Bernice "The Film"
Bernice is the story of art world pioneer Bernice Steinbaum’s lifelong efforts to help female artists and artists of color gain recognition at a time when such artists were largely disregarded in America. The featured artists come from vastly diverse backgrounds, including China, Cuba and Harlem. The personal obstacles and hardships faced by each were amplified by the racial and gender inequality of the art world in the 1970s and 80s. As a gallery owner in Manhattan and Miami, Bernice became a mentor and advocate for underrepresented artists. She helped them achieve what they had previously thought impossible – exhibitions at major museums, prestigious awards and worldwide recognition. Ultimately we see the impact one creative visionary can have in changing the landscape of an entire industry.
A reflection on art and the human condition, Bernice is the story of art world pioneer Bernice Steinbaum and her lifelong mission to bring equality to an industry steeped in injustice. Throughout her career as a gallerist in Manhattan and Miami, Bernice took on art world politics by representing and advocating for minority artists at a time when such artists were ignored by major galleries and museums. Bernice focused on helping her artists succeed against the odds; she protected and fearlessly fought for them to be featured just as prominently as mainstream white male artists of the time. Her efforts helped her artists achieve success in ways they previously thought impossible – from major awards to exhibitions at tope museums, and ultimately the respect and recognition of the art industry.
Bernice is told from the perspectives of five different artists she has represented over the years, and interspersed with anecdotes from Bernice herself. We learn how she went beyond the role of the typical gallerist to provide support for her beloved artists in a variety of ways, establishing a rare bond between herself and the artists. As a child of immigrants, Bernice possessed a strong empathy for foreign artists and used her considerable influence in the art world to fight for her cause and help such artists succeed. She is rumored to be part of the Guerilla Girls movement, a group of female activists in New York City whose goal was to advocate for equality in art. This group gained traction in the late 1980s, and became notorious for protests in front of galleries and museums, which predominantly featured white male artists. The Guerilla Girls became a platform for Bernice and others to raise awareness about the inequality of the art world and challenge the institutions.
The featured artists in Bernice are from a variety of unique backgrounds and circumstances; all persevered hardships to fulfill their artistic aspirations. In each of their compelling stories, themes of freedom, expression, vulnerability and creativity intersect with the immeasurable impact Bernice has had upon the lives.
Each artist interviewed reveals how Bernice’s compassion for them was not limited to artistic interests; in addition to helping promote their careers, Bernice and her husband became an extended family for her artists. Whenever they needed her, and in whatever capacity, she was there – as a gallerist, a mother, a friend, or a caretaker. Bernice supported and nurtured them so they could continue to pursue their dreams of creating art. In doing so, she revolutionized the art industry and helped establish a new culture of diversity in the art world. Bernice is a story of how one determined visionary has changed the course of history, and the legacy she has created along the way.
Director's Statement - Kristina Sorge
I first met Bernice just over a year ago. It was one of those experiences where the instinct to capture this tiny, powerhouse of a person on film was just instantaneous – almost a reflex.
Bernice is an incredibly vibrant character; standing no more than 5 feet, 2 inches in in height, she is just as distinguished as she is colorful, and just as big in presence as she is small in stature. A true Queen of Arts, as I’ve heard some people call her. She immediately grabs your attention.
Walking into Bernice’s world felt as if I was living out a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and meeting Bernice is thus best described as falling down the rabbit hole. Her upside down world reveals art and life in all its finest colors, and her home is the epitome of that world. With less than five windows in total, allowing for more wall space for art, even the light fixtures are forms of art. If Bernice is a grand patron of the arts, then her home is a living, breathing extension of that title. A gummy bear chandelier hangs in her foyer; a painted ostrich table stands in the living room near a glass “rug” of polaroid images, and Bernice in her brightly painted scarves and her large, ornately round glasses stands amongst these pieces fitting in perfectly with the setting.
When Bernice took us on a walking tour of her esteemed collection, each piece unveiled its own story. One was entirely different from the next – a multicultural, multidimensional array of works that were as eclectic as the artist who created them. What struck out as well was how clearly connected and close Bernice was with each of these artists. Enough so that it felt as though we were travelling from one continent to the another, diving deeply into the life story of each of her precious artists. Watch the trailer.
