Raleigh, N.C. — Outside its home state, the Judaica collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art has mostly flown under the radar.
But with the long-awaited opening this week of the museum’s new 127,000-square-foot home here in North Carolina’s capital city, that’s about to change.
Alongside a blockbuster permanent collection that includes 28 newly acquired Rodin statues, priceless Rembrandt etchings, and modern masterpieces by Robert Motherwell and Louise Nevelson, a sparkling all-white gallery will showcase what experts say is an exquisite assemblage of Jewish ceremonial objects that NCMA has amassed since 1983. It is one of just two permanent Judaica collections — the other is in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — belonging to public museums in the U.S.
“The Judaic Art Gallery is one of the true gems of the North Carolina Museum of Art,” said Lawrence Wheeler, the museum’s executive director and the driving force behind the new building. “First-time visitors are surprised, then delighted to find a gallery devoted to Jewish ceremonial art. It is one of the things that give the museum its distinctive character.”
Gabriel Goldstein, associate director for exhibitions and programs at Yeshiva University Museum and a consultant to the NCMA, agreed.
“This is truly an art museum collection, and the Judaica has been selected for its beauty, aesthetic and historical resonance, and masterful craftsmanship, along with its spiritual and religious significance,” said Goldstein, who has helped build the collection. “The objects hold their own among the NCMA’s art treasures.”
While Raleigh seems an unlikely location for a premier assemblage of Jewish objects, the collection has deep roots there. In 1974, a retired physician named Abram Kanof convinced the NCMA’s then-director, Moussa Domit, to mount a temporary show called “Ceremonial Art in the Judaic Tradition.” Kanof was no art-world neophyte; a relocated New Yorker, he and his wife had founded the Jewish Museum’s Tobe Pascher Workshop, a pioneering design studio for modern ceremonial art named for his mother-in-law.
Kanof’s exhibit proved such a smash that he began pursuing the grand — and, for Raleigh, less than practical — dream of a permanent collection at NCMA. He and his wife donated items from their own extensive Judaic collection, and he pushed for aggressive acquisition; Kanof ultimately became adjunct curator.
Though Kanof died in 1999 at the age of 95, the collection has thrived, largely due to the persistence of senior curator John Coffey.
“I’m not Jewish. I describe myself as a lapsed Presbyterian,” Coffey said at a museum preview last week. “My interest in Judaica derives perhaps a little from my extensive engagement with contemporary Israeli art in the 1990s. But the chief influence was my close friendship with Dr. Kanof.
“I worked with Abe on one reinstallation of the Gallery and came to know the objects and his concept for the collection. I loved the man,” Coffey continued. “After his death in 1999 I wanted to secure his legacy and see that the Judaic Art Gallery not become a static and neglected part of the Museum’s collection.”
Coffey went on to discuss some of the collection’s treasures in their new home, where a quote from Exodus — “This is my God and I will glorify him” — graces the entrance of the 1,152-square-foot gallery (which expands the collection’s floor space by 35 percent). The collection’s beautifully restored gold and silver objects, including seder plates, menorahs, and Torah filials, offer a refreshing textural contrast to the museum’s paintings and sculptures.
Which piece does Coffey consider most significant?
“I don’t feel comfortable singling out one object from the collection,” he said. “But there is a small group of objects that have collectively raised the temperature of the Judaic Art Gallery.” Among them: A pair of mid-18th-century Dutch Torah Finials from Amsterdam’s Great Synagogue and the hanging Sabbath Lamp, “expressive of the refinement of the Jewish Enlightenment under the Dutch Republic”; a Chinese-made Torah Case for a Baghdadi synagogue in Mumbai, “the ultimate Diaspora object”; the Bezalel Hanukkah Lamp, “expressing Jewish nationalist aspirations in a romantic ‘Hebrew Style’”; and the sleek “Machine Age” Passover Seder Set by Ludwig Wolpert — “one of the first modernist designs for Judaica,” Coffey said.
“For most of our visitors, these are artifacts of a culture that’s familiar but unfamiliar,” he said. “It’s deeply fascinating for them.” But “we’re not an ethnographic museum. The objects have to function as works of art. You want them to stand up as decorative objects. It’s the same standard you’d assess for a coffee creamer by Paul Revere.”
In contrast to the NCMA’s former home — a squat brown 28-year-old building whose profile recalls a 1970s suburban elementary school — the new, Thomas Phifer-designed structure is elegant and light-filled. Clad in massive aluminum panels, the warehouse-like complex subtly reflects and refracts natural light and shades of the surrounding landscape. White oak floors and a “coffered” ceiling, punctuated by nautical-style portholes covered in high-tech fabric, enhance an airy, open atmosphere.
Designed along a series of axes, the museum also provides multiple points for visitors to enter and exit from its meticulously designed gardens and sculpture parks back into the galleries. “In our old building, the Judaic gallery was low ceilings, no skylights, purple walls and pin lights,” Coffey said.
“The completed building is just like the prototype I visited some time ago,” said Gabriel Goldstein, the curatorial consultant. “It’s ethereal, spiritual and calming. I think it’s a great place to experience art; the gallery’s spiritual quality — almost a mystical sense — will be especially appropriate and wonderful for the Judaic display.”
How would Abram Kanof, the collection’s founder, react to its new context?
“I think my father would have loved the modern setting,” said Elizabeth Kanof, Abram Kanof’s eldest daughter and the president of Friends of the Judaic Collection, which has raised over $800,000 for new acquisitions and educational programs at the museum. “They have done a superb job. The designer attended services at our Conservative shul to get a more intimate sense of who we are. The museum has given us a third more space and paid for state-of-the-art cases. The museum has given us every possible encouragement and support.”
According to curator Coffey, the total cost for two custom-built display vitrines for the Torah ornaments and Torah cases was approximately $60,000. The rest of the casework, he said, was constructed in-house by museum carpenters at an estimated cost of $125,000.
“The problem with Judaica, until recently, was that it was an amateur calling,” Coffey said. “It was a hobby without rigorous scholarship attached to it, like other decorative arts. I’d like to raise the level of quality to the same as the Old Masters we have. And that’s what we’re doing.”
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