Film Archive Move Draws Fire

In the wake of last month’s decision to transfer control of the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) to a College librarian, professors are protesting that the move will imperil the collection and that it signals a reversal of the University’s support for film scholarship.

One professor has resigned from his position as a member of Harvard’s informal committee on film studies to protest the transfer of power and what he characterized as Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s unilateral decision.

“It was in protest against the substance of the decision and against the way that the decision was made, that is, without consultation with faculty involved in film studies, or film,” said Hooker Professor of the Visual Arts Alfred Guzzetti.

The Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) had run the HFA since the vast collection of original film prints was founded 25 years ago. But on Jan. 26, Kirby transferred control of the archive from Cavell Curator Bruce Jenkins to Suit Librarian of the Fine Arts Library Katharine Martinez.

One HFA employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Jenkins, a senior lecturer at VES who has overseen the collection since 1999, was likely to leave the University. The employee did not know whether Jenkins had tendered his resignation yet, and Jenkins declined to comment for this story. Tom R. Gunning, a film scholar at the University of Chicago who has been in contact Jenkins and sent Kirby a letter attacking the move last week, said he believed Jenkins had been asked to step down from his position as Cavell curator of the Archive. Jenkins currently retains his office and title, but control of the archive has been transferred to Martinez.

Several professors said the move may have been driven by what they characterized as the HFA’s history of financial problems as it stretched its budget to acquire and show films.

“They’ve been operating in the red for a while,” said Dudley Andrew, who is co-chair of the film studies program at Yale University.

Middlebury College professor Ted S. Perry, a member of the HFA advisory committee who e-mailed Kirby on Saturday calling the decision to put an official from the Harvard College Library in charge of the films “a travesty,” said in an interview that he thought financial concerns led to the archive’s transfer from VES.

“In a couple cases, there have been offers of collections, and for some reason or another—usually financial—Harvard wasn’t willing to take them,” said Perry, who has worked to solicit gifts to the archive in his role on the advisory committee.

Last month’s move was accompanied by an announcement that the archive’s finances would be transferred to the already-beleaguered budget of the Harvard College Library, which will lay off 10 employees in June to combat a projected $2.3 million deficit.

But the archive employee said that because the archive has no endowment and relies on revenue from the box office and private donors, it has been unable to keep out of the red.

The employee said that in the last two years, Jenkins had made substantial strides towards reducing the HFA’s deficits. The employee said that because of financial concerns, FAS and VES administrators had pressured Jenkins to invite fewer distinguished filmmakers to visit the archive and had canceled a planned book series after releasing only two volumes.

A spring 2003 letter from the FAS dean’s office evaluating Jenkins cited “an enormous problem with the management of the Harvard Film Archive.”

“As we’ve discussed numerous times over the last two years, the Archive continues to run a deficit,” the letter continues.

VES Chair Marjorie Garber, who is also the Kenan professor of English, did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Robert P. Mitchell, a spokesperson for Kirby, has declined to answer questions about the film archive’s budget.

Perry and Gunning said they feared that the change in management signalled an end to what they characterized as a recent period of good relations between the archive and the Harvard administration.

“They had a terrible time attracting anyone [to replace Jenkins’ predecessor], because it didn’t seem that Harvard was willing to support the archive enough,” Perry said.

Gunning said Jenkins’ arrival at Harvard five years ago had been a major milestone in the struggle to get the archive adequate attention and funding—and worried that his departure from the HFA boded ill for film studies at Harvard.

“They understood it and did this great job with it, of hiring a top person and making the archive really special and increasing the collection,” he said. “My heart sinks that we’re kind of back at square one again.”

In the absence of Jenkins, a professional archivist, Gunning’s letter questioned whether Harvard College Library has the appropriate expertise to maintain the HFA’s collection.

“The preservation techniques in the preserving of texts is unrelated to the incredibly complex preservation of film,” Gunning told The Crimson. “It would be like saying, ‘Well, we can merge the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the New York Library system.’”

In his announcement of the move last month, Kirby wrote that “the Library already possesses the critical skills and services needed to manage this collection successfully.”

Mitchell wrote in an e-mail yesterday that the HFA will continue to have a curator and professional staff.

The HFA employee also cited fears among colleagues that the film archive would be forced to cut back on its extensive schedule of screenings.

Mitchell said that “all scheduled film presentations will continue as planned.”

But the employee said that cost cutting might prevent a full slate of future screenings from being added to the calendar after the current schedule ends.

Gunning also suggested that the move might jeopardize the HFA’s observer status with the International Federation of Film Archives, an organization which he said made it possible for the Archive to share films with other institutions.

The HFA employee said a change in status was unlikely.

Perry, who also said that Harvard might lose its status, said that even if it did not he worried that the move could have ramifications well beyond Harvard.

“If Harvard’s not taking film seriously, that makes it more difficult for second-class institutions who are trying to establish film programs,” he said. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Well, Harvard doesn’t do it.’”

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.