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Contemporary Jewish Museum welcomes back in-person guests

It’s been over a year since Vic and Linda Milhoan were in a museum. This week, they were some of the first visitors to step foot in the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco since the pandemic forced it to close last year.

“It’s such an opportunity,” said Linda Milhoan, who’s been a member of the CJM for 10 years. “We’ve spent so much time online in the last year. We’re thrilled to be here in person right now.”

The CJM is now officially open to the public. After closing its doors last March, reopening in October, and then closing again in November due to reintroduced pandemic restrictions, the museum is finally able to welcome the Bay Area community back to see art in person that has only been available virtually for most of the year.

On Thursday, museum members who were able to visit two days prior to the museum’s official reopening, gathered at the front door of the museum, eagerly awaiting a reunion with the place they’d been missing since the pandemic began. As they entered, signs instructed them to keep their masks on and stay six feet from anyone not in their party.

Vic and Linda Milhoan explore “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style.” Image by Sarah Brown

CJM executive director Kerry King and Board Chair Joyce Linker stood at the museum’s entrance, excitedly greeting guests as they arrived.

“It’s so fulfilling being able to come here in person,” Linker said. “And now people finally can see art in a safe space that isn’t in front of their computer.”

CJM's COO and Interim Executive Director, Kerry King, and Board Chair, Joyce Linker stand outside The CJM's front entrance on opening day.

CJM’s COO and Interim Executive Director, Kerry King, and Board Chair, Joyce Linker stand outside The CJM’s front entrance on opening day. Image by Sarah Brown

To visitors’ delights, exhibitions that were in place before the museum closed like “Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years,” “Lamp of the Covenant: Dave Lane,” and “Threads of Jewish Life: Ritual and Other Textiles from the San Francisco Bay Area,” remained in place.

But it was “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” that received the most attention. The exhibition explores the life of the Jewish immigrant merchant, Levi Strauss, the invention of the blue jean and the pivotal role Levi Strauss & Co. played in influencing American West mythology and style since the nineteenth century. From a leather jacket worn by Albert Einstein to the white Sta-Prest Levi’s® Mark Hamill wore as Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”, the exhibition is the largest public display of the company’s archival materials ever assembled.

Susan Goldie, a Bay Area fashion designer who came to see the Strauss exhibition in particular, took her time absorbing each display in the expansive room.

“I have chills just being here,” she said, looking back toward the sewing machine she’d been admiring. “Even though we’ve all been in this virtual Zoom environment that can be helpful and rich in its own way, it’s not the same as seeing artifacts like this in person. I’m just grateful.”

Susan Goldie looks at a Singer sewing machine in the “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style” exhibition. Image by Sarah Brown

The museum’s reopening doesn’t come without limitations. Measures like reduced capacity and timed entry are in place, and guided group tours will remain online until further notice.

However, once visitors are inside, they can be sure their health and safety are the museum staff’s top priority. Hand sanitizing stations can be found throughout the museum, high-touch surfaces are regularly cleaned and an upgraded air filtration system has been installed since last fall. All visitors and staff, even those who received the COVID-19 vaccine, are required to wear face coverings.

“Of course there are challenges,” King said. “But having in-person interaction, even behind a mask, is very rewarding.”

CJM staff waits to welcome museum visitors.

CJM staff waits to welcome museum visitors. Image by Sarah Brown

As museum-goers adjust to being back on the premises, the CJM is looking forward to bringing more content and programming to the community, both online and in person.

Visitors will soon be able to view parts two and three of the museum’s newest exhibition, “GOLEM: A Call to Action.” The three-part multimedia work by Los Angeles-based artist Julie Weitz uses photography, film and performance to address climate change, the ecological disaster of the California wildfires and the resurgence of antisemitism and white supremacy in America.

“My Golem as a Wildland Firefighter” and “A Prayer for Burnt Forests” will open on the CJM’s website on April 22 and June 21, and the full exhibition will open in person at the museum on June 24 and be free to the public.

My Golem as a Wildland Firefighter (PSA), film still , 2020

My Golem as a Wildland Firefighter (PSA), film still, 2020 Courtesy of The Contemporary Jewish Museum

The museum has also announced a new exhibition, “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” scheduled to open later this year.

While the museum will continue to explore new ways to bring art to those who can’t make it in person, King said she sees the bright light at the end of the tunnel.

“The powerful touch of being surrounded by history, visuals, creativity, and stories about the Jewish community and experience will be here again. It’s a touch that doesn’t quite come through a screen.”

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