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September 19, 2011 8:11 pm

Rosenbaum Completes 30 Year Jewish Museum Reign

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Joan Rosenbaum with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Joan Rosenbaum has left the Museum.

After an unprecedented three decade long administration, the respected and much beloved Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of the Jewish Museum in New York has retired. She leaves behind a significantly different institution than the one she came to in 1981. During her tenure, the Museum and its board built an endowment of over 92 million dollars and increased its annual operating budget by a factor of 15. During her administration a major rebuilding of the museum was completed.

Morris Offit, former Chairman of the Museum’s Board and Master of Ceremonies for the evening, designated 1981, the date of her arrival, as “the year of Joan Rosenbaum.” He thanked her for “three decades of extraordinary leadership,” and noted that during her tenure, the museum’s building at 92nd and Fifth Avenue had a massive reconstruction, expanded its world renowned collection to over 26,000 pieces, and, as noted, increased its endowment.

Offit noted the commencement of Rosenbaum’s term coincided with the 1981 fundraising campaign. The Board turned to one of its members for a “challenge grant,” then, given on condition of anonymity. His gift encouraged donations sufficient to reach the sixty million dollar goal. The former Board member and now Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said Rosenbaum’s leadership “had fueled the light of the Museum,” and made it a “vital and admired institution of the 21st century.”  He recalled that The Jewish Museum was a special love of his late mother’s, saying participation in the Museum’s efforts presented an opportunity to prove “you can make a difference….that working with others can extend a great reach.”

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Among the programs Rosenbaum initiated are “broad based educational programs for families, school groups and adults, and a program bringing major exhibitions to cities across America and Europe.  She will continue her career working with the DeVos Institute of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and as a consultant in the art world.

Speaking with the Algemeiner, Rosenbaum said that, after thirty years, she was “sad, but was leaving on top.” Asked to comment about the incoming director, she characterized Claudia Gould as “different, but all to the plus…She is a talented, energetic…grew up in a Jewish community, and will represent everything that is Jewish.”  Rosenbaum remarked that Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the Museum’s board “had approved” Gould’s appointment.

Claudia Gould has excellent curatorial and museum administration credentials. Certainly her success at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art is to be acknowledged. In fact, the base of her career has been in contemporary art.  Her resume does not appear to include any concentration, specific interest or participation in Jewish art or culture. Gould is the child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father and does not identify as Jewish.  Anne Scher, Director of Communications for the Jewish Museum, has said that “with her interfaith background, Claudia Gould will have a particularly keen sense of the Museum’s imperative for inclusiveness.”

Does this “imperative for inclusiveness” indicate a shift away from the philosophic position developed during the three decade Rosenbaum administration? In the Museum’s on line statement describing its “permanent” exhibit “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” a project developed by the now retired director, the mission is said to be to present “the Jewish experience…over 4000 years, and ask two vital questions: How has Judaism been able to thrive for thousands of years across the globe…What constitutes the essence of Jewish identity?”  The description continues, speaking of Jewish traditions and the ability of Jews “to sustain their identity.”

When the Jewish Theological Seminary was presented with a collection of 26 religious articles as the seed of its initial collection, the items represented continuity with the long history of Jewish culture.

Would a Jewish museum not benefit from at least a Pinteleh Yid – a Nitzotz HaYehudi – a Jewish spark – as part of its director’s persona? Communications Director Scher has said that Gould is “not a religious person.” Is there an obligation for a Jewish museum to consider more than the intellectual absolutes and remember its heritage?

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