With attendance figures stagnant, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History should change its name, retool its mission, and target broader audiences.
That’s the message in a prickly editorial from Liberty City Press, an independent news service whose publisher boasts personal ties to the museum’s founders.
Headlined “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall,” the piece was sparked by a report from local arts organization AxisPhilly that early audience projections for several Independence Mall museums, including NMAJH, had been inflated, sometimes by as much as 100%.
Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.
“My greatest concern is that someone’s going to have to subsidize this museum,” Ken Smukler, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberty City Press, told the Forward. “And it’s not going to be the Pennsylvania government, which subsidizes a bunch of cultural institutions that are failing. The museum’s going to look to the Jewish Federation for money. They’re the subsidizer of choice. And that would be a drain on Federation for years to come.”
“The Emigrants” a circa-1930 oil painting by Julius Bloch, is the signature image in a new exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, “Jewish Artists in America 1925-1945.” “It conveys the experience of immigrants, one that is intimately and deeply tied to this museum,” said Josh Perelman, NMAJH’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections. “It is evocative and beautiful, and it tells a deep story.”
The painting by Bloch is one of 21 artworks (18 paintings and three lithograph prints) from the collection of Steven and Stephanie Wasser that tell the un-romanticized story of immigrants and all Americans during what many would argue was the most trying period in the 20th century.
On view at the museum until the end of June are Depression-era works by political artists, working independently or under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, chronicling the hardships seen on city streets and in rural fields, at work and at home. Among them are Aaron Berkman’s ”Subway,” Louis Ribak’s “City Rooftops” and Saul Steinberg’s “One Summer Night.”
Legendary drummer Max Weinberg, one of the original members of the E Street Band, took a night off from Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” concert tour on March 27 to talk about his life and lessons learned at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Weinberg improbably started a second career at the age of 40 as bandleader on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” when Springsteen disbanded the band in 1989. He then followed Conan to the “Tonight Show.” What most people don’t know is that the musician voted best drummer in the 1986 Rolling Stone critics poll can’t read music. The Arty Semite had a chance to catch up with the maestro during his visit to the museum.
Laura Goldman: Could you describe your first meeting with Springsteen?
Max Weinberg: The ad in the Village Voice caught my eye because it said that the band had a Columbia Records contract. That was more than I had. To get to the audition, I had to climb up four long flights of steps with my drum. After I arrived tired and sweaty, Springsteen greeted me, “How are you doing? Let’s play.” I knew half way through the audition that we clicked.
What is it like working for The Boss?
Ivy L. Barsky is changing museums, cities and American Jewish culture. As deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located on Battery Place in Lower Manhattan, Barsky worked to convey the Jewish experience through the stories of survivors. Now, as she becomes the director and chief operating officer of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, she will be interpreting it through the story of this country’s Jewish community. Barsky spoke to The Arty Semite on July 1, her first day at the NMAJH, about her work at these two institutions and the role of museums in American Jewish culture.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What do you see as the role of museums in the American Jewish landscape?
“Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague” (1966). Sepia and ink drawing by Shirley Moskowitz.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
It is hard for me to accept that it has been four years this weekend since my mother, artist Shirley Moskowitz, died in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 86.
I’ve written about some of her art before, and though Jewish themes were not a major preoccupation in her work, I thought I would remember her by posting a few of her explicitly Jewish works, many of which will be unknown to her friends and even family members. Several of Shirley’s earliest works — or at least those that survive — are of Jewish subjects, reflecting a strong Jewish presence in her life, especially through the Susnitskys, her mother’s extended Texan-Jewish family. Her first published drawing is of her Hebrew teacher, submitted to the Jewish youth magazine Young Israel when she was fifteen.
View a slideshow of artworks by Shirley Moskowitz:
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
In my household, Sundays are usually given over to two rituals: reading The New York Times and taking in a museum exhibition. I suspect your household is no different.
But, as I explained recently to a group of George Washington alumni who had come together on a rainy Sunday morning to visit the brand new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia as part of an alumni series called “GW Culture Buffs,” the mere thought of doing exactly what we were doing had once generated more than its fair share of controversy.
We take our Sundays-at-the-museum for granted; earlier generations of culture buffs did not. Many museum officials and their elite patrons were initially rather resistant to the idea of opening the doors of, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on a Sunday, fearful lest it attract the wrong kind of people — those with “vandal hands” or broken English. A Sunday at the Met, they warned, was a “perilous experiment.”
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
As just about everyone knows by now, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia has opened a spanking new, $150 million facility where, say its supporters, the “American Jewish dream has been fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., has just debuted a number of imaginative and thoughtful, if small-scale, exhibitions of its own. They run the gamut from a salute to Yiddish children’s literature to “Shalom Bayes: Reflections on the American Jewish Home,” which I had the good fortune to curate.
These two institutions couldn’t be more different from one another. The National Museum of American Jewish History proudly takes its place within the urban landscape of downtown Philadelphia; the National Yiddish Book Center is nestled amidst a New England apple orchard.
Leigh Kamping-Carder tells the story of the Mexican Suitcase, a collection of photographs from the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour that got lost in Mexico for almost 70 years.
Ilan Stavans wonders why we can’t escape from Harry Houdini.
Shoshana Olidort reviews Avi Steinberg’s “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.”
Marla Brown Fogelman reviews “The Jews of San Nicandro,” a book about a remote Italian town whose 80-odd inhabitants all converted to Judaism after World War II.
Philologos is on the make.