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Out of the Ghetto

Long relegated to either Jewish institutions or self-contained collections, Judaica is finding a new home in mainstream museums of art

Robin Cembalest
May 25, 2011
Hanukkah lamp, Augsburg, Germany, circa 1750.(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Hanukkah lamp, Augsburg, Germany, circa 1750.(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

One day in the early 1990s, Barry Ragone, a Miami Beach dentist, spotted a wood panel in an auction-house storeroom in Fort Lauderdale. It had Hebrew writing on it, and it looked old. He bought it for $37.50. After years of research, Ragone discovered that it was a lot older than he’d thought—a thousand years old, give or take. According to experts in medieval Jewish art, it was originally the door to a Torah ark in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue, where Maimonides prayed and the Geniza was housed.

At first, Ragone wanted the door to be in a Jewish institution. But after speaking with Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, he changed his mind. He liked Vikan’s concept of a medieval-art gallery where Christian, Jewish, and Islamic art are commingled, showing how the cultures overlapped. And he liked the idea of a portal linking the Jewish community to the museum. For a sum that was less than half of the $1 million he believed the panel to be worth, he partially sold, partially donated it to the Walters, which acquired it in partnership with Yeshiva University Museum. The object will be featured in a show about Jewish life in medieval Egypt opening at the Walters in fall 2012 and later traveling to YUM. In 2013, the Walters has scheduled “Treasures of Jewish Silversmiths from Yemen,” spotlighting another recent gift, from Benjamin Zucker and Derek Content.

That a mainstream art museum would showcase Jewish ritual objects is rare but not unheard of—the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Royal Ontario Museum all maintain Judaica galleries conceived and funded by donors. What is new is that so-called encyclopedic museums are starting to integrate major Jewish ceremonial objects into their collections, exhibitions, and programming. In the newly opened Art of the Americas Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Torah finials by colonial silversmith Myer Myers (on loan from the historic Touro Synagogue) stand proudly amid Newport furniture. This spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is exhibiting the Library of Congress’ 1478 Washington Haggadah. The Detroit Art Institute, meanwhile, is looking to borrow Jewish items for its Islamic Art galleries, having recently returned three Judeo-Persian manuscripts to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“One of the real strengths of this trend is the recognition of Jewish artifacts as high-class works of art that belong in high-class established art museums,” said Gabriel Goldstein, associate director for exhibitions and programs at YUM. “It shows we’re part of the canon.” But enhanced connoisseurship is only one factor inspiring museums to court collectors, rush to make strategic alliances with Jewish institutions, and scour storerooms, auction catalogs, and local living rooms for Jewish ritual objects to display. Another is the desire to make collections truly multicultural. And then of course there is the untapped pool of potential donors and supporters who have largely focused on Jewish institutions.

That’s what the MFA discovered when it bought a spectacular silver gilt menorah from Augsburg, Germany (now on view in its 18th-century European-art galleries), for about half a million dollars at Sotheby’s in 2009, using individual donations from dozens of supporters. Shortly afterward, director Malcolm Rogers received some unexpected news: A woman neither he nor his staff had ever heard of, Jetskalina Phillips, left the MFA a seven-figure bequest to support the acquisition, study, and display of Judaica. (Phillips, it turned out, was a retired elementary-school educator in Kansas, who had converted to Judaism under the tutelage of a Boston rabbi.)

The museum will have to be strategic in deploying the gift, Rogers acknowledged. Its collection of Judaica is, as he diplomatically put it, “underdeveloped.” While the MFA, like most encyclopedic museums in this country, showcases the artistic achievements of world cultures, it hasn’t made much of an effort to collect, study, or showcase Jewish ceremonial art. “It’s not been seen as an essential part of the museum’s mission to diverse communities,” Rogers said. But he’s well aware that purchase funds alone can’t conjure a respectable Judaica collection from the MFA’s current holdings, which include a shofar, a Torah binder, and a kiddush cup. “Get the message out,” he urged. “We would love to work with collectors.”

In a field plagued by scarcity, fakes, and provenance issues, many experts question whether it’s possible to create a substantial Judaica collection even if money is no object. “It’s a challenge, but it’s doable,” said philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, speaking from experience. About five years ago, he went to Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and offered to help create a department of Judaica with a permanent exhibition space. “The answer was a flat no,” Steinhardt said. (Via Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs, de Montebello confirmed that discussions took place but never resulted in a plan.)

As many Jewish scholars ruefully point out, mainstream museums are moving into a void left by culturally specific museums. Some, like the Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, have downsized exhibitions and public programming. The collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum was transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, which is planning to open an exhibition space this fall. Jewish art museums have come to focus on crowd-pleasing modern and contemporary art exhibitions, or on community programming. “There’s growth on one side where there’s a little stepping back on the other,” said Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, who worked on a comprehensive study of the Smithsonian’s Judaica holdings in 1997. “I can’t afford to buy the pieces that North Carolina does.”

