Few Jewish artists are as explicit about their Jewish identity as Archie Rand.
“He said he wanted it to smell like kasha varnishkes when people walk into his gallery,” said Fraidy Aber, director of education and public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which last year presented Rand’s solo show, “The 613,” a series of paintings based on the 613 biblical mitzvot. “From a very young age, he’s said that he was going to be a Jewish artist ‘out loud’.”
Then there’s kinetic sculptor Ned Kahn, whose Jewish identity is more discreetly expressed in his art. The piece he created for a CJM exhibit in 2016, the gigantic “Negev Wheel,” contained 1,000 pounds of sand from the Israeli desert, and its granules, he noted, came “from all over: North Africa, Asia and Europe,” a reference to genetics and Jewish migration.
Julia Goodman, on the other hand, is an artist who grounds her work in Judaic symbolism. Her mobile paper sculpture in the recent group show “Jewish Folktales Retold: The Artist as Maggid” comprised 18 suspended shapes — a spiritual number in Judaism. Viewers could stand within the mobile and look through it in both directions, expressing Goodman’s interpretation of the Jewish folktale “The Bird of Happiness.”
“She’s an artist who happens to have a very deep Jewish background that is built into her work,” Aber said. “You might not know it right away, but read her artist statement, or watch our online video, or if you attended [her] artist talk … you’d start to get it very quickly.”
Expressing Jewish identity and Jewish values through art in a variety of ways is what the Contemporary Jewish Museum has tried to do since its first incarnation was founded in 1984, when it held exhibitions in a small gallery space in the Jewish Community Federation building a few blocks away on Steuart Street.
As the museum prepares this week to celebrate 10 years in its Jessie Square location on Mission Street, J. is looking at how this uniquely contemporary cultural institution — neither a history museum nor one with a permanent collection — has expressed its mission statement to make “the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a 21st-century audience.”
Since its opening, the CJM has presented a total of 70 original and traveling exhibitions — an average of seven per year — as well as a vast number of educational programs, community events and opportunities for engagement. More than 1.2 million visitors have walked through its doors; in 2017, the museum drew 125,000 visitors, 20,000 of them through school programs.
Its location, in a bustling South of Market area amid a cluster of other museums — SFMOMA, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Museum of the African Diaspora, with a state-of-the-art Mexican museum scheduled to open next spring — proved to be ideal for attracting tourists, suggesting partnerships and creating a district-wide artistic synergy.
Longtime CJM board member Roselyne Swig, the San Francisco philanthropist and advocate for the arts, was a key player in efforts in the 1990s to find a new home, one worthy of the museum’s potential, for what was then called the Jewish Community Museum.
“My primary purpose is to ensure that individuals, businesses and communities all understand the value of the arts, what it does to enrich our lives,” Swig told J. recently. “The arts are crucial to the total health of the city.”
She foresaw that this museum, properly installed in a building of its own — and a world-class one, at that — would “bring to the fore the wonderful contributions of artists who are primarily, though not all, Jewish, and give them pride in both their heritage and current contributions.”
To fulfill that ambition, the museum’s offerings would necessarily span a broad spectrum of artist identities, styles, subjects and themes. In curating its exhibits and designing its cultural programs, the museum staff engages in a constant process of examining the age-old discussion: “What constitutes Jewish art?”
In asking that question, the CJM aims to provoke nuanced conversations about “what it is to be Jewish today, in ways that are complex and multifaceted,” Aber said. “These are good conversations to have, and this a good place to have them.”
What all the exhibits have had in common is the quality of being contemporary, whether in the creation of new art, or in an investigation of culture through a contemporary lens.
Contemporaneity was enshrined from the start in the building’s concept. It was created by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who already had designed a number of notable buildings, such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and others. The man who “designs buildings that reach out to history and humanity,” according to Smithsonian magazine, also won a contest to be the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, though much of his original design never materialized.
For the CJM, his design incorporated parts of a former PG&E substation on Minna Street, which had been damaged in the 1906 earthquake and, although restored in 1907, had never found a true new purpose until the Jewish Community Museum board bought it from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1994 for $1, according to Swig.
Lori Starr, the museum’s executive director since 2013, is a big fan of the building that at once expresses nostalgia, modernity and meaning. “Libeskind presented to the board a vision of a museum about the Jewish future, an optimistic, forward-looking museum,” she said. “It was a building that said ‘Life!’ with other language.”
