Art Buzz January 23, 2012: Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life reopens



Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life reopens

Source: San Franciasco Chronicle, 1-23-12

Sarah Rice / Special to The Chronicle

Helen Bobell, of Oakland, shows her son Kai, 22 months, a 20th century Torah Ark pediment at the re-opening of Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., Sunday, January 22, 2012.

The institution long known as Judah L. Magnes Museum – custodian of pre-eminent collections representing the cultural history of Jews in the West – reopened Sunday as the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. The name change tells the story in shorthand.

The Magnes’ utilitarian but sparkling new quarters, a 25,000-square-foot building on Allston Way, just steps from BART’s Downtown Berkeley Station, houses its holdings of paintings, sculpture, textiles, graphic arts and ritual objects. Rare books, musical manuscripts and certain ephemera in its collection will reside elsewhere in UC Berkeley’s library system.

Under an agreement completed in 2010, the collections of the Magnes now belong to the university, which will preserve them for the wider community and as resources for scholars and courses in Jewish history and religious studies.

The Magnes board purchased the Allston Way building – a disused printing plant – in 1997, wisely anticipating the institution’s eventual relocation and expansion, if not on the present terms.

The merger agreement with UC Berkeley followed lengthy efforts that ultimately failed to marry the Magnes with the San Francisco institution now known as the Contemporary Jewish Museum….READ MORE

Art Buzz January 22, 2012: Exhibition Review A Jewish Museum Shifts Identity Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life



Exhibition Review A Jewish Museum Shifts Identity

Source: NYT, 1-22-12

Keegan Houser

Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life A Bay Area museum is part of the University of California, Berkeley. Above left, Italian Book of Esther scroll; right, German Torah binder, both 18th century. More Photos »

The story of how the Judah L. Magnes Museum — whose collection of Judaica is the third largest in the country — became the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, might not seem terribly ripe with complication or implication. In recent years small private museums facing financial strain have often sought refuge by negotiating new lives within universities. Perhaps on Sunday, when the Magnes opened its doors to the public in a building it had long owned near the campus here, it was simply inaugurating another phase of its 50-year life.


But along the way the Magnes has had more than its share of high drama, including a much anticipated union with another local Jewish museum in 2002, closely followed by a quickie divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences. Then, the Magnes had to watch as its onetime partner achieved local glory as the Contemporary Jewish Museum, opening in downtown San Francisco in 2008 in a new building designed by Daniel Libeskind. Meanwhile the Magnes struggled to map out a future for its rambling and exotic collection of some 15,000 objects and manuscripts, which since 1966 had been housed in a rambling and exotic mansion on a residential street. It attracted no more than 10,000 visitors annually and cost $2 million a year to maintain.

The story also has larger resonance. The fate of the Magnes has much to do with the evolution of the American identity museum, with its chronicles of ethnic liberation amid hardship. And it is also intimately connected to the political and cultural temperament of the Bay Area.

But to understand those issues it is best, first, to consider the collection itself. The Magnes was created in 1962 by Seymour Fromer, a Jewish educator, and Rebecca Camhi Fromer, his wife. Its artifacts were deliberately wide-ranging, including not just Jewish ritual objects but manuscripts, music and ephemera. As the collections grew they shed light on Jewish life in the pioneering era of the American West, on Jewish observance in communities in India or Tunisia, and on artworks that testified in some way to Jewish experience in the 20th century. Over the decades scholarly catalogs were published and exhibitions were mounted in the museum’s Berkeley mansion, examining, say, the culture of Kurdish Jews or the nature of Jewish cemeteries during the Gold Rush….READ MORE

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life is at 2121 Allston Way, near Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, Calif.;

A version of this review appeared in print on January 23, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Jewish Museum Shifts Identity.