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Maurice Berger, 63, curator who explored race, dies of coronavirus complications

Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Maurice Berger, a writer and curator whose prescient work on the nature of art, race and image helped set a framework for the social discourses of today, died from complications related to COVID-19 in Craryville, N.Y., on Sunday. His death was confirmed by representatives at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (where he served as chief curator of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture), as well as New York's Jewish Museum, where he helped curate numerous exhibitions over the course of his career. Berger was 63.

In an emailed statement to The Times, the Jewish Museum's director, Claudia Gold, described Berger as "a brilliant visionary with a love for life and a deep sense of humor." His work "brought inspiration to many of our exhibitions and catalogs."

Berger was known for his nuanced explorations of race in the book "White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2000, and the 2003 exhibition "White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art," which debuted at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture before traveling to the Institute of Contemporary Photography in New York. They not only explored the inequities of the Black and Latino experience, they examined the privileged position of whiteness -- a profound consideration of the issue before such discussions had come to circulate in the culture at large.

"There were not a lot of people talking about this in the 1990s," says Steven Nelson, a UCLA art historian who also teaches at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "He was just a tireless advocate for talking about race in the art world and how race functions and racism functions. ... This was his battle cry."

That cry included a now-famous 1990 essay published in Art in America, "Are Art Museums Racist?" -- in which he called out institutions that talked about racial inclusion but did little to move the needle. As he wrote: "Not until the white people, who now hold the power in the art world, scrutinize their own motives and attitudes toward people of color, will it be possible to unlearn racism."

"It was really groundbreaking," says Nelson, of Berger's work. "It helped a lot of others find their voices."

 

It was Berger's experiences as a youth that drove him to explore these themes. Born to Jewish parents in New York in 1957, he grew up one of a handful of white kids in a low-income housing project on Manhattan's Lower East in the 1970s -- an experience that shaped him socially and intellectually.

"From a very early age, I understood that my skin had a lot of meaning," he told National Public Radio in 2005. "It made me different in the projects, but it gave me power in the outside world."

It was a theme he would explore throughout his career.

"As a Jew, I have known anti-Semitism," he wrote in one of his regular dispatches about race and photography on the New York Times' Lens blog. "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. It was painful to watch, and as my friends let me know, considerably more painful to endure."

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