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March 18, 2013 1:37 am
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The 2013 Council of American Jewish Museums Conference

avatar by Elke Reva Sudin

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Last week in lower Manhattan, the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) hosted their annual conference, bringing together Jewish museum professionals from across the Americas and from around the world. I followed the conference, picking up on reoccurring themes that effect how contemporary Jewish art is and will be explored in institutional settings. In this and subsequent articles, I am presenting some findings, as well as dialogue from both sides of some dividing issues.

CAJM caters to all kinds of Jewish art museums, including those in historic synagogues, elder residencies, educational institutions, Holocaust memorials, and large facilities that exhibit multi-media exhibitions catered to broad audiences with diverse subject matter.

The central theme of the CAJM Conference this year was The City as Muse/um, conveying that urban places can be both sites for inspiration and exhibition.

Presenting at the opening plenary were David Karnofsky from the New York City Department of City Planning, along with Charles Renfro from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Manon Slome from No Longer Empty, which creates site specific installations in empty storefronts around New York City.

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Examples were given of using rezoning to create environments that combine gallery spaces with private and public venues to help foster a flow to the way people engage with art. These examples are were not specific to Jewish institutions, but rather helped bring a new awareness to the innovations in arts engagement that have happened in New York City through redesigning where people live, do business, and unwind. They have collectively established a hub for creative experiences within an already developed art scene.

In the overarching spirit of the conference’s theme “The City as Muse”- Jewish museums in urban areas, especially those set in historic synagogues, can take inspiration from the renewed interest in urbanized living and recreation and follow a model similar to No Longer Empty. These sites were encouraged to bring the synagogue back to its traditional place as somewhere a community would hold exciting social functions, with a updated focus on the interests of the young adults who are looking to engage locally. With that, bring a high level of curatorial direction to accessible spaces and think outside the box. A small but satisfied initial crowd will grow larger with subsequent events, given the quality of the experience remains.

For other institutions set in areas away from major creative activity, there was encouragement to take advantage of where people are already engaging. New organizations like the Nu Arts Initiative were calling on institutions to be flexible about engaging people outside of their walls. The underlying reasoning is that when you rethink where you are engaging people, it dictates the context for that engagement. This seems to be a difficult hump for brick and mortar institutions to get over, since they expect audiences to come to them.

New York City is its own animal when it comes to the general feeling towards Jews, art, and where they combine. Throughout the conference there were major discussions regarding how institutions engage their audience, how they can innovate their engagement through collaboration, and a debate over the way Jewish content is presented; whether the subject matter should be broadened for inclusivity vs. the perceived exclusivity that religion represents. My following articles will delve deeper into this subject-matter.

*Ideas presented in this article are taken from presenters, participants, and official CAJMcon tweets.

For more of my coverage of the CAJM conference, visit here.

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