Bay Area’s Museum Merger: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

By Shana Penn

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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SAN FRANCISCO — From the outset, few expected that last year’s merger of two Bay Area Jewish museums would go off without a hitch.

But following a second round of cost-reducing staff cuts by the combined institutions’ CEO and a flood of angry letters and comments in the local media, the merger of the venerable Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley with the upstart Jewish Museum San Francisco is beginning to sound like that old Ladies’ Home Journal feature: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Forced by fundraising pressures to consolidate their staffs and boards into one institution with two sites and a new name, the Magnes Museum, the institution has been hit by a struggling economy and criticism from community members with clashing visions. Partisans of the 40-year-old Judah L. Magnes Museum, home to a unique Western Jewish history archive and to the country’s third-largest Judaica collection, charge that its identity and integrity are being threatened by the merger with the arts-oriented Jewish Museum San Francisco. The Jewish Museum, meanwhile, has been forced to cut back on once-ambitious plans to raise $100 million to build and endow a Daniel Libeskind-designed showcase in the city’s Yerba Buena arts district.

The dispute boiled over in November after Connie Wolf, the director and CEO of the combined institutions who had already overseen a round of layoffs at the Berkeley site as well as program freezes, announced a second round of staff cuts. The cuts, this time at both sites, were part of a dramatic $2 million cut from a $3.7 million annual operating budget. Seventeen angry volunteer docents who immediately resigned in protest, saying the abrupt layoffs of the Berkeley site’s curatorial staff virtually closed down the facility.

The East Bay Council of Rabbis plans to meet next week to determine how to lend its “rabbinic expertise” to the current and former staff at the Berkeley site, according to Rabbi Raphael Asher of Temple B’nai Tikva in the Berkeley suburb of Walnut Creek. Members of the council were “hopping mad when we learned that the expert stewards of a precious collection were brusquely laid off,” Asher said. “The merger concept is unclear,” and council members “want to understand what is going on, because we don’t want our congregations to lose the museum’s rich resources.”

Responding to the criticism, the new board co-chairs have called for a re-examination of the merged institutions’ current efforts and future plans. “We must build a fiscally responsible and sustainable museum, and it’s going to take a lot of doing,” said Warren Hellman, who along with fellow investor Daniel Offit was appointed co-chairman of the Magnes Museum board in October. “The two museums needed another year to think things through. The structure was set up poorly. They overspent and lost pledges, and the economy went down. Plus, I always thought $100 million for the San Francisco site was over the top.” In mid-December, Hellman called for cutting that budget in half and for taking the time to rebuild community relations.

Wolf denies charges that the combined museum is favoring the Jewish Museum’s expansion plans over the Berkeley facility’s operations. “Mergers between equals are much harder to achieve than takeovers,” said Wolf, a former associate director of New York’s Whitney Museum of Art. “A merger needs 18 to 24 months to get off the ground. It also is hard to merge two institutions with different histories into a new future.”

The museums were on dramatically separate tracks when major funders encouraged them to consolidate. Though both were conducting capital and endowment campaigns, their missions and goals were actually quite different. The Judah L. Magnes Museum, while a breeding ground for innovative projects such as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, was nonetheless a traditional museum with a rich collection and widely known research facilities. In contrast, the Jewish Museum San Francisco, which has brought dynamic art exhibits to the Bay Area, never aimed to develop a collection or archive. Instead, it sought to think outside the box of traditional museum practices.

Tucked away in a residential neighborhood and removed from public transportation, the Judah L. Magnes Museum had outgrown its landscaped mansion by the mid-1990s. In 1997, the museum acquired more accessible real estate in downtown Berkeley’s cultural district. But the $46 million fundraising campaign to renovate the downtown property and establish an endowment stalled along the way.

At the start of the 1990s, the Jewish Museum San Francisco had also decided to expand its exhibition and educational programs from a 7,000-square-foot gallery in the city’s Jewish Federation building to a former power station in downtown San Francisco, near the Museum of Modern Art and other cultural centers. But what started out as a modest plan swelled into a $100-million, 70,000-square-foot, high-tech cultural center designed by Libeskind, renowned for his design of the Berlin Jewish Museum. After an initial $37 million was raised by its influential president, Rabbi Brian Lurie, a former head of the national United Jewish Appeal, funding came to a virtual standstill. Lurie resigned in 2000, saying he wanted to pursue other endeavors while remaining active as a volunteer fundraiser for the museum, and denying that he was discouraged by ideological clashes or the stalled funding. He was succeeded by Wolf.

Advocates of a merger of the two institutions, which became effective at the end of 2001, said it would streamline a combined $146 million budget and create innovative programming that would illuminate the Western Jewish experience and exhibit contemporary art.

While a nine-month search took place for a board chair, a four-person transition team and 20-person executive committee conducted board business. Some board members, including architect Felix Warburg, say that executive director Wolf did not cooperate, refusing to supply them with necessary data such as budgets and financial statements in timely fashion.

Wolf denies their charges. “I am frustrated that I am the only one blamed. I run this place with other people. The board is made up of 67 people,” she said.

Many of those commenting on the affair say it is a reflection San Francisco’s Jewish community. Part of Northern California’s social fabric for 150 years, Jews have experienced relatively less antisemitism than elsewhere, which may partly explain its characteristic discreetness and inadequate enthusiasm for the San Francisco museum concept. “We don’t need a ‘look-at-me’ museum,” Warburg said.

In a letter to the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, David Biale, a Jewish history professor at the University of California at Davis, wrote that the plans for the museum were rooted in the excesses of the 1990s. “Fill [the museum] with a few computers and multimedia displays and voila: It must be Jewish culture,” he wrote. “And, in the process, create a corporate management with a CEO who knows how to pull off a hostile takeover and summarily fire talented, longtime employees while continuing to pull in a six-figure salary. Not a pretty sight: the Enronization of Jewish life.”

In addition to Hellman, other board members have acknowledged their mistakes. Said Joyce Linker, a former president of the Jewish Museum San Francisco and head of the transition team: “We got overly enthusiastic about our ability to raise money. We had to get realistic.” Linker also welcomed the recent flood of criticism. “It’s heartening to see how much people care about the perpetuation of Judaism. Though we may have different routes to get there, everyone is concerned about how we pass on Judaism to the next generation.”

There is more than one way to spin a merger of cultural institutions, said Seymour Fromer, who co-founded the original Judah L. Magnes Museum with his wife Rebecca in 1962. “A respect for difference should be a guiding principle,” said Fromer, who retired in 1997 but continues to play an active role in the community. At this stage, Fromer thinks a “re-evaluation of the merger by an outsider museum expert is critical to understand how the partnership broke down and what can be remedied.”

Said Wolf: “We have learned and gained about who we want to be. We are stronger and clearer as a result. Whatever we do, we will be better for it.”

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