SAN FRANCISCO — The co-chairs of the board of the Magnes Museum, formed by last year’s merger of two Bay Area Jewish museums, unexpectedly resigned on Monday, shocking Jewish communal leaders and provoking the 65 remaining board members to explore the option of separating the two institutions.
Warren Hellman and Daniel Offit, two prominent San Francisco businessmen who accepted leadership of the contentious merger three months ago, cited “serious financial issues, extreme personal unpleasantness and time commitments” in announcing their resignations. “The personal cost of leading this institution is a chore we are unwilling to continue,” they said in a statement. They called for the dissolution of the merger between the two museums, the Jewish Museum San Francisco and the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, which, forced by fundraising pressures to consolidate, have yet to resolve their deep disagreements over the merged entity’s direction.
In an emergency session of the Magnes executive committee on Tuesday, the remaining four members voted unanimously to explore the option of dissolving the merger, according to member Frances Dinkelspiel, who comes from an esteemed Bay Area Jewish family. “We felt that Warren and Danny were so dynamic and well-respected that if they couldn’t make the merger work, we wouldn’t be able to find anyone who could. The board needs to face that it may be too hard to marry these two cultures,” Dinkelspiel said. The entire board will meet on January 24 to begin discussion of the technical and legal considerations for an “amiable divorce” and agree on a future direction.
The problems of the merged Magnes have been the subject of a public furor since October, with partisans for the two founding institutions trading charges over the merged museum’s unclear mission and alleged mismanagement. Supporters of the 40-year-old Judah L. Magnes Museum, which absorbed the greater number of staff lay-offs and program freezes in the past year, were concerned that it was receiving short shrift as the institution pursued the San Francisco museum’s ambitious plans to develop a $100 million building in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena arts district. On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors authorized plans by the city’s Redevelopment Agency to issue $43.1 million in bonds for the site where the museum will be built.
Recent developments augured well for the former Judah L. Magnes Museum should it go off on its own again. Last week, board members paid off the mortgage on its new site in Berkeley and most of a loan. In addition, plans to partner with a major institution in the building venture are expected to significantly cut costs for the Berkeley museum. Hellman and Offit have offered to pay off the final $183,000 debt on the new Berkeley site.
Hellman and Offit also expressed interest in joining the San Francisco museum board should the two institutions part ways.