“Basically Jewish museums are lazy,” said Tom Freudenheim, who ran Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, among other institutions. “Isn’t it ironic that the places that have real riches don’t do a lot with them?”

Goldstein has a more philosophical approach. “Maybe the Jewish museums had to be there to say Judaica mattered at an artistic level,” he said. In addition to working with the Walters, Goldstein has advised the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which has two Jewish microcollections: Judaica donated by Dr. Fred Weinberg and Joy Cherry Weinberg, a local couple, in the European galleries; and in the Asian Galleries, 11 objects related to the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, acquired by Bishop William Charles White in the 1920s.

Goldstein has also worked with the North Carolina Museum of Art, whose Judaica gallery, resplendently installed in the museum’s recent expansion, was founded in 1983 by Abram Kanof, a former president of New York’s Jewish Museum. Supervised by John Coffey, the museum’s deputy director for art and curator of American and modern art, it features a multicultural range of Judaica including an Ottoman Empire Megillah, a Chinese Torah case, and a Bohemian silver Torah shield. Last March, the museum acquired a set of late-18th-century Torah silver made in London for the Orthodox Synagogue of Plymouth. “Quite frankly it really almost stands alone as a boutique selection of beautiful objects,” said the museum’s director, Lawrence Wheeler.

Nevertheless, like other directors I spoke to, Wheeler stressed the educational benefits of adding the Judeo to their Judeo-Christian storyline. “Our collection is driven by so much Christian subject matter; it’s heavily into Renaissance 16th- and 17th-century painting,” he said. “To have another perspective on celebrating faith is interesting to people.” Similarly, Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, stresses that her Judaica gallery, started by a local couple, Harold and Mickey Smith, is on gallery tours devoted to the religions of the world.

The result of offers that perhaps couldn’t really be refused, Judaica departments at mainstream museums inevitably land in the portfolio of curators with little or no expertise in Jewish art or religion. That was the case of Corine Wegener, a curator of American and European decorative art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. To get up to speed, she signed up for a program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, offered in 2004, 2006, and 2007, that she called “Judaica for dummies.”

Vivian B. Mann, director of the master’s program in Jewish art at the seminary, conceived the program, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, for curators at museums like the Met and the Getty as well as smaller Jewish and secular institutions. “They had the pieces, but they didn’t understand them,” she said. “We helped to develop the context of use and meaning and how they could be integrated with other treasure arts.” She uses the term “treasure arts” rather than decorative arts, she explained, because the latter “is now considered to be a pejorative term for this area of study when compared to the ‘higher’ arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture.”

Mann, former chair of Judaica at the Jewish Museum, is strongly in favor of integrating Judaica into permanent-collection galleries rather than isolating it in its own space. Since there are few restrictions on the forms of ceremonial art in Jewish law, Mann said, Judaica reflects the styles of the surrounding culture. That is especially the case in Islamic cultures, she said, where through the mid-20th century, Jews were “an integral part of the artist class.”

Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Drake Boehm, curators in the Met’s medieval department, attended Mann’s program in 2006. Since then they have worked extensively with the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as other institutions, to arrange loans of objects such as the Haggadah currently on view at the Met. “We’re interested in the way Jewish art is integrated in a broader context, the way it interacts with other artistic traditions that surround it,” says Holcomb. “That’s been our angle.”

At the MFA in Boston, Marietta Cambareri, curator of decorative arts and sculpture, has added “Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica” to her title. When we spoke, she was on her way to Phillips’ congregation, Temple Israel, to learn more about the mysterious donor, part of a crash course to bring herself up to speed on Jewish art, religion, scholarship, and collectors. Often she is targeting her own colleagues: “I work with every department that might work with Judaica—and that is pretty much every collection in the museum,” she said.

A team from the Columbus Museum of Art recently toured North Carolina’s Judaica gallery as it considers whether and how to create its own Jewish art program. While the Columbus museum has received several gifts of Judaica in recent years—among them Allan Wexler’s Gardening Sukkah—executive director Nannette Maciejunes said that the impetus is a desire to re-contextualize the museum’s 20th-century holdings. “We have a great collection of American modernism,” she said. “I joke that it’s the best art of white gentile guys.”

Two recent acquisitions got her wondering how to build on that base. One was a group of images by 70 members of the Photo League, a New York organization of photographers devoted to social change; the other was the Philip J. and Suzanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art, 1930–1970, which includes work by many Eastern European Jewish artists. “I started thinking, is there a way of looking at the collection through a lens that talks about Jewish life,” she said. The museum has invited YUM’s Goldstein to Columbus in the fall for an “Antiques Road Show”-style event to see what else might be in local private collections. “We’re on an exploratory road,” she said. “It’s a journey to see what’s possible.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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