Chicago Museum Closes Contentious Exhibit

By Rebecca Spence

Published June 26, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
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In the wake of an outcry from Chicago-area Jews, the Windy City’s only Jewish museum closed down a high-profile maps exhibition that parsed the issue of Israel’s borders and boundaries.

MAPS: “Landslide,” by the artist Shirley Shor, was one of the art works in a controversial exhibit at the Spertus Museum in Chicago.
MAPS: “Landslide,” by the artist Shirley Shor, was one of the art works in a controversial exhibit at the Spertus Museum in Chicago.

The Spertus Museum, part of the 84-year-old Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, located on Chicago’s South Loop, announced June 20 that it was shutting down Imaginary Coordinates, which was originally scheduled to close in the fall. The institute’s board of trustees came to the decision after nearly two months of vocal opposition from constituents.

“When it came down to the bottom line, there were large numbers of people who were deeply pained by the exhibition,” said the institute’s president, Howard Sulkin. “Every exhibition should have some disagreement or it’s not good art, but this went beyond that.”

The controversy generated by the Chicago exhibit is raising questions about the broader role of Jewish museums around the country. As Jewish museums come of age and seek to define themselves in the contemporary landscape, they are taking more risks.

Indeed, according to trustee Marc Wilkow, who has served on the Spertus board for a decade, the museum — which only six months ago unveiled its new home, a $50 million architecturally cutting-edge building — is seeking to serve as a platform for discussion of timely issues.

“Our mission goes well beyond looking back at our heritage. We also want to talk about current issues, and serious issues, but we don’t want to offend people,” Wilkow said. “That line can be hard to identify, unfortunately, and sometimes you don’t know that you’ve crossed it until you’ve unwittingly crossed it.”

The recently closed exhibition opened on May 2 and featured the institute’s collection of historic “Holy Land” maps, which date back to the 16th century, as well contemporary Israeli and Palestinian women artists’ works that take up the question of regional borders.

One video piece that raised eyebrows featured a woman asking Israelis in Jerusalem for directions to Ramallah. The Israelis all give her different directions and think that Ramallah is far away, despite its close proximity to Jerusalem.

“The Israelis come across as unfeeling,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “It was seen by some as part of a pattern of sympathetic treatment of Palestinians and a less sympathetic treatment of Israelis.”

Indeed, many Jewish viewers complained that the multimedia show —which was part of a larger citywide celebration of maps — expressed an anti-Israel bias.

The timing of the provocative exhibition, which opened during the same month that Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, was also viewed as particularly jarring for Jewish museum goers who had anticipated that the show would celebrate the Jewish state rather than raise tough questions about its borders and its treatment of Palestinians.

In addition to a number of complaints coming in from individual Jews, Chicago’s Jewish federation also brought concerns to the museum’s leadership within days of the exhibition’s opening. The federation funds the institute to the tune of $700,000 a year, or about 10% of its overall $8 million operating budget.

The museum tried conciliatory measures, such as having docents give tours of the show to provide context for the work. When that failed to assuage critics, the 37-member board voted to shutter the exhibition. Over the course of a painstaking four-hour meeting to decide the show’s fate, some trustees worried that a decision to close the exhibit could be perceived as caving to pressure and that it might be seen as censorship. At least one board member, whom Sulkin declined to identify, threatened to resign if the exhibition closed.

In a Chicago Tribune article, Lynn Pollack of the Chicago chapter of the advocacy organization Jewish Voice for Peace said that she was disappointed by the decision. “These were mainstream artists who are able to display in their own country,” Pollack told the Tribune. “Why can’t this art be seen by American Jews? It’s really a shame.”

Jewish museums are straying from more traditional corners nationwide. San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, which was designed by Daniel Libeskind and opened to great fanfare in early June, has no collection, and instead of looking at Jewish history, it in part explores how Judaism in America has affected the broader culture.

Kotzin said that the Spertus board’s decision to close the exhibition reflected the fact that Spertus was first and foremost a Jewish communal institution. Still, some critics contend that Jewish museums should function no differently than other museums, even as they tackle thornier subject matter.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a museum expert who is currently leading the core exhibition development team at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, said that the role of museums is to spark discussion and engage with controversial issues. And Jewish museums, she said, are not exempt from that mandate.

“Museums should open a wider conversation, and there was an opportunity here to do just that,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “I don’t think museums should be about consensus. They should be a catalyst, and then they should be prepared to deal with the repercussions.”

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