museum of Modern Art announced that it had named veteran critic Dave Kehr an Adjunct Curator in its film department, making him the latest writer to leave the world of journalism for a berth at a nonprofit institution. In his weekly DVD column for the New York Times -- which, sadly, he will be leaving behind -- and as a member of the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board, Kehr has been a steady and informed advocate for film history, not only its preservation but its dissemination. Kehr graciously agreed to an email interview with Criticwire about the overlap between film criticism and film advocacy, and why it's important to keep film history alive "by any means necessary." (UPDATE: Kehr has announced he'll be shutting down his blog at the end of the year as well.)

What went into the decision to accept the MoMA position?

It's been a privilege working at the New York Times, but after fourteen years I felt ready for a change. This was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.

Was giving up the Times column a requirement of taking the job, or was it simply a matter of not being able to do both at once? More to the point, will you still be writing, for the Times or elsewhere?

Both the Times and MoMA represent full time jobs, so there was never a question of doing both. I will definitely continue to write, though my first priority will now be MoMA publications. 

You've used the Times column not just to review DVDs but to encourage studios to dig deeper into their vaults (and justly criticized some for failing to do so). To what extent do you view the MoMA job as an extension of that goal?

I hope this job will be a continuation of my column by other means. The last decade has seen significant advances in preservation and restoration (though a huge amount of work remains to be done), but access to older films has become more and more difficult, as the old venues close and new technologies step in that are not as accommodating to older work. The huge body of work that is the American cinema is in danger of being reduced to a list of a couple of hundred Oscar-winners and establishment-approved "classics," and the situation with foreign films is even worse. This, of course, would be a disastrous development for film culture. We need to find ways to keep this work alive and available, by any means necessary. 

Likewise, how does this dovetail with your experience with the National Film Preservation Board?

The National Film Preservation Board has been a very effective way of underscoring the importance of preservation -- not just of feature films, but of all the various kinds of film practice, including home movies, avant-garde work, industrial films and much more, that make up our film heritage. MoMA has been deeply involved in this kind of work and it will continue to be. 

What, if any, is your agenda going into the position? 

It's still a little early to set specific goals, but I am hoping to spend a lot of time rolling around in the archive, and working with Anne Morra, who oversees the archive, to get more of this material out in front of the public. 

It seems like there's a nascent trend of critics moving into curatorial or programming roles, although some, like Scott Foundas, have moved back again. Do you expect to see more of this?

I can't think of more than four or five journalists who have moved into curatorial positions, though I expect to see more as the job market for film critics continues to shrink. It's a strange skill set that doesn't lend itself to a lot of other applications!

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