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Maurice Berger, a chief curator at UMBC and a renowned scholar, dies at 63 in New York of coronavirus complications

Maurice Berger wrote essays was explored the relationship of photography to concepts, themes, or social or regional issues around race not usually covered in the mainstream media.
Maurice Berger wrote essays was explored the relationship of photography to concepts, themes, or social or regional issues around race not usually covered in the mainstream media.(Marlayna Demond/Marlayna Demond)

The chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County died Monday in New York of complications related to coronavirus, The Jewish Museum announced Tuesday.

Maurice Berger served as a research professor at UMBC in addition to being a curator, the university said in confirming his death.

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The university said Berger was a New York City resident and died two hours north of the city in the hamlet of Craryville in Columbia County. He was 63.

Berger graduated from Hunter College and received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He joined the UMBC faculty in 1992, the university said, and curated over a dozen exhibits. He was known internationally as a scholar and was published regularly in The New York Times, Artforum, Art in America and National Geographic.

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Maurice Berger is pictured in October 1999 as curator of "Adrian Piper A Retrospective," a show at the UMBC Fine Arts Gallery.
Maurice Berger is pictured in October 1999 as curator of "Adrian Piper A Retrospective," a show at the UMBC Fine Arts Gallery.(BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR)

UMBC said Berger secured major grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. One of the exhibits he curated, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, was organized with the Smithsonian and is still on a national tour.

In a 2016 Baltimore Sun story, a reporter reviewing the exhibit called it “groundbreaking.”

The traveling exhibit he curated explored how avant-garde art influenced and shaped the look and content of network television. Berger was described by the museum as a writer, curator and historian.

“For more than 25 years, Berger was a valued colleague and friend of the Museum who passionately demonstrated the highest standards of scholarship and intellectual integrity,” the museum said. “Today we have lost him in our lives — a small consolation is that he will live on in the important and powerful work he accomplished.”

Tributes to the curator flooded social media Tuesday, as news of his death began to spread. Many called him an “inspiration” and said his death was a “wake up call” for what COVID-19 can do.

There are 349 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland and more than 55,000 across the country. Worldwide there are more than 422,900 positive cases. More than 18,900 people have died across the world, including 796 U.S. deaths. Four, not counting Berger, have been from Maryland.

Since 2012, Berger contributed monthly in the New York Times Lens Section, aiming to write “well-researched” essays in a “literary and reader-friendly” style, according to a letter from the curator on UMBC’s website. The stories won Berger an Infinity Award from the ICP in 2018.

The goal of the essays was to explore the relationship of photography to concepts, themes, or social or regional issues around race not usually covered in the mainstream media, the letter said. Most of the essays focused on the civil rights era and beyond, including ways artists and photographers of color used photography to combat stereotypes and highlight ideas about race and identity in the United States.

The Jewish Museum said Berger’s writing was a reflection of his personal thoughts and ethics. He frequently showed compassion for people of color, ethnic minorities, women, gay men and lesbians through his use of language. He was “driven more by questions than formulaic answers,” the museum said.

His passion for sharing stories and exhibits about racism and those in the margins stemmed from Beger’s childhood, he said in an interview with the UMBC magazine in 2012. From a young age, Berger said, he noticed how minorities were treated differently from white people.

Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka said in a tweet that his “heart breaks” after he learned about Berger’s death.

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“This is a sobering reminder of the seriousness of this public health crisis we face,” the District 2 representative said. “The virus can’t infect those it can’t reach.”

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