Well before the new museum opened, the board decided that it would be a non-collecting art institution. In that light, much of the Jewish Community Museum’s historic collection of art and artifacts was handed over to the Magnes museum in Berkeley, and the newly renamed Contemporary Jewish Museum “was unleashed,” Starr said. Its grand opening was on June 8, 2008.
The CJM is among a small number of contemporary art museums, such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, that have no permanent collection, said Paula Birnbaum, director of the master’s program in museum studies at the University of San Francisco. That can work to their advantage.
“These institutions bypass the traditional museum model of acquisition and preservation in favor of a more flexible mission that focuses on exhibitions, education, visitor experience and community engagement,” she told J. “The CJM can make its relationship with the public the priority.”
Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, said the CJM takes on this model while functioning within a particular cultural heritage. “The museum … plays this to great interpretive advantage. It’s a fascinating example of a culturally specific museum that remains nimble and responsive to new opportunities,” she said.
That point is echoed by Renny Pritikin, a leading figure in the Bay Area arts community for nearly 40 years, including the past four as chief curator at the CJM.
“If you take on a collection, you’re dedicating yourself to the past, to history,” he said. “But when your name is ‘Contemporary Jewish,’ the essence of our mandate is to investigate how Jewish identity is meaningful in the 21st century.
There are other challenges to this model, first and foremost financial — or, as Birnbaum put it, “how to raise money, and court patrons and trustee-collectors, without being able to offer a home for their works.”
On the other hand, Pritikin said, the CJM has received substantial funding from arts grantors, such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, precisely because of its commitment to the exhibition and creation of contemporary art. The decision to define itself this way is an investment — literally, when commissions are involved — in the creative potential of living artists. It is, Pritikin said, “a statement of support that the local, national and international community of Jewish artists is worthy, robust and fecund.”
Many non-collecting museums face problems because they’re housed in uninspiring locations, such as on the upper floor of an office building. Writer, historian and museum critic Diana Muir Appelbaum summed it up for J. this way: “Being without a collection can work out fine, but being without a space that looks like a museum when viewed from the sidewalk is deadly.”
That is hardly the problem of the CJM. Its $47.4 million building, which marries the old brick structure of the power substation with a soaring blue steel cube, not only trumpets the museum’s vision to all who pass by, but also has become an iconic part of San Francisco’s cityscape. Its abstract exterior is an eye-catcher, to be sure, though few realize that the building’s unusual shape is derived from the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which together spell chai, the Hebrew word for life. Outside, there is a message on the wall stating that everyone is welcome.
“We want to create a place that is about access and inclusion. We’re here for everyone, not just the Jewish community,” Starr said.
Indeed, about half of the museum’s visitors are not Jewish, she pointed out.
“I really think this is an exceptionally beautiful museum,” said international museum curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “[It’s] very stylish in the best sense of the word. It has high aesthetics, signaled by the architecture, and furnishings, with big, beautiful, uncluttered areas that give you the feeling that you’re in a special place.”
Since none of the art is permanent, every part of the interior can be reorganized for new creative purposes, including video installations, educational activities and public events, such as “Night at the Jewseum,” a quarterly social gathering with music, drinks and out-of-the-box activities (held in concert with a current exhibit) that routinely draws 300 to 400 young adults. Lunchtime gallery chats with scholars, theologians and artists offered in tandem with exhibitions also are well attended, as are “Family Sundays” featuring a drop-in art studio, art pushcarts and more.
“I’m excited about the ways in which the museum activates its spaces for performance and public interventions,” Birnbaum said. Still, she’d like to see “even more opportunities for exchange between international artists and the public,” such as an “active artist in residency program.”
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of the core exhibition at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, noted that in the CJM’s curatorial choices, outreach activities and chosen role as a teaching museum, the museum is responsive to where it is located: Northern California, where the Jewish community is a minority, but where it has had significant impact on the larger society.
“Their focus is on the Jewish experience, but showing how many aspects of that experience resonate with other histories and other communities,” she said. “That’s very American and also very San Francisco, and I think that that’s very important.
“The museum is a kind of big tent for people, especially people who are intermarried, or don’t belong to synagogues, who like to be in a Jewish space that is not exclusively Jewish.”
