Lurie back in S.F. to head Jewish museum

Seeking to become a leading cultural force, the Jewish Museum San Francisco has recruited a new chief who lacks an arts background but offers renowned fund-raising skills and an international reputation.

Rabbi Brian Lurie, a familiar face who left the Bay Area five years ago to run the New York-based United Jewish Appeal, was hired last week to help develop the museum's new site and expand its mission.

"Brian's ideas and the program we're developing will be on the leading edge of reaching and tying together the American Jewish community," said Fred Levinson, museum board president.

Lurie's vision for the museum, set to open its new site alongside Yerba Buena Gardens in 1999, goes far beyond bolstering its art exhibits or presenting lectures, classes, theater, music and dance — though all these programs are in the works. He also hopes to regularly broadcast live, interactive events to 25 Bay Area Jewish institutions and to reach local homes via cable television, CD-ROMs and the Internet.

"You've got to go to the people," Lurie said.

He believes that focusing on cultural Judaism may be one of the keys to capturing the attention of the Bay Area, which he calls "one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in the world."

"The visual arts and the education that comes with it can be one of the cornerstones of the Jewish community in America in the 21st century. It's not a small thing," Lurie said.

Long described as an innovator and credited with raising hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two decades, Lurie starts work as the museum's chief executive officer on Sept. 1 — the same day his current job as the UJA's executive vice president ends.

The Cleveland native's Bay Area ties reach back to 1969, when Lurie became an assistant rabbi at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

In 1972, he left to work as executive assistant with the UJA of Greater New York. He returned to the Bay Area in 1974 to become executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He remained in that job for 17 years.

Levinson called Lurie "one of the key figures" in the museum's founding 12 years ago. When the federation decided to stop renting space in San Francisco and build its own headquarters, Lurie insisted that a museum be included on the first floor as a way of welcoming the public to the city's central Jewish address.

Five years ago, Lurie left the Bay Area to head one of the nation's largest Jewish fund-raising institutions. Last year, the UJA campaign raised more than $615 million for Israel and international Jewish needs.

Lurie joined the UJA with the stipulation that he would stay only five years. So the 53-year-old's departure and his return to the Bay Area are not a surprise.

"It was driven by personal reasons," he said. "I gave it my best shot…It was time to move on."

In 1993, his wife and children left the East Coast and moved back to their home in the Marin County town of Ross.

Lurie began commuting back and forth across the country.

"Last year, I flew 300,000 miles. I have two small children and a wife I love," he said. "This is where my heart is."

Lurie turned over the UJA's day-to-day operations to another administrator in February, though he has continued to work out of his home and to travel across the country and to Israel.

His decision to accept the job as the Jewish Museum's chief executive officer comes as somewhat of a shock — even to him.

"Am I a curator? Absolutely not," he said — nor does he plan to become one. But Lurie said he will work to expand his knowledge of the arts and will surround himself with qualified staff.

A museum consultant began recruiting Lurie in February, months before a national search officially began. Lurie, who has no formal training or background in the arts, initially turned down the offer. But after the museum board and staff formally decided to transform the museum into a multidimensional arts and cultural center, Lurie began to seriously consider the option.

"My love has been diaspora-Israel relations as long as anyone can remember," he said. "But it had a focus for me, as strengthening Judaism. I see this as another way of strengthening Judaism."

Seymour Fromer, director of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum, said the Jewish Museum's decision to hire someone outside the arts world is not anomalous.

"It's a trend to hire CEOs who are mostly responsible for fund-raising in art museums, symphonies and other cultural endeavors and have the artistic management [performed] by people in the field," Fromer said.

Linda Steinberg, who has headed the Jewish Museum for the past eight years, will continue as director. She will focus on the current site, while Lurie focuses almost exclusively on the new site.

Steinberg has been credited with bringing innovative exhibitions to the museum, such as the works of "Maus" cartoonist Art Spiegelman, multimedia menorot created by cutting-edge artists, and in-depth looks into black-Jewish relations.

"I have every reason to believe that this will be a great creative collaboration and that, in fact, Brian's superior leadership and fund-raising skills will enable me to realize some of my most ambitious artistic visions," Steinberg said.

Lurie, who earned $300,000 annually as UJA head and was among the nation's highest-paid Jewish community professionals, wouldn't reveal his new salary but described it as "significantly lower."

He will not sign a contract per se, but rather a more relaxed "letter of understanding." Lurie plans to spend five years working exclusively for the museum, though he will be allowed periods of absence in order to pursue other Jewish projects.

While some might speculate that a transformed Jewish Museum will overshadow or swallow its Berkeley counterpart, neither Fromer nor Lurie expressed a desire for a merger.

Fromer, in fact, hopes that heightened interest in the Jewish arts can benefit everyone.

"I think it's a sign of seriousness: Hiring the leading fund-raiser in the United States signals new resources being brought to bear on the Jewish museums of Northern California. I hope it rubs off on all of us and other cultural endeavors," Fromer said.

No one can place a price tag yet on the Jewish Museum's proposed future. But Joyce Linker, a board vice president who served on the search committee, considers Lurie's ideas workable.

"I don't think we have to do it in one year," she said. "But if you don't have a dream, nothing will happen."