How Jewish is it?

Behind the Scenes at the Jewish Museum in New York

The Jewish Museum occupies a 1908 French Renaissance chateau on Fifth Avenue. Originally the home of the banker Felix Warburg, in 1944 the mansion was given to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America by his widow, Frieda Schiff Warburg, and opened as a museum in 1947, housing a significant collection of Judaica, regularly supplemented by gifts from friends of the Seminary. The most generous was Harry G. Friedman, an investment banker and philanthropist who systematically scoured the rich post-World War II market for items of Jewish interest. By the time he died he had given the museum more than 6,000 objects. The Museum’s first curator (and subsequently director), Stephen Kayser, had engaged a fellow German-Jewish refugee, Guido Schoenberger), and with the skimpiest of resources the pair started to catalogue and display the growing collections, publishing an important book on Jewish ceremonial art.


Kayser was also clearly guided by the model established by Karl Schwarz, who had been the first director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in January 1933 – and was closed after Kristallnacht in 1938.  (Following his emigration to Palestine, Schwarz served as founding director of the Tel Aviv Museum.) Schwartz had been especially focused on bringing attention to the creativity of contemporary Jewish artists. During Kayser’s early years he mounted exhibitions of significant artists known to the “Jewish art” world, but not necessarily considered “mainstream” by the art world in general: e.g. Ben-Zion, Jankel Adler, Saul Raskin, Elbert Weinberg, Maurycy Gottlieb, Chaim Gross, and Arthur Szyk. There were also occasional exhibitions of American Jewish artists with wider reputations: Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, Adolph Gottlieb. A momentary, even radical, breakthrough came in 1957, to commemorate the museum’s tenth anniversary, when Kayser enlisted the young Leo Steinberg to develop Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, featuring works by 23 “emerging” artists, not necessarily Jewish, including Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and George Segal. That event signalled an opportunity that would soon turn into a tumultuous and exciting period in the Jewish Museum’s history.

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