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.