It seems like only yesterday that Lori Starr arrived from Toronto to take the helm of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Already an accomplished arts administrator and scholar when she stepped in as executive director in June 2013, Starr’s tenure began when the CJM had been in its unique Jessie Square building for a relatively short time. It was “five years new,” Starr said, with an ambitious mission yet to be realized.
This December, after more than seven years in the position, Starr will wrap up business at the San Francisco institution to pursue other opportunities and projects. The museum’s board announced her decision in a press release on March 12.
“I have worked in the museum and cultural sector for five decades, and it’s time to write a new chapter in both my personal and professional life,” she told J. last week. She said she aims to consult, advise, write, teach and, above all, “to be of service” in the broader world of contemporary art.
“Seven years, in the Jewish tradition, is when you rotate your fields — your shmita year,” said Starr, who will turn 66 in May. “There must be some good wisdom behind that: the belief that change is healthy and good.”
At the CJM, Starr has developed and implemented a strategic plan that has seen the museum — which has no permanent collection — host about 50 exhibitions, including those originated by its own curators and many top-flight traveling exhibits.
In the latter category, popular exhibits such as “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and one on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick explored both the artists and their art, along with the contribution of their Jewish heritage to their ideas and works.
Meanwhile, the CJM’s original exhibitions cast a curious, complex and critical eye on a wide range of subjects. The lengthy list includes “Designing Home: Jews and Mid-Century Modernism,” “Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid” and the current “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style.”
Under Starr’s direction, the CJM has highlighted the presentation of work by emerging artists from diverse backgrounds and strengthened its commitment to Bay Area and California artists. The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, which every two or three years invites artists of all backgrounds to respond to a selected Jewish theme, also offers the art-loving public the chance to purchase the exhibited works. The next invitational exhibit is planned for 2021.
For Starr, the past seven years “have been a period when the museum has proven itself to be a leader in originating exhibitions that come from the broad, Jewish intellectual capital of the Bay Area.” Many CJM exhibits invite artists to unpack complex themes or issues by interfacing directly with Bay Area scholars and theologians.
Also, the museum has expanded its outreach, partnering with a host of other Bay Area cultural and educational institutions to broaden its audience and to explore community concerns.
Starr has supported the museum staff’s desire to explore the ways art can help people understand the past and relate it to current events.
“We have responded with boldness and bravery around the current tenor in public life,” she said. “For example, we’ve brought on a whole new program in partnership with the [ JFCS] Holocaust Education Center for middle and high school students. No matter what exhibition they are touring, they hear from a Holocaust survivor, in person.”
With respect to the continuing need for Holocaust education, she said, “This is something we never thought, seven years ago, would be so urgent for us to do, but we have had to respond to changing times. I think the museum is poised to be an even stronger leader in that arena.”
Elliott Felson, president of the CJM’s board of trustees, said in the announcement that Starr “has been very important to the museum, and she leaves us with an exceptionally talented team to continue its success. We are thankful for her commitment to ensuring a successful transition for the CJM and the extended timeline she has given us to find the museum’s next leader.”
A New Jersey native, Starr studied art history at Rutgers University and did graduate work at the University of Virginia. In 1987, she came west for the Getty Leadership Institute, a highly regarded program for current and future museum leaders. She rose through the ranks at the L.A.-based J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s largest cultural and philanthropic organization dedicated to the visual arts, ending as its director of public affairs and communications.
She then served as museum director at the Jewish-driven Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, before moving to the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. Her husband, artist and sculptor Rick Oginz, has traveled with her throughout her career, and they have raised two sons.
Starr, who replaced longtime director and CEO Connie Wolf and interim director Denise Childs when she was hired, will continue to serve as the CJM board goes into search mode for the next nine months. “It’s really good timing for a new director to come in and put their imprimatur on the next chapter of the museum. I anticipate that many wonderful and qualified candidates are going to come forward,” Starr said.
For now, Starr is eager to dive into the museum’s “extremely complex” preparations for “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” a big September exhibit coming from Montreal and New York. She said she expects it to be a big hit here, though there’s more to the CJM’s goals than “blockbusters.”
“What I’ve always spoken with our board about is the mix and the balance,” she said. “You don’t only want to do prestige, intellectual, scholarly shows — but you don’t only want to do blockbusters, either. Because then you lose your critical edge. You’re not introducing new ideas about art, culture [and] identity. Our responsibility is to create this vibrant mix. That’s the CJM’s wheelhouse.”