November 20, 2019

L.A. Museums: Saved by the Jews

A small museum opened its doors in Pasadena last month and naturally enough made local headlines. The stories touched on the museum’s focus — California art, architecture and design from 1850 to the present day; and on the personal angle, namely that the $5 million Pasadena Museum of California Art is being underwritten by a couple of local art collectors, Robert and Arlene Oltman. They live on the top floor of a new three-story building, with the second-floor set aside for art galleries, a bookstore and a community room. It is in effect a private museum — they are a self-made couple who began collecting art 30 years ago — open to the public and underwritten by the Oltmans. They have agreed to pay the operating expenses of $500,000 a year for the next five years. What few reporters mentioned is that the Oltmans are Jewish. But then, why should they?

The art scene in Los Angeles, like its popular culture counterpart of film and television, is known by insiders as having a very significant Jewish presence. Drift through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and it is difficult to avoid noticing the prevalence of Jewish names. It is well-known that the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a smaller modern art museum that opened its doors in 1983, owes its existence largely to the efforts of the late Marcia Weisman — she had been the guiding force behind the idea, the fundraising, and the support of local artists — and its recent renovation to a $5 million contribution from David Geffen of Dreamworks.

When we add the Armand Hammer Museum, (opened in 1990 and now run by UCLA,) and the Norton Simon Museum (1974), and the Getty Center’s Jewish Presidents (past and present) we might conclude that without the involvement of L.A.’s Jewish population, art in the city would be greatly diminished if not invisible.

On one level, of course, none of this is new. Jews have historically been collectors, producers and consumers of art. Culture matters. But there is a fork in the road here. The cultural life of the city, not just its Jewish community, is being shaped by this new — Jewish — cultural elite. One result is that it blurs the line of living apart, of being an outsider in gentile America. After all, these are neither Jewish museums, nor Jewish art that are being championed.

Monetarily this means that Jewish philanthropy has expanded far beyond Jewish causes. Many of the museum benefactors, to be sure, are easily recognizable as major figures in the Jewish communal world, with generous contributions to organizations such as the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League and/or The Jewish Federation. But, as several community fundraisers have noted, instead of all the disposable income, only part of it is now slotted for Jewish causes. And, of course, some of the art patrons have been more single-minded, ignoring Jewish institutions entirely. It is one of the prices of integration — of some Jews becoming part and parcel of American society, with only frayed or limited connections to Jewish communal life.

Obviously not all Jews share this view. Some point to the role culture plays in this multicultural city. LACMA’s curators apparently have adopted the idea of bringing L.A.’s diverse ethnic communities to the museum by organizing shows that attempt to link art with the city’s populace, A retrospective of Mexican artist Diego Rivera was one case in point as was a show concentrated on the Harlem Renaissance. Friday evenings, the museum draws a diverse crowd to its free open-air jazz concerts, followed on Sunday by free concerts of classical music.

It is a policy that the Getty — elitist to the core in the past — has also attempted to emulate since its new palatial Getty Center, designed by architect Richard Meier, opened its doors four and a half years ago.

This inclusive approach, reaching out to the city’s diverse population, has been echoed and made central to the life of L.A.’s two Jewish museums: Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. The Wiesenthal’s museum, at its core, carries an instructional mandate: Educate the public about the Holocaust in particular, and prejudice and discrimination in general. With that in mind, it plays host to school children nearly every day of the school year, and runs training programs for teachers and police. Its goal: to focus on the human cost of persecution. It is ironic, perhaps, that Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s director, is an Orthodox rabbi who relies on national contributions from Jews of all denominations as well as from non-Jews. Hier is fond of explaining that the museum would not exist if it depended on Orthodox Jewry for its funds. Not surprisingly 80 percent of the 350,000 visitors who pass through its doors are not Jewish.

The Skirball Cultural Center sees itself as an institution "rooted in American and Jewish values," according to Dr. Uri D. Herscher, its founding president and CEO. Herscher views his center as "a Jewish institution in an American context."

In effect, it introduces Jewish values and art to the entire city, while opening the world of America, and the immigrant component within American society to L.A.’s Jewish population. The Skirball brings poets and playwrights and artist to the center who are part of the American fabric, the makers of its culture. Some are Jewish; many are not. The Skirball’s just completed major show was the traveling "Faces of Ground Zero: A Photographic tribute to America’s heroes in the aftermath of Sept. 11" — a central, tragic moment in contemporary America.

This approach to art, high and low, is perhaps the next logical step in the narrative of America’s Jews. By playing a central role today in the shaping of our national culture, Jews have moved inside the society, and in the process, have helped America become partly Jewish. It is a dramatic step towards inclusion. One unintended consequence of that story (which is well underway) may be that only as some Jews become thoroughly American, can they find their way forward to a Jewish identity.