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Amos Vogel. © The Estate of Amos Vogel

Thousands of miles away and a year before Amos and Marcia Vogel launched Cinema 16, another amateur appreciator of experimental film, Frank Stauffacher, with collaborator Richard Foster, presented the first Art in Cinema (AIC) series at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) in the fall of 1946. The inaugural year was a survey of experimental and avant-garde film history. Amos Vogel was impressed enough to write to Stauffacher for details.

Much has been written about the confrontational programming of Vogel and Jack Goelman at Cinema 16, how the cinema club model helped subvert censorship mandates, and its elevation of avant-garde and documentary films into canon. The underappreciated work of a film curator is, however, largely logistical, and Vogel’s initial questions to Stauffacher illustrate this: he wanted to know about projection quality (Stauffacher’s response: 16mm looked great), funding (it came from Art in Cinema Society memberships, which cost a few bucks), organizational setup (SFMOMA took care of ticket sales and accounting), membership numbers (about 500), screening fees and print shipping costs (which amounted to $450-500), and the distributors of the films (Stauffacher handled many himself). There were others who influenced Vogel before he launched Cinema 16. He had met many times with Cecile Starr, who was showing documentary films once a month and bringing filmmakers like Willard Van Dyke to audiences in a Greenwich Village church basement for a yearly membership fee of $3. Vogel was also inspired by Maya Deren’s DIY ethos and the venue where she screened her own films—the Provincetown Playhouse, which is now used by New York University for student productions. But the prestige and devoted audiences of AIC was proof that the cinema club model, which Vogel was already familiar with from Vienna, could get serious attention in the U.S.

In the following eight years, Vogel and Stauffacher wrote to each other often, sharing curatorial insight alongside print traffic updates. Their relationship was just one node in the network of institutionally affiliated individuals who publicly championed Cinema 16. When I read their letters (collected by Scott MacDonald in his Documents Toward a History of the Film Society series of books), I expected to encounter radically different conditions for presenting non-commercial films than those of today. But all of their worries are still entirely current. At one point, Vogel suggested that experimental filmmakers and their distributors should shift to percentage-based rental fees instead of charging flat screening fees—the latter still remains the norm for non-theatrical distributors—to make the films more affordable for informal cinema clubs, schools, and other community-based groups.

Vogel and Stauffacher’s only longstanding difference of opinion presages dilemmas facing film curators today, especially those looking to start or maintain an independent program. In his second letter to Vogel in 1947, Stauffacher called AIC “hardly self-supporting.” The series had quickly become a full-time commitment for Stauffacher even with help from his wife, Barbara, whom he had met at an AIC screening. AIC paid for its direct costs, but not for a commensurate salary for those who made it happen. Instead of paying himself, Stauffacher spent any surplus money on providing finishing funds for films that would premiere in the series, and he eventually quit his advertising job as he grew firm in his oppositional stance to Hollywood and “commercial attitudes.” Starting in 1949, Stauffacher repeatedly wrote to Vogel about being overworked and needing breaks from curating the series whenever he was burnt out. Then, as now, independent curators partnering with large institutions find themselves bearing much of the partnership’s risk, even as they also reap personal rewards—acclaim (however modest) and community.

Vogel’s more pragmatic and expansion-oriented approach avoided an explicit collaboration with an established institution. He treated Cinema 16 like a business, though, like AIC, it was incorporated as a nonprofit. The Vogels invested all of their wedding gifts into an early screening that flopped (due to an unexpected snowstorm), borrowed money on credit to keep the series going, marketed programs with full-page ads in the New York Times, and drew salaries. In fact, Vogel could barely comprehend why Stauffacher wouldn’t do the same; in his first letter, he incorrectly assumed that Stauffacher was making a living from curating AIC. He repeatedly encouraged Stauffacher to expand AIC as an independent initiative instead of contracting it, like he had with Cinema 16 in New York: “In a society based on money, you cannot be expected to give your time and effort without the slightest remuneration.”

Whereas AIC was supposed to be a one-off series—Stauffacher hadn’t originally intended for it to perpetuate—Vogel from the beginning had ambitions to build an entirely new and autonomous institution that would last. In a December 1947 announcement for the second Cinema 16 program, Vogel declared that it would “provide a permanent home” for documentary and experimental film. Though this didn’t quite come to be—the Vogels folded Cinema 16 when it started to lose money—the many, many film societies inspired by their success have matured into legacy non-profits. They may not be permanent either, given the long arc of history, but their continued existence has cemented their statuses as institutions: places with an established culture, the appearance of stability, and people who are dedicated to maintaining their larger missions. This doesn’t mean that film societies, alongside film festivals, arthouse cinemas, and independent screening series, aren’t as precarious anymore as they were in Vogel’s time. They are reliant on philanthropic foundation grants and corporate sponsorships more than membership fees, particularly in the absence of major government investment in the arts in the U.S. And with the folding of many college film societies in the aughts and the consolidations of theaters during the pandemic, there are fewer institutions that promote experimental and independent film than ever.

