For years Jewish art museums have looked upon traditional Judaica with something approaching disdain. The rising profile of venues like The Jewish Museum and the San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s have premised their ascension on their embrace of modern and contemporary fine art–paintings by Rothko; sculpture by Nevelson–and their simultaneous downgrading of what used to be consider the only Jewish art–elaborately decorated Torah scrolls and pulchritudinous Kiddush cups; or in a word, Judaica.
That strategy seems to be working fine. But if you think Judaica has died a slow death, think again. It’s having a comeback in major secular museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Boston’s glitzy new Museum of Fine Art. According to ARTNews editor Robin Cembalest, in an essay today on Tablet, secular museums have picked up where Jewish museums have left off. The benefits for secular museums are potentially great: chief among them, the ability to enrich our understanding of Western art, adding context and variety to collections otherwise dominated by Christian culture.
But the reality is that there are less noble forces at work: secular museums are taking Judaica because they have no other choice. Increasingly they’re being given multimillion dollar Judaica gifts by Jewish donors that require that they either take whatever the donor gives, or put up a show featuring. In return, the thinking goes, these donors will be more willing to give unrestricted donations in the future. That in large part seems to be the force behind the Met’s impressive exhibit of the Washington Haggadah, which is part of a three-year plan to exhibit medieval Hebrew manuscripts, made possible at the behest of the David Berg Foundation.
A similar thing happened at Boston’s MFA, as Cembalest reports: "At the MFA in Boston, Marietta Cambareri, curator of decorative arts and sculpture, has added ‘Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica’ to her title. When we spoke, she was on her way to Phillips’ congregation, Temple Israel, to learn more about the mysterious donor, part of a crash course to bring herself up to speed on Jewish art, religion, scholarship, and collectors."
So what should we make of all this? Should Jews revel in the fact that, at long last, their ancient artistry is finally sitting alongside Rembrants and Vermeers? Or will the fact that these Jewish objects are basically buying their way into our great art museums dimish their luster? It’s tempting to side with the latter sentiment, but then we’d be denying a central fact about all museum collections: the canon of Western art, particulary from the early-modern period on, is less driven by academic considerations of pure merit than the largesse of donors. Half if not more of the stuff we see at the Met and elsewhere is there not because erudite curators and critics said they must be, but because wealthy benefactors demanded it so.
Of course, the process of canonization is not so simple, and wealthy patrons’ tastes are often formed in large part by what curators and critics tell them. In that sense, one only hopes that the Judaica scholars and curators giving the Jewish donors their advice know what they’re doing. And, more important, donors listen. But even if Judaica gains a more secure hold on secular museums, there is still much work to be done.
First is a renewed debate among leading Jewish museums to decide if Judaica should again have a more prominent place in their own halls. Of that there is no clear answer: perhaps it’s better to off-load that stuff to major museums to make room for the more secular art objects Jewish artists have been creating for at least the last century.
Equally important, there needs to be a more earnest attempt by secular museums to treat Jewish object with the same respect they do non-Jewish works. As Cembalest writes, that is by no means the case these days. When Jewish donors give expensive Judaica collections to museums, the objects are often put in the portfolio of curators who know nothing about Jewish culture. "The result of offers that perhaps couldn’t really be refused, Judaica departments at mainstream museums inevitably land in the portfolio of curators with little or no expertise in Jewish art or religion," she writes.
That raises the last issue, and one posed to donors: is the prestige of giving Judaica to a major museum like the Met worth the sacrifice, at least for now, of a lack of curatorial expertise? Or is that Kiddush cup better fit for the more modest Jewish museum, where curators know more than just Manischewitz?