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JWeekly : Magnes Opus. Museum Springs Back to Life With New Berkeley Facility – 12.08.2011

JWeekly : Magnes Opus. Museum Springs Back to Life With New Berkeley Facility – 12.08.2011

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Dan Pine of J. The Jewish Weekly of Northern California, writes about the opening of the new facility of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley.

Permalink: http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/63718/
Dan Pine of J. The Jewish Weekly of Northern California, writes about the opening of the new facility of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley.

Permalink: http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/63718/

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Published by: The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life on Dec 13, 2011
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The new Magnes is located in the heart of downtown Berkeley. photo/keegan houser 
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Thursday, December 8, 2011 | return to:cover story
Magnes opus: Museum springs back tolife with new Berkeley facility
bydan pine, j. staff 
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andAlla Efimova wants the new museum to be a big surprise.The director of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life ishoping the debut of the facility’s new downtown Berkeleyhome will astonish those who may have said too hasty aKaddish.Opening Jan. 22, 2012, the 25,000-square-foot museum will not onlyhouse a majority of the Magnes collections, but it also will serve as aresearch center and Jewish communal gathering place. “The plan is to create a truecenter for Jewish studies andJewish culture,” Efimova says. “We’ll have visiting scholars,fellows and artists,encouraged to work with thecollection. [The new Magnes]means an accessible,functional space for the EastBay Jewish community to gather. It’s a visible sign that thecommunity is here.” The opening caps a period of change for the institution.Though the move to Allston Way, on a prime blockbetween the downtown Berkeley BART station and the U.C.Berkeley campus, had been long planned, the recessionforced the Magnes leadership to make some hard choices.In July 2010, all collections — more than 15,000 Jewishartifacts, Judaica, music, documents, photographs andarchival materials related to Jews in the diaspora and theAmerican West –– were gifted to U.C. Berkeley.The former Judah L. Magnes Museum then morphed into the Magnes Museum Foundation, a supportingorganization of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund and the Jewish CommunityFoundation (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 forclose to $2 million, leaving the Magnes temporarily homeless.Such tumultuous changes might haverocked other institutions, but the Magnesstaff and board saw an opportunity. Evenbefore the economic downturn, which leftmany nonprofits reeling, the plan hadbeen to move to the Allston Waybuilding, purchased in 1997. Now, factoring in the rich academicresearch resources available at U.C.
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Gallery space while still under construction A Torah holder, minus the scroll, in storage
Berkeley, proceeds from the RussellStreet sale and committed donors to theMagnes, the institution is reborn. “Next year is the 50th anniversary of thefounding,” says Francesco Spagnolo, theMagnes’ curator of collections. “This is aninstitution 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 isthe sheer scope and beauty of thefacility. Designed by the San Franciscofirm Pfau Long Architecture, the newMagnes lives in a totally renovatedbuilding, formerly a printing plant.The building “has very good bones,” says Efimova, “but is very malleable.” The space is sleek — lots of glass andwood — with a gallery, an auditorium,conference rooms and a research room.The foyer features display cases madefrom glass and salvaged elm that willshow pieces from the extensivecollection. “People will be wonderfully surprised byhow beautiful the new space is,” saysFrances Dinkelspiel, a former Magnesboard president and now co-chair of itsfundraising arm, Friends of the Magnes. “They will want to have their events inthe space, come to lectures and exhibitsand [make] this a great communityhub.” 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 themexpandable 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 manualtypewriter with Yiddish keys, to a clay pickle jar from Shenson’s, the long-gone San Franciscodelicatessen.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 17thcentury — from the Jewish community of Djerba, Tunisia, including a headband intended for a babyboy 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 defunctJewish summer camp near Huntington Lake, south of Yosemite.The Magnes collection also includesbooks, posters, ketubahs, paintings and3,000 postcards, though the rare booksare kept off-site at U.C. Berkeley’sBancroft Library.Also at Bancroft is the massive collectionof documents that makes up the WesternJewish Americana archives (known asthe Western Jewish History Center at theformer Magnes Museum). Much of thatmaterial is still being processed andcataloged.Though treasures from the collection willtake turns going on display, exhibitionswill not necessarily be the main event.The hope is to make the museum amagnet for scholars interested instudying the collection up close.That conceivably includes the U.C. Berkeley Jewish Studies department, the Jewish law library atBerkeley Law and other interdisciplinary campus assets the Magnes will work with in the years ahead. 
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 Alla Efimova photos/cathleen maclearie
Erich Gruen, the co-chair of U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Studies program, already has plans to collaboratewith the Magnes, including holding its 2012 Pell Lecture there next February. Stanford professor AronRodrigue 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 richand varied.”  “It brings it back to the core: educating through collection,” Efimova says of the new Magnes. “That’s how it started andthat’s what it ended up being.” The Judah L. Magnes Museum was founded in 1962 by Berkeleyart lover Seymour Fromer, who was 87 when he died in 2009.Named for the prominent Jewish leader who was raised inOakland 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 landlordstopped by to collect, he was so taken by the artworks that helet his tenant stay on for free.In 1966, the museum moved to an elegant, old mansion on aquiet, tree-lined, residential street in Berkeley’s Elmwooddistrict. Initially, the Magnes specialized in ceremonial art,posters and paintings of Jewish themes. Fromer and his wife,Rebecca, expanded the collection by rescuing artifacts fromendangered Jewish communities in places such asCzechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt and India.All told, the Fromers collected some 11,000 pieces of Judaicaand fine art, 10,000 rare and other Jewish-themed books, alongwith papers and photos. Much of that material was housed in theWestern Jewish History Center, which Fromer helped establish in1967.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 wasdissolved. During the period of the merger, the Magnes lost its curatorial staff and closed for thesummer 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 atU.C. Berkeley’s department of art history, joined in 2003. Italian-born Spagnolo is a double threat as ascholar 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 thearchives. It runs through the summer.Early next year, Israeli composer and installation artistEmmanuel Witzthum will become the Magnes’ first artist-in-residence when he presents “Dissolving Localities,” a multimediaart project that blends ambient street sounds from Berkeley withthe same sort of aural material from his hometown of Jerusalem.The Magnes continues to acquire new material. A notable recentacquisition features sketches for murals by the late SanFrancisco muralist Bernard Zakheim, who oversaw theDepression-era frescos inside Coit Tower.Applications also are being accepted for the first Magnes Fellowship in Jewish Studies, which will selectU.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,” Efimovasays, “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 FamilyFoundation together gave $2.5 million, guaranteeing an operating budget to help the new Magnestransition 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,” Dinkelspielsays. “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 locatedacross the street) and other local institutions will partner with the Magnes, according to Efimova.

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