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BlogBacks on the Jewish Museum’s Directorship (and my own rethinking)

The Jewish Museum, New York

In my Wednesday post taking issue with the naming of Claudia Gould to the directorship of
the Jewish Museum, I observed: “Reasonable people can disagree with me.”

Now they have. (Even I am starting to disagree with me.)

The responses sent by readers (some labeled, “Not for Publication”) have, in fact, been so reasonable that they have made me rethink my rush to judgment. My legalistic bent had led me to over-emphasize a technicality of my religion that makes one’s “Jewishness” (or lack thereof) dependent upon matrilineal descent. (In announcing Gould’s appointment, the NY Times had reported that her mother was not Jewish.)

I still do think that it’s relevant, though, to examine whether the director’s professional and/or personal background include a deep knowledge of and personal affinity for Jewish culture, history and identity—the focus of the institution. This personal identification has been the general rule (with some exceptions) for directors of “identity museums,” whether ethnic (i.e., Latino, African American) or religious. Nothing in the Jewish Museum’s press release (or in the amplification, published here on Wednesday, that the museum sent in response to my queries) suggests that Gould has the deep knowledge or personal affinity that might be expected in someone assuming the Jewish Museum’s top spot.

Still, upon reflection, I think that while it was legitimate for me to raise some questions, I came down too hard on this. There is much about Gould that we have yet to learn. A more appropriate stance would have been “wait-and-see,” rather than “what-were-they-thinking.”

Below are comments from two readers who wondered what CultureGrrl was thinking:

Alan Wallach
, professor of art and art history and professor of American Studies, College of William and Mary, writes:

I think you’re being too tribal about this. Ms Gould deserves a break. Let’s see how she handles the job. I would add that I don’t believe in a Jewish “essence”—or in essence as a philosophical category or, for that matter, as a way to describe identity.

[I had quoted the Jewish Museum’s own description of its permanent-collection installation as examining “the essence of Jewish identity,” and opined that the director should possess that “essence.”]

David Ross, chair, MFA: Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts and former director of the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, writes:

I can’t believe you would actually raise the fully bogus issue of whether or not Claudia is Jewish enough (or Jewish at all). I think you are completely wrong in even raising this issue—particularly if you actually believe it to be of paramount importance.

What matters are several other aspects of Claudia Gould’s qualifications, which I assume the museum trustees seriously considered. First of all, is she interested in Jewish history and culture, as well as its intersection with other world cultures (both ethnic and faith-based)? Second, does she understand the ways in which a museum like the a Jewish Museum serves (to paraphrase Homi K. Bhabha) as site for the contest of values and ideas? The kind of programming that should flow from these two questions will be the proof of this.

And third, is she aware of the ways in which museums continue to be changed by the digital revolution, including the ways in which a wide range of audiences and constituencies—located locally, regionally, and internationally—can (and must) be served. That she seems more than aware of how the museum must learn to function within this new era is encouraging.

I am a long-time fan of the Jewish Museum, and have known and supported Joan Rosenbaum [its retiring director] since she first came to the museum decades ago. I watched in awe as she managed the expansion of the museum, and the rebuilding of its board of trustees and support from various patron bases. I’ve enjoyed her exhibitions—the obvious Modernist blockbusters, and especially those provocative exhibitions that questioned notions of Jewish-American identity. I am not someone who waited impatiently for Joan to retire.

Rather, I am someone who believes that the time is now right for a return to the kind of programming that (in the late ’60s and early ’70s) made the Jewish Museum a place where some of the most far-reaching and radical curatorial work was being undertaken—albeit for a world not yet ready to fully engage it. In 2011, the sophistication level of NYC museumgoers is far higher and it is more important than ever for the non-Jewish audience to understand the ways in which Jewish culture can be inclusive and open to the new.

I firmly believe that Claudia Gould will carefully guide the museum to a new position within the greater NYC museum community. Her own religious beliefs and practices could not be less relevant—so long as she demonstrates understanding and respect for the traditions that are at the core of the museum (and of Jewish life in America). By this I mean openness, tolerance, and a profound engagement with ideas—even (or perhaps especially) those ideas that challenge conventional orthodoxies.

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