Having spent my early career as a journalist, I was always attracted to storytelling, especially in a visual way, but nothing had ever struck me quite like this before. I felt a complete sensory overload at first which quickly transformed into inspiration and excitement. From that moment on, I wanted to tell the story of Bernice and her artists; one that broke down barriers and shed light onto the life of the artists I had learned about, and all of the challenges that were presented to them along the way. I wanted Bernice to be a story about not just the underdogs, but rather a look beyond that generalization – a fully layered film that covers the waterfront.
There were, of course, some challenges that arose. Throughout filming I found out very quickly that Bernice did not like to talk about herself. I realized she has always been a behind-the-scenes type of gal, so any emphasis put on her life or the accomplishments was immediately shut down. I found this frustrating at first; seeing that the film was indeed centered on this amazing woman. I tried a few different approaches, but Bernice – unsurprisingly – is a strong woman, and was firmly unwilling to be the star of the show. Then it came to me that I was looking from the wrong angle. I shifted gears and took the focus to Bernice’s artists, and instantly she came alive. There was no denying her passion and devotion to her artists, whom she not only dedicated her professional life to, but whom also lived side by side with her, lining the walls of her home. The film started to unfold.
One of many takeaways for me in working with the artists I met through Bernice, included the genuine optimism and love for life that each artist had managed to display in their art, despite a multitude of difficult circumstances that befell them all. On the canvas, race, religion and tragedy can shine through with grace, hope and beauty. I am forever grateful for the time, energy and willingness to share that each and every artist I had the privilege of meeting displayed. This process allowed me to cultivate the artist within myself as well. An artist of what feels like only a sliver of talent in comparison to those who appear in this film…. but nevertheless, a sliver I will take!
Bernice helped me unravel some universal truths through her creative energy, her vibrance and her unfailing devotion to her craft. I can only hope to have shared a fraction of what she taught me, and a fraction of her artistry and passion through my lens.
WOMEN IN ART : BERNICE by Kristina Sorge
Huffpost Arts – April 8, 2015
Malcom Harris – Curator-of-Cool / Creative Consultant
I recently had the pleasure of previewing a brilliant new documentary entitled BERNICE by first time filmmaker, Kristina Sorge. This short format documentary tells the story of art world pioneer and instigator, Bernice Steinbaum. In this beautifully crafted documentary, young Ms. Sorge highlights her subject’s lifelong efforts to support and empower female artists as well as artists of color throughout their careers. The personal obstacles and hardships faced by artists she so staunchly represented were amplified by the racial and gender inequality of the art world especially during the 1970s and 80s.
As a gallery owner in Manhattan and Miami, Ms. Steinbaum became a mentor and advocate for her artists and assisted them in gaining major museum exhibitions, prestigious awards and worldwide recognition. Through Ms. Sorge’s creative lens, Bernice’s story is also elevated to high art. The documentary is already a contender for Best Short Documentary as well as the Audience Favorite Award during the upcoming Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 23 – May 3). Therefore, I could not resist convincing the film’s director and producer to grant me an interview on the making of her debut film – Bernice.
- Besides the fact that Bernice Steinbaum is a “bad-ass” as well as an iconic figure within the art world, why did you feel she was the perfect subject for your first documentary film?
Walking into Bernice’s world felt as if I was living out a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and meeting Bernice is thus best described as falling down the rabbit hole. It was one of those experiences where the instinct to capture this tiny, powerhouse of a woman on film was just instantaneous. Bernice is an incredibly vibrant character and just as big in presence as she is small in stature. A true Queen of Arts. I immediately fell head over heels in love with her.
- I can imagine it is very difficult for anyone in the sequestered art world to share their personal stories, how did you convince Bernice to let you into her world?
I was possessed, ha! After meeting Bernice, I flew back to NYC and could not stop thinking about her story and the artists she helped discover. I told Bernice that I was no different than any of the other female artists she had encountered in her career, and I wanted a chance to make my mark. The doors opened right up!
- How long did it take you to shoot this documentary?
From beginning to end, it took a total of 8 months. We had no choice but to hustle because in production time is money and we didn’t have a lot of it.
- This is a very intimate documentary, how willing were people to talk to you about their experiences working with such a legend?
