Thursday, December 8, 2011 | return to: cover story


Magnes opus: Museum springs back to life with new Berkeley facility

by dan pine, j. staff

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Alla Efimova wants the new museum to be a big surprise.

The director of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life is hoping the debut of the facility’s new downtown Berkeley home will astonish those who may have said too hasty a Kaddish.

Opening Jan. 22, 2012, the 25,000-square-foot museum will not only house a majority of the Magnes collections, but it also will serve as a research center and Jewish communal gathering place.

“The plan is to create a true center for Jewish studies and Jewish culture,” Efimova says. “We’ll have visiting scholars, fellows and artists, encouraged to work with the collection. [The new Magnes] means an accessible, functional space for the East Bay Jewish community to gather. It’s a visible sign that the community is here.”

The opening caps a period of change for the institution. Though the move to Allston Way, on a prime block between the downtown Berkeley BART station and the U.C. Berkeley campus, had been long planned, the recession forced the Magnes leadership to make some hard choices.

In July 2010, all collections — more than 15,000 Jewish artifacts, Judaica, music, documents, photographs and archival materials related to Jews in the diaspora and the American West –– were gifted to U.C. Berkeley.

The former Judah L. Magnes Museum then morphed into the Magnes Museum Foundation, a supporting organization of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund and the Jewish Community Foundation (which is part of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay).

The 8,500-square-foot Russell Street mansion, which served as home base for decades, was sold for close to $2 million, leaving the Magnes temporarily homeless.

The new Magnes is located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.   photo/keegan houser
The new Magnes is located in the heart of downtown Berkeley. photo/keegan houser
Such tumultuous changes might have rocked other institutions, but the Magnes staff and board saw an opportunity. Even before the economic downturn, which left many nonprofits reeling, the plan had been to move to the Allston Way building, purchased in 1997.


Now, factoring in the rich academic research resources available at U.C. Berkeley, proceeds from the Russell Street sale and committed donors to the Magnes, the institution is reborn.

“Next year is the 50th anniversary of the founding,” says Francesco Spagnolo, the Magnes’ curator of collections. “This is an institution that has been game-changing, inspired many groups and individuals, and we’re going to keep it that way.”

The surprise Efimova hopes to spring is the sheer scope and beauty of the facility. Designed by the San Francisco firm Pfau Long Architecture, the new Magnes lives in a totally renovated building, formerly a printing plant.

The building “has very good bones,” says Efimova, “but is very malleable.”

 Gallery space while still under construction
Gallery space while still under construction
The space is sleek — lots of glass and wood — with a gallery, an auditorium, conference rooms and a research room. The foyer features display cases made from glass and salvaged elm that will show pieces from the extensive collection.

“People will be wonderfully surprised by how beautiful the new space is,” says Frances Dinkelspiel, a former Magnes board president and now co-chair of its fundraising arm, Friends of the Magnes. “They will want to have their events in the space, come to lectures and exhibits and [make] this a great community hub.”

The virtual heart of the new Magnes, however, is the collection itself. Even if you can’t exactly see it.

Lining the floor are climate-controlled stacks, shelves and compact storage bins, many of them expandable with the push of a button, revealing the treasures within.

Those bins contain everything from the HMS Queen Mary’s one-time Torah ark, to a 1920s-era manual typewriter with Yiddish keys, to a clay pickle jar from Shenson’s, the long-gone San Francisco delicatessen.

At least, Spagnolo thinks it might have been a pickle jar.

Waiting for cataloging, display and study is a collection of jewelry — some dating back to the 17th century — from the Jewish community of Djerba, Tunisia, including a headband intended for a baby boy on the occasion of his bris, decorated with coins, tree sap and hamsas.

Spagnolo just took in a donated boxful of memorabilia, circa 1928, from Camp Kelowa, a defunct Jewish summer camp near Huntington Lake, south of Yosemite.

 A Torah holder, minus the scroll, in storage
A Torah holder, minus the scroll, in storage
The Magnes collection also includes books, posters, ketubahs, paintings and 3,000 postcards, though the rare books are kept off-site at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Also at Bancroft is the massive collection of documents that makes up the Western Jewish Americana archives (known as the Western Jewish History Center at the former Magnes Museum). Much of that material is still being processed and cataloged.

Though treasures from the collection will take turns going on display, exhibitions will not necessarily be the main event. The hope is to make the museum a magnet for scholars interested in studying the collection up close.