In her five years at the CJM, Starr has worked with the staff and board to craft a philosophy to guide them through the vast spectrum of Jewishness and the potential of art to express it.
One principle they follow, she said, is “to live comfortably within the spectrum, so that it is no longer a struggle [to define Jewish art] but rather a philosophy that is embracing and encompassing.”
Many CJM shows have delved deeply into overtly Jewish questions. One example is “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis” back in 2008, one of the first shows mounted. It mixed seven new, challenging artist commissions with a range of historically important works by Marc Chagall, William Blake and others, and even included a grainy video of the reading of the opening verses of Genesis by the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft on Christmas Eve 1968.
A more recent example is last year’s Archie Rand exhibit. “I mean, how much deeper can you go than having a painting for each of the 613 mitzvot?” Starr asked, “or displaying all of the illuminated pages of the original  Arthur Szyk haggadah, with side galleries presenting contemporary variations of haggadot?” That exhibit was in 2014.
Then there were exhibits such as “NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology,” which ran for three months starting in late 2015.
“The only thing Jewish about it was its embrace of the Jewish belief that technology and science are not in conflict with faith,” Starr said, though in fact the exhibit also consciously explored what it is that makes so many Jewish people successful in science and technology. But it didn’t do so in a way that trumpeted Jewish achievement.
“We don’t want to be the museum of ‘aren’t Jews great,’” Pritikin said. “But in the context of art in a Jewish museum, we asked what is the relationship between Jewish thought and innovation.”
The wide array of exhibits has included “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” (2008), “New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table” (2009), “Jews on Vinyl” (2009), “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey” (2010), “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations” (2010), “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from Gold Rush to the Present” (2011), “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” (2012), “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism” (2014), “Project Mah Jongg” (2014), and “From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art” (2016), in which 24 artists grappled with memories that were not their own.
An exhibit scheduled to open July 26, “Lew the Jew and His Circle: Origins of the American Tattoo,” will include previously unpublished and rare original tattoo artwork and photos revolving around Lewis Alberts, a pioneering tattoo artist in New York City 100 years ago.
In 2016, the show “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered” was guest curated by photography scholar Maya Benton of the International Center of Photography in New York. More social documentary than just a collection of photos, the show explored the Russian-born photographer’s study of Eastern European Jewish life between World War I and World War II, and the CJM’s education department developed a teaching packet to go along with the exhibit — materials that included references to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“The team at CJM recognized that there was so much that could be done in creating a dialogue between Vishniac’s images of Jewish refugees and stateless people in our own time,” Benton said. “They took a moment in history and brought it together with the present, both to teach young visitors how to look at the potential of photography and to advocate for and affect social change. It was so impactful.”
It’s “an exciting teaching museum,” said Birnbaum. “The CJM is a hub in the Bay Area for engaging with the diversity of Jewish experience, and a leader in linking artists and communities on important social issues.”
That educational function extends from graduate students on down to school-age children and toddlers, and to the general public. For example, the museum designs programs and events for visitors with disabilities, people who are often isolated from the experience of art. Then there’s the museum’s Teen Art Connect program, which offers high-schoolers paid, yearlong internships.
All teaching programs are considered a core part of the CJM’s mission.
“We recognize that we are very important to individual human beings leading fulfilling enriched lives, but also to creating a civil society,” Starr said. “Some people respond to the world only through art; art is often the only way someone learns or has empathy, or takes away something that grows them into a human being.”
Reaching out to the greater non-Jewish public is also expressed when the museum highlights the Jewish influence on popular culture, such as exhibits on film director Stanley Kubrick, San Francisco philanthropist and music patron Warren Hellman, British blues singer Amy Winehouse and rock ’n’ roll impresario Bill Graham.
Pritikin noted that not only were these some of his favorites, but they also received better public feedback than many of the museum’s other exhibits. “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition,” for example, which ran for four months in 2016 and included film screenings at the YBCA across the street, generated the CJM’s all-time largest number of visitors, according to museum officials.
“The great thing about those kinds of shows is that they bring in a bigger, more diverse audience — the Jewish audience augmented by the general audience,” Pritikin said. “Young people flocked to the Amy Winehouse exhibit. This enhances our mission through the back door. They came because she was a music icon, but found out that she was also a pretty observant Jew.”