The Daily Heller: Merrill C. Berman and Design’s Holy Grail(s)

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Merrill C. Berman is a familiar name among those who are devoted to studying the past, present and future of graphic design and typography for the various, nuanced ways they have influenced art, culture, commerce and politics. Berman’s name is associated with the sharing of visual knowledge of all kinds, from all over the globe. The Merrill C. Berman Collection has documented and loaned out thousands of the rarest avant garde artifacts and forgotten mainstream ephemera. Indeed he has conserved design’s holy grails in his Rye N.Y. sanctuary and has showcased graphic design, advertising and painting in numerous museums, galleries and study centers. At 85, he actively uncovers treasures, continues to produce catalogs and monographs of collections that add richness to the diverse history of design. I have wanted to know more about current projects and future plans around his holdings—and for today’s DH he generously tells us.

Johann W. Schotman, Der geesten gemoeting: Vier morgenlandse dromen in verzen (Meet the Spirits: Four Morning Dreams in Verse). Amsterdam: Van Holkema en Warendorf, 1927–1928.

You have been one of the major collectors/scholars of the panoply of global Modernism (with capital and lowercase ‘m’). Before we discuss your methods of disseminating your acquisitions, how and why were you attracted to these historical realms?
I was always interested in the history of the 20th century: the two world wars; the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia; international efforts to create a better, fairer world for the masses. This history is reflected in avant-garde art and design. The new visual vocabulary that emerged around the time of the first World War was inseparable from these upheavals.

How much has the “hunt” been a triggering mechanism for you?
The collection has taken on a momentum of its own. It’s a juggernaut that has led me to interesting places, literally. Early on in my collecting, I loved visiting Holland, Germany and France, for example. It also put me in contact with brilliant, unique people with extraordinary backgrounds and life stories. Individuals over the years, like Judith Brodie, Mildred Constantine, Alma Law, Ellen Lupton, Peter Nisbet, Mrs. (Helen) Serger and Ada Stroeve—to name just a few from early on—were guiding lights.

As a follow-up, what would you define as your defining moment in deciding to create such a massive and accessible archive? You are, after all, the source for much contemporary research not just for 20th century visual scholarship but its aftermath.
Thank you. Your question shows a nuanced understanding of what I set out to do. I always aimed to provide a spark that encourages research. It’s heartening to think I’ve made a difference in this regard. People often asked me about a “defining moment” in building the collection, but your question gets to the heart of something else: Teaching has always been a motivating factor for me. Teaching myself, that is, as well as others. My “archive” (to use your good word) satisfies my urge to pair history with visual culture, and to share this with others.

You’ve been actively assembling related and prototypical genres and subsets of material. How do you go about building this scholarly tower of knowledge?
The easy answer is I’ve been working on it, single-mindedly, for a half century! I will encounter an artist who interests me, but nothing is available by them. I keep the name in mind for many years, in some cases, and move when material becomes available (if my finances allow it). I am in a fortunate situation in which I am a “chief curator” who doesn’t have to answer to committees and is not bogged down by a lumbering bureaucracy. I can be nimble, move swiftly, and pivot as necessary. 

You are generous to a fault in terms of loans to curators and institutions. Was this your intention all along?
Again, thank you for your kind words. I consider curators and other museum staff my colleagues, interlocutors and friends. Over the years I have developed lasting friendships with dealers, collectors and curators from museums in the U.S. and abroad. We are bonded by a love of the material. When curators visit the collection, the conversations that emerge are stimulating for everyone involved. It’s incredible to witness what starts as a generative dialogue in my office develop into meaningful exhibitions and scholarship. I am glad that my collection can contribute to the final product. Over my many years of doing this, I have enjoyed watching young curators develop into brilliant leaders in the field (Leah Dickerman comes to mind). 

Maybe the short answer is, I consider the collection to be a kind of museum without walls. In lieu of a building to show the work, I eagerly collaborate with dynamic curators at existing institutions that prioritize education (such as university museums). 

Designer unknown. Equal Rights for Negroes Everywhere! Vote Communist. Communist presidential ticket: William Z. Foster and James W. Ford, 1932.

