Many people are not aware that tucked away within the MoMA organization is a film distributor. The Film Library was actually the original department, founded in 1935 to celebrate film as the art form of the 20th century. The goal was to make the collection available to colleges, schools, museums, and other institutions that would not normally have access to view and study motion pictures. Eventually this evolved into the Department of Film, with its extensive collections and public screenings. The Library became The Circulating Film and Video Library—a nonprofit film distributor with a focus on the history of film, the arts, and the avant-garde—continuing its mission to provide access to the films.
Many people wonder how titles are added to Circulating Film. Some of the original titles that formed the basis of the Film Library can still be rented; over the years other films have been donated; sometimes one of our curators may suggest a film they have seen at a festival; occasionally a filmmaker will come to us. We have also established great relationships with artists and filmmakers who have asked us to distribute their work, from artists like Richard Serra to documentarians like Alan Berliner and animators like Joanna Priestly. In recent years we’ve gone full circle, adding more titles from our Archive and benefiting from recent preservation work to enrich our holdings. Two very important acquisitions highlight this process.
In 2011 MoMA acquired Right On! for its collection and began a preservation project using the recently recovered negative. Following a run in MoMA’s theaters, it was suggested that Circulating Film make Right On! available, as it had rarely been seen since it was made, in 1970. An agreement was worked out with director Herbert Danska and his family, with the accord of producer Woodie King. Described by King as the “first ‘totally black film,” Right On! features the original Last Poets performing their radical poems on the rooftops and streets of Manhattan. This is not a “studio” film—it is a street film for the people. The performances are sharp, urban, radical, and clearly the beginning of today’s street-cool hip-hop culture. A record of its time, the film has a message, but it is also fascinating to compare with other “urban” performances set in the streets of New York City, from the Sharks and Jets in West Side Story to the interpretive dances of Jill Johnston in two Andy Warhol films (also in the Circulating Film collection.)
An ongoing preservation project has also seen the works of Jerome Hill restored through MoMA’s efforts. From a completely different background than the poets of Right On!, Hill was something of an American renaissance man. He was born into an entitled Midwestern family and became a painter, photographer, composer, filmmaker, and philanthropist, sustaining the arts and artists through the foundation he established. This spring, as they wound up a preservation grant, the Jerome Foundation asked if Circulating Film would be willing to distribute the films so that they could become accessible. From documentaries on Grandma Moses and Albert Schweitzer to hand-painted animated works and fantasies made at his summer home in France, the films are as varied as Hill’s life. Hill introduced his final film, the full-length autobiographical Film Portrait, at MoMA just weeks before he died, in 1972.
Right On! and the films of Jerome Hill now join the extensive list of available titles in MoMA’s Circulating Film and Video Library.