That conceivably includes the U.C. Berkeley Jewish Studies department, the Jewish law library at Berkeley Law and other interdisciplinary campus assets the Magnes will work with in the years ahead.

Erich Gruen, the co-chair of U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Studies program, already has plans to collaborate with the Magnes, including holding its 2012 Pell Lecture there next February. Stanford professor Aron Rodrigue will talk about the history of Sephardic Jews in Rhodes.

“Our hope is that our students will use the [Magnes] collection on a much more systematic basis,” Gruen says. “If all goes well, students and faculty will make greater use of its holdings, which are rich and varied.”

Alla Efimova   photos/cathleen maclearie
Alla Efimova photos/cathleen maclearie
“It brings it back to the core: educating through collection,” Efimova says of the new Magnes. “That’s how it started and that’s what it ended up being.”

The Judah L. Magnes Museum was founded in 1962 by Berkeley art lover Seymour Fromer, who was 87 when he died in 2009. Named for the prominent Jewish leader who was raised in Oakland in the 1880s, the museum started out life in a $75-a-month loft over Oakland’s now-closed Parkway Theater.

At one point, Fromer fell behind in the rent. When the landlord stopped by to collect, he was so taken by the artworks that he let his tenant stay on for free.

In 1966, the museum moved to an elegant, old mansion on a quiet, tree-lined, residential street in Berkeley’s Elmwood district. Initially, the Magnes specialized in ceremonial art, posters and paintings of Jewish themes. Fromer and his wife, Rebecca, expanded the collection by rescuing artifacts from endangered Jewish communities in places such as Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt and India.

All told, the Fromers collected some 11,000 pieces of Judaica and fine art, 10,000 rare and other Jewish-themed books, along with papers and photos. Much of that material was housed in the Western Jewish History Center, which Fromer helped establish in 1967.

The Magnes also faced challenges at different points during its existence.

A merger with San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in 2002 proved unworkable and was dissolved. During the period of the merger, the Magnes lost its curatorial staff and closed for the summer of 2002. It didn’t reopen with regular hours until October 2003.

But the ship began to right itself once Efimova, a Russian-born historian, author and former lecturer at U.C. Berkeley’s department of art history, joined in 2003. Italian-born Spagnolo is a double threat as a scholar of Jewish studies and Jewish music. He came aboard in 2007.

With the opening next month, Efimova, Spagnolo and their staff will waste no time putting the facility to use.

The first exhibition, “The Magnes Effect: Five Decades of Collecting,” will feature a diverse sampling of objects from the archives. It runs through the summer.

Early next year, Israeli composer and installation artist Emmanuel Witzthum will become the Magnes’ first artist-in-residence when he presents “Dissolving Localities,” a multimedia art project that blends ambient street sounds from Berkeley with the same sort of aural material from his hometown of Jerusalem.

The Magnes continues to acquire new material. A notable recent acquisition features sketches for murals by the late San Francisco muralist Bernard Zakheim, who oversaw the Depression-era frescos inside Coit Tower.

Applications also are being accepted for the first Magnes Fellowship in Jewish Studies, which will select U.C. Berkeley graduate students for yearlong research projects conducted at the Magnes.

For now, the Magnes has attained a measure of financial stability. “We have a solid platform,” Efimova says, “and we benefit from economies of scale, being part of the university.”

In addition, the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, the Taube Family Foundation and the Hellman Family Foundation together gave $2.5 million, guaranteeing an operating budget to help the new Magnes transition through its first five years.

Friends of the Magnes will not wait that long to start building up an endowment.

“We need the community to step up to ensure the longevity of the Magnes collections,” Dinkelspiel says. “I hope that being part of U.C. Berkeley will raise the Magnes profile so people around the region, the state and the world will come to better understand what a fantastic collection it is.”

In the not-so-distant future, the Jewish Music Festival, Lehrhaus Judaica, the Marsh (a theater located across the street) and other local institutions will partner with the Magnes, according to Efimova.

All in all, it’s an auspicious start to get the museum up and running for at least the next 50 years.

“Some people thought the Magnes has disappeared,” Dinkelspiel says. “It hasn’t. It’s only gotten better.”

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, open house 12 to 4 p.m. Jan. 22, 2012. 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. (510) 643-2526 or

cover photo   |   cathleen maclearie


Posted by Berkeleyreader
12/08/2011  at  08:16 PM

This is tremendously exciting for our entire community—We are blessed. B’sha’a tova u’mutzlachat!

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