I know you’ve contributed to museums like MoMA. Why do you decide to let go of some material and retain others?
In the case of MoMA, the relationship goes back over many years. I lent to important exhibitions there such as Rodchenko in 1998, Dada in 2006, and Bauhaus in 2009. To take those examples, MoMA’s collection is very strong in all three areas—Rodchenko, Dada and Bauhaus—but was missing certain materials that I was able to provide via loans. These “gaps” in their collection became the basis for the acquisition in 2018. Believe me, it’s hard to let anything go, but MoMA, with exceptional people like Christophe Cherix and Jodi Hauptman, feels like family, and they are right down the street (so to speak).

My relationship with Harvard is similar. I have a personal connection to Boston, to the university and to the curators. When I was a student at Harvard in the late 1950s, my knowledge of the Soviet Union was book-based. At that time, I would have loved to supplement my understanding through visual materials. I can now offer that to future students. It was with this idea in mind that I recently donated and sold my entire collection of works by Gustav Klutsis to the Harvard [Art] Museums. Harvard is a place that can activate these resources for the next generations.

For decades your collections have been the basis for catalogs and books. These loans are not to monetize your passions. What is the stimulus?
The motivation behind publications isn’t much different than lending to exhibitions or donating works to museums. I have always made it a policy to support scholarship by providing images and permission free of charge. In the past, my role was largely to help scholars realize their goals. More recently I’ve had the good fortune to have the means to support an in-house publication program and to build a team of in-house scholars, who are systematically reviewing the collection and publishing on all parts of it in print and digital form. We still work with outside scholars who come to us, but have developed from a more passive to a more active scholarly force in our own right, which is gratifying and fun.

Moriz Melzer (German, 1877–1966). Poster design (unrealized): Künstlerfest der Novembergruppe.

Over the last few years, you’ve issued bimonthly and monthly digital documents recording various and widespread aspects of your collection. They are gratefully received. What is your plan and goal with these publications?
Thank you! It is great to hear that they are appreciated, especially by someone with your vast knowledge and expertise. I suppose the website and newsletters set out to accomplish various things. Internally, they make sure that we focus equal attention on all sections of the collection, ensuring that all works are fully catalogued and documented. Externally, we hope that people who read our newsletters will discover works and areas they didn’t know. We were thrilled to learn that professors were teaching from our website during the pandemic when on-site collections were inaccessible. The newsletters are like mini-research prompts—who knows, maybe one could present a kernel of an idea that could develop into a Ph.D. thesis! Our various platforms allow us to focus on artists and areas that may not be well-known in this country. Alla Rosenfeld, our research consultant for Russian and Eastern European collection, does such brilliant, comprehensive work that some of the full-length books she writes for us go beyond the collection itself. Her book on Natan Altman, for example, represents the first major monograph on the artist in English. We are very proud of the scholarship that our little in-house publishing house—with Adrian Sudhalter at the helm and Jolie Simpson managing design and production—has been able to achieve. We hope to see it penetrate the broader scholarly discourse.

Abram Games. Radio Location: Train with the Army or with the A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service).

What in your gut gives you the most satisfaction in disseminating this annotated material? What gives you the personal will to do so?
I love seeing the collection get the attention it deserves, and spotlighting less-recognized artists like Natan Altman, Carl Grossberg, Lou Loeber or Ditha Moser, and areas like Belgian interwar abstraction or Russian atheist propaganda (one of our most popular online exhibitions). I love seeing works in the collection arranged intelligently and with a visual thesis on the pages of a book. I love working with my in-house team on this. I’ve worked alone on the collection for so many years, it’s gratifying to share it with them, with people who read our emails and Instagram posts, and with friends like you. The responses to our outreach brighten my spirits.

How do you imagine the Merrill Berman collection will continue to move forward and grow?
It’s a tough question and, to be honest, not my favorite thing to contemplate, but at 85 years old it is a necessity. Ideally, I’d love to keep as much of the collection together as possible and for it to live on, intact, in some form. I dream of a study center dedicated to the collection, or of finding an institutional home for it where it will not be buried in storage, but continue to be accessed and activated as we’ve been doing, reaching as many people as possible for years to come.

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