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Galleries - Kenneth Baker
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Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life reopens
Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic Monday, January 23, 2012
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Helen Bobell, of Oakland, shows her son Kai, 22 months, a 20th century Torah Ark pediment at the re-opening of Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., Sunday, January 22, 2012. IMAGES

The institution long known as Judah L. Magnes Museum custodian of pre16 eminent collections representing the cultural history of Jews 2 in the West - reopened Sunday as the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. The name change tells the story in shorthand.

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The Magnes' utilitarian but sparkling new quarters, a 25,000-square-foot building on Allston Way, just steps from BART's Downtown Berkeley Station, houses its holdings of paintings, sculpture, textiles, graphic arts and ritual objects. Rare books, musical manuscripts and certain ephemera in its collection will reside elsewhere in UC Berkeley's library system. Under an agreement completed in 2010, the collections of the Magnes now belong to the university, which will preserve them for the wider community and as resources for scholars and courses in Jewish history and religious studies.

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The Magnes board purchased the Allston Way building - a disused printing plant - in 1997, wisely anticipating the institution's eventual relocation and expansion, if not on the present terms.

The merger agreement with UC Berkeley followed lengthy efforts that ultimately failed to marry the Magnes with the San Francisco institution now known as the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Sleek, transparent new space
Founded in 1961, the Judah L. Magnes Museum occupied an 8,600-square-foot house on Russell Street in Berkeley for years. The location and building were inviting, if not convenient, to visitors but far from adequate to store or display properly even a fraction of the museum's collection - almost 15,000 items of Judaica, artworks, and other artifacts and documents of Jewish life in the West. The house was sold for about $2 million, the proceeds going to ease the Magnes' move and conversion of the Allston Way building to museum use by Pfau Long Architects of San Francisco. The interior of the new site, its public spaces all on the ground floor, looks sleek and transparent. Custom case work by Pacassa Studios of Oakland displays a selection of objects representing the scope of the Magnes' interests, from religious antiquities and documents to modern painting and sculpture of Jewish inspiration. These slowly rotating displays, called Case Studies, will allow museum staff and academic collaborators to excavate its holdings in fresh ways. A long glass wall both permits the secure display of artifacts and gives a view of collection storage, making the workings of the institution seem accessible as never before. A sizable space that serves as an auditorium, which the old Magnes never had, can accommodate public and university-related events, and promises a growth in the Magnes' public programs. Two temporary exhibitions represent the Magnes' continuing involvement with living artists through commissions and collaborations with other facets of the university.

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Berkeley resident and San Jose State University faculty member Gale Antokal presents a continually running short digital film titled "The Spill" (2012). In black-and-white, in fixed close-up, it shows milk pouring down a stone staircase, seeming to almost dissolve it. In a large back gallery, suitable for many exhibition purposes, Jerusalem native Emmanuel Witzthum presents a two-channel video projection of arresting visual and sonic richness. He has digitally superimposed images of the ordinary life and landscape of Jerusalem to produce a kinetic city portrait aesthetically involving even to someone who has never visited the city. A soundtrack composed of recordings made on-site provides the piece with a sort of non-melodic musical score. As a fellow at the UC Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities, Witzthum plans to give parallel visual and sonic treatment to the city of Berkeley, for presentation at the Magnes in the spring. Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life: 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. (510) 6432526. www.magnes.org. E-mail Kenneth Baker at kennethbaker@sfchronicle.com.

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Most Popular Comments LowerCaseName 2:30 PM on January 23, 2012 The old museum had a great collection. Cannot wait to visit the new one.
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