After decades as an independent Berkeley institution, the Judah L. Magnes Museum is currently negotiating with U.C. Berkeley to donate its entire collection to the university some time next year.
Many details about the future of Magnes’ finances, board of trustees, staff and location remain undetermined.
What is certain, however, is that a long-planned move from the Magnes’ stately home on Russell Street in the Elmwood District to a new location in the heart of Berkeley has been scrapped, as Magnes has sold the downtown property at 2222 Harold Way.
The negotiations with U.C. Berkeley coincide with Magnes chief curator, Alla Efimova, being named the museum’s new director. Efimova said the pending U.C. Berkeley deal should prove to be a net plus for the Magnes.
In an interview with j., Efimova said the move would make the collections “accessible to a much broader community of scholars worldwide.”
Magnes board president Frances Dinkelspiel expects the changes to benefit both institutions. “This was more a question of what was in the best interest of the Magnes in the long term,” she said. “We thought having a partnership with U.C. Berkeley was the best way to have the Magnes continue for the next 50 to 100 years.”
Negotiations between the Magnes and U.C. Berkeley are expected to wrap up by year’s end. After that, the museum’s Western Jewish History Center archives and its rare books collection would likely move to the campus’ Bancroft Library sometime in 2010. Other materials, including extensive Judaica collections from around the world, would move to facilities on or near the campus.
“The intention is to create a connection with the Jewish studies program at U.C. Berkeley,” Efimova said. “They have incredible faculty, they have great graduate students and there is world-class scholarship. The hope is that bringing this collection to the campus and marrying it to this program builds potential for a very interesting and unique combination of resources.”
Tom Leonard, university librarian at U.C. Berkeley, praised the Magnes collection for being “extremely strong in the history of Jews in the American West.”
He added, “It’s a prized collection from our point of view because the strength of the Bancroft Library is the American West and California. [The Magnes collection] would join an already very strong collection, and add to it.”
Founded in 1962 by Seymour Fromer, who died last month at age 87, the Magnes has faced challenges at different points of its existence.
A merger with San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum earlier this decade proved unworkable and was dissolved. During the period of the merger, the Magnes was virtually stripped of its curatorial staff and closed for the summer of 2002, not reopening with regular hours until October 2003.
Moreover, the Magnes has had difficulties selling itself as a must-see museum like San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art or Asian Art Museum.
“For most people the word ‘museum’ brings certain connotations,” Efimova said. “Gift shop, exhibits all the time, coat checks and catalogs. Although it did a lot of very interesting innovative work in terms of exhibitions and programs, the Magnes was never able to fully [become] this kind of ‘museum as destination.’ Because of its location in the shadow of a great research university, it’s not in the middle of the tourist traffic.”
But Efimova points to the Magnes’ strengths, such as its diverse collections (most of which is now available for viewing online at www.magnes.org) and its mission of community education, predicting the upcoming changes won’t impact either.
“[The Magnes Museum’s] true audience is the research community worldwide and the local Jewish community, which needs a center of gravity, a connection with its own history,” she said.
Efimova earned a doctorate in art history and cultural studies from the University of Rochester. She is a former lecturer at U.C Berkeley’s department of art history, and before coming to the Magnes in 2003, she was associate curator at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
During her tenure as chief curator at the Magnes, she has overseen the digitization of most of the museum’s holdings, while also developing exhibitions and programs.
That isn’t going to end once the Magnes collections relocate. Efimova expects to continue launching exhibitions, so the public can experience the Magnes collections.
“We are definitely planning on an innovative facility that will allow people to see a lot,” she said. “There will be access to the permanent collection, digital access and other projects.”
Sad as it might be to leave the Russell Street site behind, Efimova says she and her staff remain excited about the future of the Magnes.
“If we do this right,” she said, “I think it could be a national model for university collection that serves the campus and the community.”