Veteran film critic and programmer Dave Kehr will become the new Adjunct Curator in the Museum of Modern Art’s Film department, the museum announced on Monday. Kehr’s appointment comes nearly one year after the departure of longtime MoMA staffer Laurence Kardish, who retired after 44 years, 13 of them as the Film department’s Senior Curator.
In addition to creating exhibitions for MoMA’s New York cinemas, Kehr will be charged with making the museum’s extensive film archive more accessible to outside venues, particularly via the digital realm.
“Dave Kehr has a hard-earned and dedicated international following as a champion of the under-recognized and long-forgotten in cinema,” noted Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s Chief Curator for Film, in a press release. “His writing has helped uncover numerous lost gems, provided support for their preservation, and inspired countless cinephiles and filmmakers alike. We are thrilled to have him dive into our collection and add his voice to the celebration of the art of the motion picture.”
A native of Oklahoma City, Kehr served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1974 until 1985, when he moved to cross-town rival the Chicago Tribune. In 1993, he relocated to New York to become film critic for the Daily News, where he worked until 1998. In 1999, he became a regular contributor to New York Times, where since 2003 he has written a popular weekly column focused on classic films newly available on DVD.
The Times column has made Kehr a highly visible and respected figure in the world of film preservation and restoration, in part due to his passionate urging of Hollywood studios to make more titles from their expansive libraries available to the public.
“My real concern in the last 10 years has been that, as much as we’ve made progress on the preservation and restoration of films, access to those films has really been slipping away,” Kehr said by phone Monday afternoon. “I hope one of the things I’ll be able to accomplish is to work on that idea, both at the Museum and elsewhere, and explore other ways of getting those films to the public, other kinds of distribution that don’t involve going to a nice auditorium on 53rd Street.”
Indeed, Kehr’s arrival coincides with a moment in which the MoMA Film department — like those at similar institutions around the world — has been gradually acclimating to the digital era, even allowing a scattering of digital restorations into its annual Festival of Film Preservation, once an exclusively celluloid affair. “Obviously, one wants to preserve the 35mm experience as much as possible, but I think it’s time to open things up to other avenues in order to keep this work alive and meaningful,” says Kehr. “Digital is not a perfect means of preservation, but that’s what we’ve got, and I think we need to take advantage of what it can offer.”
It was thanks to MoMA’s own circulating film library — a collection of 16mm prints made available to universities, libraries and other noprofit venues — that Kehr got his first exposure to silent cinema, when running the campus film society of the University of Chicago. Now, Kehr says, “I’m hoping we can move that tradition into the 21st century.”
As a programmer, Kehr served two stints on the New York Film Festival selection committee, one under festival director Richard Roud and another under Roud’s successor, Richard Pena. More recently, he organized major retrospectives of Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan for the Cinema Ritrovato festival of classic cinema in Bologna, Italy, the latter in partnership with MoMA.
In addition, Kehr is a past chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and a member of the Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board. In 2011, a collection of his Chicago Reader pieces, “When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade,” was published by the University of Chicago Press.
Kehr begins his new job on Dec. 1.