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Identity Crisis: Claudia Gould Gets Jewish Museum’s Top Spot

Claudia Gould, newly named director of the Jewish Museum, New York

[NOTE: I’ve somewhat rethought my position on this, here.]

Back in 1996, the Jewish Museum mounted an exhibition provocatively titled, “Too Jewish?”

That New York museum has now named a new director, whom I would provocatively describe as, “Not Too Jewish.”

The last paragraph of Kate Taylor‘s NY Times article (online last night), which pre-announced (before the rest of us got the press release) the naming of Claudia Gould to become the Jewish Museum’s new director, gave me pause:

Ms. Gould grew up in an interfaith home, with a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother [emphasis added]. She said she was attracted to the challenge of having to decide what it means “to be a Jewish museum today,” a complex question for which she has no definite answer yet. Ask her again in a year, she said, “and maybe I’ll be able to answer it.”

For Jews (unless they are converted Jews), religious identity is determined by matrilineal descent. So I posed the obvious questions to the Jewish Museum:

—Is Gould Jewish?

—If not, does she identify as Jewish (as do some who are children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers)?

—If neither, why is it felt that her religious identity isn’t an important issue?

Here’s the full response that I received from Anne Scher, the Jewish Museum’s director of communications:

Claudia Gould is not a religious person. She was raised in an interfaith family, exposed to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions. She identifies very strongly with Jewish and Italian cultures.

The Jewish Museum is an art and culture museum [emphasis added] with great strengths and significant ambitions—an art museum presenting Jewish culture for people of all backgrounds.

To achieve those ambitions, our top priority is to have a director who has outstanding credentials as a top art museum administrator with a demonstrated expertise in guiding staff and program, as well as a special talent for understanding how best to reach and inspire the most inclusive audience possible, crossing backgrounds, philosophies, and generations.

With her interfaith background, Claudia Gould will have a particularly keen sense of the Museum’s imperative for inclusiveness.

Notwithstanding her “identif[ying] very strongly with Jewish and Italian cultures,” Gould’s professional background, as detailed in the museum’s own press release, focuses exclusively on contemporary art, containing no suggestion of any prior professional interest in Jewish culture: For the last 13 years, Gould has been director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Before that, she directed Artists Space, New York.

The Jewish Museum has had a distinguished history as a venue for the cutting edge, particularly under the 1960s directorships of Alan Solomon, Sam Hunter and Karl Katz. This feels like a return to that earlier focus.

The current (retiring) director, Joan Rosenbaum (no relation to CultureGrrl), while maintaining a strong schedule of special exhibitions (including some contemporary shows), also oversaw a 1993 expansion and renovation that inaugurated the absorbing, informative two-floor permanent exhibition, Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, which brought the museum’s important collection of Judaica to the fore. Gould told Taylor that she hopes to change that installation several times a year, with occasional interventions by contemporary artists.

The uncomfortable question remains: Should the director of the Jewish Museum be Jewish?

Reasonable people can disagree with me (and the trustees of the Jewish Museum already have). But my own answer to my question is based on the fact that the Jewish Museum has traditionally been devoted not only to Jewish art and culture, but also to important issues and questions regarding Jewish history and identity. Calling it (as Scher now does) “an art and culture museum” feels to me like a highly problematic mission shift.

Don’t just take it from me. Here’s the museum’s own online description of the mission of its above-linked “Culture and Continuity” permanent (for now) installation:

It examines the Jewish experience as it has evolved from antiquity to the present, over 4,000 years, and asks two vital questions: How has Judaism been able to thrive for thousands of years across the globe, often in difficult and even tragic circumstances? What constitutes the essence of Jewish identity [emphasis added]?

The museum’s director, in my opinion, should share that “essence of Jewish identity.” Among other things, that means being Jewish.

an ArtsJournal blog