SFMOMA is both a victim and a perpetrator of that development. This past summer the museum announced that it would shut down its online publication, podcast, and gallery for local artists, as well as its nearly 85-year-old film program. In an internal memo that was leaked to the press, management claimed that this decision was not related to costs, which were known to be minimal, but because of declining attendance. After a smattering of protests and early elegies, the SFMOMA film program quietly held its last in-person screening, of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, on October 14, 2021.

Since then, the museum has used the state-of-the-art home of the film program, the Phyllis Wattis Theater, to record artist talks and interviews. At the time of writing, the institution hasn’t changed the text on its website that declares in present perfect: “SFMOMA has always been a pioneer in the presentation of film.” To be clear, SFMOMA isn’t uniquely hypocritical in any of these aspects. It follows many other arts institutions that justified program closures as emergency measures after Covid-19 lockdowns. Why does this happen?

Institutions, both formal and informal, young and old, are voracious. It’s not the type of hunger that can be satisfied with quick gorges—think instead of modern 10-plus course Michelin restaurants, where pageanty manifests in duration rather than in quantity, or ancient Roman banquets, where attendees would throw up the food they’d eaten in order to be able to feast longer. That is, the purpose of institutions is to last as long as possible. When the Whitney Museum collects Guerrilla Girls’ “Review the Whitney” posters or commissions Forensic Architecture’s “Triple-Chaser” video investigation into Warren B. Kanders (former vice chair of the Whitney’s board), or when the immediate response of every arts institution under protest is to hold a panel on race, labor, or related issues, they are consuming their own critique to try to leave their exclusionary gatekeeping and art-washing apparatus untouched. This explains why institutions, and not just those who seek to subvert them, benefit from showing films that are disruptive and confrontational. Undergirding all this is a desire for permanence that drives the decision-makers to prioritize saving the institution rather than making room for the “artistically satisfying, socially powerful, and thought-provoking” films for which Cinema 16 created an audience.

If the purpose of programming and exhibiting subversive films is to undermine systems of cultural power, one way to do so is by awakening us to our unwitting complicity with these institutions, and offering a model for escaping them through non-commercial production and circulation practices. Developing audiences who seek out films outside the “barren tinsel of Hollywood,” as Vogel put it in a Cinema 16 program announcement, is harder than ever. Audiences have splintered as streaming subsumes both TV and the movies—now curators have to contend with virtual worlds as well as physical ones.

The most subversive curating projects today must locate politically and artistically resonant films and attempt to navigate between Stauffacher’s volunteerist passion and Vogel’s rightful desire to be paid for his labor—between temporarily nesting yourself within an institution and attempting to build and claim something of your own. It’s not easy to do so, and there are no sureties. When Keisha Knight (director of boutique distributor Sentient.Art.Film) and I expanded our independent 2020-21 series My Sight is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film & Video into a year-long artist fellowship and panel series called Line of Sight, we sought guides in other projects that were nimble and collective. We were particularly interested in initiatives that had non-normative relationships with established institutions: touring series that didn’t rely on a single host, exhibitors who showed work when it was ready instead of on a regular schedule, and serial publications with a preset end. Examples range from film-related projects like Black Radical Imagination (Erin Christovale and Amir George), Chen’s (Howie Chen and Alex Ito), No Evil Eye Cinema (Ruun Nuur and Ingrid Raphael), and NANG magazine (Davide Cazzaro and many guest editors), to broader social interventions like spend-down foundations and museum deaccessioning and repatriation. We made compromises by relying on multi-national platforms like Vimeo and Facebook/Instagram/Meta to host and distribute our programming, and we spend every penny paying filmmakers and our support staff, essentially volunteering our own time. Like Stauffacher, sometimes I feel very tired, and I want to get back to my own filmmaking. In the very next moment, I know I can’t give up this easily. But how do we, and others, ethically continue?

Cinema 16’s continuation, and Vogel’s dream of permanence, became increasingly unsustainable as costs escalated. In response, the Vogels raised membership fees. By 1960, a membership cost $15, which P. Adams Sitney described in an interview with Scott MacDonald as “a fabulous amount of money.” In contrast to Jonas Mekas’s more affordable screenings at the Charles Theater, “at those screenings one didn’t have the sense of being part of a vital fresh community.” To many filmmakers living on nothing, Cinema 16 itself became a kind of gatekeeper that was stifling experimental filmculture. It was a designation Vogel accepted, saying to Bill Nichols in an influential 1983 interview, “The ‘gatekeeper’—i.e. myself—is himself a historical product… I feel that the gatekeepers exist to be overthrown.” After Vogel refused to program Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night, more than 20 filmmakers, including Mekas, created the group that became the Film-Makers’s Coop to provide a more complete alternative to Cinema 16. The complex legacy of Cinema 16 includes all that arose from its own subversion by other individuals and initiatives. But eventually, Vogel did end Cinema 16, moving on to co-found the New York Film Festival, which he quit a few years later in protest of its commercialization. To keep film culture alive, sometimes we must be willing to dismantle, pause, or end our own work.

Abby Sun is a freelance programmer and critic.