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Maurice Berger, a chief curator and research professor at UMBC who was ‘a major voice for justice,’ dies

Maurice Berger's work focused on the junction between art and justice.
Maurice Berger's work focused on the junction between art and justice.(Marlayna Demond/Marlayna Demond)

Maurice Berger, an internationally known cultural scholar who was a chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, where he was also a research professor, died Monday of complications of the coronavirus at his second home in Craryville, New York. The Manhattan resident was 63.

“Maurice was one of our most important professors and admired scholars, and he represented a major voice for justice and played an important role of who we are as human beings," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of UMBC since 1992.

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“He was an extraordinary human being who was constantly seeking the truth and presenting it honestly to us,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He was a major force in the culture of America, and for Maurice, art and history came together for fairness and justice.”

Tom Beck, who retired in 2017 from UMBC, where he was chief curator of special collections and the library gallery at the Albin O. Kuhn Library, was a longtime friend and colleague of Dr. Berger’s.

“Maurice was a great humanist in a time that doesn’t always appreciate humanists,” said Mr. Beck, a Catonsville resident. “He was a supremely intelligent man who wrote about a wide swath of American culture. I admired his scholarship and exhibitions that he put together. They spoke volumes about the subjects he engaged with.”

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)
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)(BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR)

Maurice Berger, the son of Max Berger and his wife, Ruth Seunta Berger, was born in New York City into humble circumstances and raised in public housing projects in Brooklyn and later on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, areas primarily home to African Americans and Puerto Ricans. The experience was profoundly transformative and made a lasting influence.

His father also passed on to his young son the importance and significance of the 1960s civil rights movement.

“I’ve been thinking about [race relations] since I was a child,” Dr. Berger explained in a 2012 City Paper interview. “Understanding that my white skin had a lot of power and meaning.”

“As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism. As a gay man, I have known homophobia,” Dr. Berger wrote in a 2017 New York Times article about his youth.

“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. It was painful to watch. And, as my friends let me know, considerably more painful to endure,” he wrote.

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“Except for a harrowing stint at a Jewish day school, where I was tormented for being poor, my classmates and my young neighbors and friends were all people of color. They allowed me into their lives, and I learned a lot from them.”

After graduating from Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music and Art, Dr. Berger was a 1978 summa cum laude graduate of Hunter College and received his Ph.D. in 1988 in art history from the City University of New York.

“By the time Berger was enrolled at Hunter College in 1974, he had found a topic that consistently piqued his interest, despite black artists and cultural figures being largely invisible for a 20th-century contemporary art scholar to study, he says,” reported the City Paper.

Dr. Berger had made the essential connection of how “camera-made images can be tied to complex political contexts,” reported Art News.

During the 1980s, he was an assistant professor of art and gallery director at Hunter College, and in 1990, he published a seminal article, “Are Art Museums Racist,” in Art in America. His stated mission was to “examine the complex institutional conditions that result in the exclusion or misrepresentation of major cultural voices in the United States,” he wrote.

“Sad to say, with regard to race, art museums 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. It is the upper-class, mostly white bias I want to interrogate in order to find out ‘what’s going on with whiteness’ (as the writer Bell Hooks might say) at one of America’s most racially biased-based cultural institutions — the art museum,” he wrote.

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Two years ago, Dr. Berger, in a documentary for New York’s International Center of Photography, explained, “I’m very interested in writing about the things that would normally not be written about — like the issues of race people have not been comfortable with.”

Dr. Berger began his career at UMBC in 1992 when he organized a highly successful traveling exhibition, “Ciphers of Identity,” and other exhibitions for the university’s Center for Art Design and Visual Culture, such as retrospectives of noted artists Adrian Piper and Fred Wilson.

His exhibition, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” organized in a partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, garnered much media attention.

In telling the story of black stereotypes from the 1930s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, he used sound recordings such as baritone Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River" from the 1936 film “Showboat,” to the 1963 Time magazine cover that featured Cassius Clay, and an entire section devoted to the black press, including the celebrated photographer Gordon Parks.

"'For All the World to See’ is an immersive experience,” wrote a freelancer in The Baltimore Sun in 2013. “Sounds from video clips pull you along, subtly influencing where among the strategically positioned books, buttons, posters and other artifacts you are compelled to stop and think.”

His “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television” was another joint effort that he organized as a collaboration between UMBC and the Jewish Museum of New York, which took an in-depth look at how television influenced stereotypical images and portrayals of African Americans and where again he employed images in telling stories about race.

“Maurice was a very curious man and was good at asking questions that often caused discomfort. But by asking those questions, he was trying to elevate us,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He was interested so we could be better today and tomorrow. His was a life that gave us hope.”

He was the author of 11 books, including the critically acclaimed “White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness,” which was published in 2000. He was also the author of “Race Stories,” a monthly column in The New York Times Lens Section, and his work also appeared in Artforum, Art in America, the Village Voice, October, PEN America, Wired and the Los Angeles Times.

Some of the academic and cultural institutions where Dr. Berger lectured included Yale University, Hunter College, Maryland Institute College of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, DIA Center for the Arts and the Institute for Contemporary of Art in Boston.

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Dr. Berger, who commuted to UMBC, last visited its Catonsville campus Jan. 30.

“Who owns history? Who does history serve and for whom is it written?” Dr. Berger wrote in a Jewish Museum of New York catalog. “Who has been left out of history and whose voices should be heard?”

Plans for a memorial gathering are incomplete.

Dr. Berger is survived by his husband, Marvin Heiferman, a curator, writer and senior visiting research scholar at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, whom he knew for 26 years and was married to since 2009.

Baltimore Sun reporters McKenna Oxenden and Jacques Kelly contributed to this article and Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed research.

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