On Dec. 17, exactly one month after film curator Abbie Algar announced that she would be leaving the museum for a new life in Washington, D.C., she heads out of her office to find, or rediscover, some of her favorite works in the museum. Since Algar’s office is located behind the Doris Duke Theatre’s screen, on which a film is being projected, she takes a back exit to make her way to the galleries.
“I wanted to find a female artist,” Algar says, strolling through the contemporary gallery, “which wasn’t as easy as you might think.” Most of her options are limited to modern and postmodern periods. On this little tour, Algar points to the museum’s two paintings by Alice Neel (1900-1984), Victoria and the Cat and Marisol, works that are popular staff picks.
Algar appreciates Neel’s “truthfulness, and the way that she paints portraiture…they’re not idealized, not totally abstracted or realistic, but distorted in ways that reflect the connection to or personality of the sitter—like her granddaughter [Victoria] in this case, and the cat.”
Algar, who studied fine art (painting and printmaking), art history, and Italian at the universities of Bournemouth, Reading, and Bologna, knows that the difficulty in finding works by female artists is the result of deeply rooted trends in Western art. “There are fewer female artists in any medium—painting, sculpture, photography, architecture—and that’s transferred to film, which you think it might not have done because it’s such a new medium, but somehow that tradition was kept alive,” she explains.
As the musem’s film curator—a position Algar assumed in 2012, following two years of volunteer work (she started as an intern to previous film curator Gina Caruso) and a stint in the Shangri La tour office—that gender imbalance “informs [her] choices all the time.” Fortunately, she finds all of the museum’s curatorial departments aligned on this. When putting together film festivals and showcases—something she relates to organizing an art exhibition—she feels that “you can’t just complain that there’s no representation of female talent in filmmaking and then run a program with no films by female filmmakers.” So she does something about it.
For one of her final gifts to museum audiences, Algar has curated “The A-List”—her top picks from the past year. “My aim was to have 50 percent of the program be by female directors, which,” thanks in part to having fewer female-made works to choose from this year, “didn’t end up happening—so it’s more like 30 or 40 percent,” she says.
Nonetheless, “selecting films for The A-list was a really interesting and fun process,” Algar says. “It’s a microcosm of what I do year round. It’s not like putting together a top 10 list for the New York Times, or guessing which films might win Oscars®, because it comes down to practical concerns, too—expense, availability, even something as mundane as shipping. Plus, it’s not really about what I think is ‘good’ and ‘worth seeing,’ or what satisfies my personal interests. As with every program we do, it’s about anticipating who might be seeing these films, giving a platform to stories told from a wide range of perspectives, thinking about our existing audiences, as well as potential new ones, and what is going to make them come here rather than going to check out Star Wars at the local multiplex—which, most likely, they will be doing anyway at some point.”
The audience is always on her mind—she says her greatest achievement as film curator has been in perpetuating and expanding the theater’s diverse programming. “To build on that, to bring in different communities, and engage with different audiences as a result of that,” says Algar, “is probably the best thing about doing what I do, and actually feels like it could potentially make a difference to people’s lives.”
Standing in the portraiture gallery, in front of Neel’s Marisol, which depicts the sculptor Marisol Escobar, Algar says she can feel the painter “relating to this woman as a fellow female artist” in what would be the last years of her life. Neel painted Marisol in 1981, and died in 1984. “These are her mature works,” Algar says.
You could say Algar’s swan song A-List, which screens through Jan. 1, is her “mature work” at the museum. To help you decide what to watch, Algar wrote up her shortlist, complete with her seasoned curatorial insights:
- East Side Sushi: This is a crowd-pleaser with a big heart that is relatable on so many levels. It is impossible not to enjoy it. It might not have made it onto critics’ top-ten lists, but it has probably picked up more audience awards at festivals than any other film this year—you’ll see why.
- The Look of Silence: This is a well-known critics’ darling and will very likely win the Best Documentary Oscar. It tells an incredibly important story (about the Indonesian genocide) in a completely unique and brave way. It’s not an easy film, but people are coming, and staying, anyway.
- The Second Mother: This one is for cinema lovers who enjoy an intellectual bite and like to seek out less well-covered films. It’s also very slyly hilarious. I should also note that it is directed by a woman. I don’t think this defines the film, but it was certainly a factor in my decision-making process.
Learn more about The A-List.