Joanne Koch, the longtime executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center who helped shape the culture of cinema in New York and around the world, has died. She was 92.
Koch died Tuesday in New York, a spokesperson for Film at Lincoln Center, as the organization is now known, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Koch, who worked at the home of the prestigious New York Film Festival from 1971-2003, also served as publisher of the society’s Film Comment magazine and co-produced 19 Chaplin Award galas, which honor a major film artist each spring as a major fundraising event. Her stretch began with Fred Astaire in 1973 and ended with Audrey Hepburn in 1991.
An insatiable lover of movies, Koch was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 19, 1929. She graduated from Goddard College in Vermont with a degree in political science in 1950, then landed a job that year as a researcher in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art.
She exited MoMA in 1954 to raise a family but returned in 1965 when she became the technical director in charge of its film preservation program. However, she left again in 1967 because of a nepotism rule, that went into effect when she married Richard Koch, MoMA’s in-house counsel and director of administration.
After three years at Grove Press — she supervised the subtitling and dubbing of films in its collection and was part of the legal team involved with the censorship trial of the erotic 1967 Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) — Koch joined the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1971 as a freelancer to program its Movies in the Park series.
“I remember with some amusement that in a park in the Bronx we had programmed Carroll Ballard’s short called Pigs, which was a charming film about those animals,” she recalled. “However, many younger members of the audience were anticipating a film about the police and began pelting the screen with beverage cans when they were disappointed.”
Soon, she assumed leadership of the New York Film Festival.
In 1972, she helped launch the annual New Directors/New Films springtime event and assisted in Charlie Chaplin’s return to the U.S. after years in exile.
“Chaplin was honored [weeks later] by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and most of the coverage of his return assumes that he came to receive his Oscar, but he actually came to us first and at our invitation,” Koch noted.
The event was so successful, the Film Society decided to establish a program to honor a prominent film artist every year. Other honorees under her watch included Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, George Cukor, Barbara Stanwyck, Billy Wilder, Laurence Olivier, Claudette Colbert, Federico Fellini and Bette Davis.
Koch initiated the acquisition of Film Comment in 1974, then was promoted to executive director of the Film Society in 1977. She also served many years as the organization’s CFO and was named to the board of directors in 1999.
Her “passion and determination led the organization from the early days of the annual New York Film Festival to the opening of the Walter Reade Theater in 1991 and the development of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which opened in 2011,” Film at Lincoln Center noted.
Koch received a Chevalier of Arts & Letters honor from the French Ministry of Culture in 1984 and was named an Officer of Arts and Letters by the French National Center of Cinematography in 2000.
In 2012, she co-edited with Laura Kem and Richard Peña “New York Film Festival Gold,” a publication that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival. The longtime Greenwich Village resident was the Film at Lincoln Center’s emeritus executive director at the time of her death.
Her first husband was Oscar Godbout, who became the “Wood, Field and Stream” columnist at The New York Times.
Survivors include her daughter, Andrea; stepsons Chapin, Jeremy and Stephen; and two grandsons.