The Jewish Museum in New York City is widely admired for its exhibitions and educational programs that inspire people of all backgrounds; it is the preeminent United States institution of its kind exploring 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture.
The Jewish Museum was established on January 20, 1904, when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 objects to The Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the core of a museum collection. The museum was the first institution of its kind in the United States and one of the very few in the world when it was established. The incorporation of several major collections – the H. Ephraim and Mordecai Benguiat Collection of objects from Smyrna, Turkey in 1924; the Danzig (then Germany and now Gdansk, Poland) Jewish Community Collection in 1939; the Benjamin and Rose Mintz Collection from Warsaw, Poland, in 1947; and ceremonial objects, looted by the Nazis and recovered by the United States Military Government in Germany, presented to the museum by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in 1952 – transformed the original holdings into a significant museum collection. A collection of numismatics was established through gifts of Samuel J. Friedenberg and his son, Daniel, for over 50 years beginning in 1948. Dr. Harry G. Friedman was a major donor, from 1941 until his death in 1965, who purchased for the museum over several thousand works in all media from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The collection was installed in the new Jacob H. Schiff Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary as The Museum of Jewish Ceremonial Objects in 1931. In 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg gave the seminary her family residence at 1109 Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street to house the Museum. The Jewish Museum opened at its current location in the former Warburg mansion in 1947.
This led to a new emphasis on temporary exhibitions of objects of various media. A fine arts collection was developed that encompassed not only paintings and sculpture, but also prints, photographs, and drawings. In 1956, the Tobe Pascher Workshop was established for the creation of Jewish ceremonial art in a modern style. In the late 1960s, The Jewish Museum began collecting and exhibiting archaeological artifacts from Israel and the ancient Jewish Diaspora. There was an added impetus in the 1980s to collect the works of Israeli artists and contemporary art by American artists, spurred by research related to several exhibitions. Established in 1981, the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting has since become the largest and most comprehensive body of television and radio programs on 20th-century Jewish culture in the United States. In the late 1990s, collecting contemporary ceremonial art and photography received greater emphasis.
The museum reopened in dramatically expanded and renovated quarters at the Fifth Avenue mansion in 1993. In 2005 The Jewish Museum maintained an important collection of 25,000 objects – paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, archeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, decorative arts, and broadcast media.
Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, originally mounted in 1993 and reinstalled in two stages in 2000 and 2003, explores the dynamic interaction between continuity and change within Jewish culture and history that was important for Jewish survival over 4,000 years. Highlights include paintings by such artists as Max *Weber, Moritz Daniel *Oppenheim, Isidor *Kaufmann, Morris *Louis, Ken Aptekar, and Deborah Kass; prints by Ben *Shahn and El *Lissitzky; and sculptures by Chana *Orloff and Hannah Wilke. Displays of Torah ornaments and Hanukkah lamps allow the viewer to compare artistic styles from different parts of the world. Leonard Baskin's 1977 sculpture, The Altar (based on the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac), considered the artist's greatest carving, is on view as is George *Segal's 1982 work, The Holocaust. Featured television excerpts range from David Ben-Gurion declaring the independence of the State of Israel in 1948 to Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama in 1965 to Adam *Sandler singing part of The Hanukkah Song.
The Jewish Museum has been host to some groundbreaking temporary exhibitions. Among them were Artists of the New York School: Second Generation (1957), featuring works by 23 emerging artists, including Helen *Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and George Segal; Primary Structures (1966), the landmark exhibition that defined the Minimalist movement; Lower East Side: Portal to American Life (1966); Masada: Struggle for Freedom (1967); Software (1970), a pioneering exhibition about information technology and interactive art; The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections (1984) which brought to the United States treasures from the State Jewish Museum in Prague, the bulk of which had been confiscated from the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis for a proposed museum to an extinct race; Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy (1986); The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice (1987), an acclaimed exhibition integrating the visual arts and social history; Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities (1996), which explored how ethnic consciousness had a profound effect on many Jewish artists; Marc Chagall: 1907–1917 (1996); An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine (1998); New York: Capital of Photography (2002); Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider (2003); Modigliani: Beyond the Myth (2004); The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons (2005); and Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama (2005).
[Jewish Museum Staff (2nd ed.)]