There were, of course, some setbacks. Throughout filming I found out very quickly that Bernice did not like to talk about herself. I realized she has always been a behind-the-scenes type of gal, so any emphasis put on her life or accomplishments was immediately shutdown. Seeing that the film was indeed centered on this amazing woman, I relied heavily on what other people and artists had to say about her. I recall one artist asking me over the phone, “How is it that this story has not already been told?” In other words, people were more than willing to share their stories and experiences working with Bernice – as you can imagine, some of them were rather hilarious. I wish I could have included them all!
- It is often said that documentary filmmakers attempt to make sense of things in their own lives through their work – did you feel yourself relating this during the making of this documentary?
Growing up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming I was always filming or goofing around with a camera (I mean, what else is there to do?) However, I never fully realized that this was my passion until I met Bernice and then something just sparked and there was no turning back! This project allowed me to cultivate the artist within myself. Through this process and hearing stories from different artists along the way, I gained a whole new level of assurance and aspiration to see this story through.
- Were there any rules you set by yourself or Bernice about what you would or wouldn’t discuss on camera?
The only rule given by Bernice was that we filmed her from her good side. And no nudity. Apart from the artwork.
- Was there anyone who refused to be filmed for this documentary? If so, did you simply accept their decision or did you try to convince them into being filmed?
More and more artists were coming out of the woodwork and asking to be included in this film. One artist flew to LA just to participate! At that point I knew we had something. Due to budget restrictions and scheduling, we could not film all of the artists, but I do hope one day their voices can be heard.
- What’s been the response as you begin submitting the documentaries to various film festivals, distributors, etc.?
The only negative review I’ve received is that people want more Bernice! As a first time filmmaker, I hope by touring the film festivals we will find a home for the film and/or further funding to turn the short film into its full potential! The film will premiere at the 2015 Hot Docs International Documentary Festival this month, so it will be exciting to see how people respond.
- After having the privilege of watching this documentary in its entirety, I will admit it left me wishing it were a full-length documentary. Besides budget constraints, who did you choose the short documentary category?
I was a first time filmmaker and female director who was merging into an incredibly competitive industry. Now that I’ve learned to produce and direct a short film, I’ve acquired the skills to make this into a feature, which I hope to do while also focusing on other areas of interest.
- The movie is filmed and scored masterfully, how did you organize such an amazing team?
I have to hand it to my younger brother, Andrew Sorge. Not only did he pour his heart and soul into scoring this film for me, but he also helped n connecting me with friends and friends of friends who were in the industry. You are only as good as those you surround yourself with, and I am incredibly humbled by the amount of talent that was present.
- What does the star at the end of the film think of the documentary?
After Bernice watched the film she called me up and said, “I have not stopped crying” and I, being a nervous wreck, asked, “good tears or bad tears?” and she responded by saying, “Next time I promise not to be such a pain in the ass”. So that was a good sign.
- If you could go back and change one thing about the documentary, what would it be?
I would have gone and filmed in Cuba with Cuban artist, Maria Magdalena Campos Pons.
- What can we expect to see next from Kristina Sorge?
I’m currently writing a screenplay, but anything is possible! I’m most inspired to tell powerful stories about the human experience in hopes to inform and change the way people see the world. Watch the trailer.
FILM HONOR MENTOR OF ARTISTS OF COLOR - Posted on 12 January 2016
The interesting film called Bernice about Bernice Steinbaum. The short documentary by filmmaker, Kristina Sorge, tells the story of the pioneer and instigator who was singularly dedicated to finding and exhibiting female artists of color – largely marginalized or ignored in New York’s art world in the 1970s and 1980s. As a gallery owner, first in New York and then Miami, Steinbaum became a mentor and advocate for her artists and helped them gain major museum exhibitions, prestigious awards and worldwide recognition.
Her artists come from vastly diverse backgrounds, including China, Cuba and Harlem. One universally known work she championed was “Tar Beach,” Faith Ringgold’s story quilt and children’s book set in a busy world of imagined Harlem rooftops. Others of Ringgold’s quilts are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and MoMa. Another artist she brought into the fore was Miriam Schapiro, whose feminist collages are at the Met, MoMa, Whitney, Smithsonian, the Israel Museum and others. The film has been highly received at many festivals including the Madrid International Film Festival, Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Toronto and the Palm Springs International ShortFest.
Bernice will be shown at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at 8pm Monday, February 8 at the ArcLight theaters as part of the Joyce Forum’s collection of short films. Bernice Steinbaum will be present to introduce her film and answer questions.