The region’s only Jewish museum will inaugurate its new home with an exhibit of international proportions, reflecting its promise as a compelling addition to Portland’s culturally rich Pearl district.
The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education opens the doors to its new permanent home, 724 NW Davis St., with a free celebration June 11. The grand opening is part of the Portland Rose Festival’s formal schedule of events. Docents and museum staff will be on hand to lead visitors through the museum’s traveling and permanent exhibits.
The inaugural exhibit in the main gallery features a visually stunning collection of works by Russian Jewish artist Grisha Bruskin, who is featured in Russia’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Bruskin’s “The ALEFBET: the Alphabet of Memory” features large-scale tapestries draping the walls of the main gallery accompanied by the artist’s preparatory drawings and related gouache paintings, all referencing Kabbalistic and Talmudic teaching, biblical narratives and Russian folklore.
The inaugural exhibit in the smaller gallery in the lobby is “Herman Brookman, Visualizing the Sacred,” featuring drawings by the architect of Congregation Beth Israel. The Brookman exhibit is in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition “Quest for Beauty: the Architecture, Landscapes and Collections of John Yeon.” Brookman was an early mentor to Yeon.
Also debuting at the grand opening are the museum’s three core exhibits – “Discrimination and Resistance: An Oregon Primer,” “Oregon Jewish Stories” and “The Holocaust: An Oregon Perspective.”
Retired Portland Art Museum Curator Bruce Guenther is curating the inaugural year of exhibits for the main gallery in OJMCHE’s new home. He and OJMCHE Director Judy Margles are already wading into the lists and logistics for the second show in the main gallery space, which will feature Oregon Jewish artists and is set to open Oct. 15.
But he says the Bruskin exhibit is the reason he signed on to curate OJMCHE’s inaugural year of three exhibits.
“What better way to open the doors of a museum devoted to Jewish life and identity than an exhibition of work created for The Word and the history of discourse in the search for g-d?” asks Guenther, noting this will be the first North American venue to host the exhibit that has been showcased in Moscow, Amsterdam and Paris.
“OJMCHE will be the only opportunity in the U.S. to see his work this year,” says Guenther.
Guenther describes the tapestries as “Bruskin’s personal and intellectual exploration of Jewish identity through The Word. … Drawing on his interest in early Renaissance art, letter forms and abstraction, Bruskin speaks to the core of what it means to be a Jew.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Founded in 1990 as a museum without walls, the Oregon Jewish Museum initially housed its archives at the Oregon Historical Society. After a series of temporary homes – Montgomery Park, a Davis Street storefront and for the past six years Northwest Kearney Street – last year OJMCHE purchased the home of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which closed in early 2016.
“We have been called one of Portland’s best-kept secrets,” says Judy, who has served as the museum’s director since 2000. “But not for long. Look at this location. It’s going to be hard in September for people to say, ‘I didn’t know there was a Jewish museum in Portland.’ ”
Situated in the heart of the arts district, the museum plans to participate in the First Thursday Art Walks, which bring flocks of people to the area each month.
Guenther likewise praises the location: “The DeSoto Building was developed by prominent developer James Winkler as a hub for nonprofit/for-profit entities that would serve as a major focus on the North Park Blocks for the arts in the Pearl. The OJMCHE now occupies one of the most prominent, public locations in its short history, and with it comes the opportunity to educate the public about Judaism, its history and rituals, the contributions of Jews to world culture, and create dialogue about acceptance and tolerance in a divisive age.”
With consultant Marc Vogl, the museum board had just completed a feasibility study for purchasing a building when the Pacific Northwest College of Art announced it would sell the former museum. The site matched the key needs identified in OJMCHE’s study. The Pearl was considered a prime location both as an arts destination and for its proximity to the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, of which OJMCHE is the steward. The nearly 15,000-square-foot site was the exact size the study suggested.
“This building was purpose-built – it had been a museum,” says Judy, noting that meant only minimal renovations were needed. “Our rule of thumb was, if it works, we aren’t changing it. This is a beautiful space.”
In addition to the two main-floor galleries for touring exhibits and space for three core exhibits on the second floor, public areas include a 100-seat auditorium, gift shop and Lefty’s Café, which will serve pastries and sandwiches.
The café, gift shop and small gallery are all open to the public so people walking by can stop in and get a taste of what the museum has to offer. The café is also a place for people to sit and reflect following a visit to the main gallery and core exhibits.
The $5 million needed for the purchase price was raised quickly after PCNA gave OJMCHE a 45-day exclusive purchase option. Two families – Renee and Irwin Holzman and the Leonard, z”l, and Lois Schnitzer family – each donated $1 million toward the purchase price. Arlene and Jordan Schnitzer donated another $1 million for an endowment. Campaign chairs Steve Reinisch and Madelle Rosenfeld secured the balance of the purchase price from about 30 donors.
In addition to the generous support of the Jewish community to fund the building purchase, Judy says there was also an outpouring of support from the arts community.
“The idea that the Contemporary Craft Museum would be replaced with a museum was good news for the arts community,” she says.
In 2000, the Oregon Jewish Museum moved to a storefront on Davis Street in Chinatown soon after Judy took the reins. The 10 years in the street-front location taught them that people were interested in Oregon’s Jewish history.
“From 2000 to 2014, we did an occasional exhibit that had the Holocaust in it, but we were not focused on teaching about that history,” says Judy. “I could see my colleagues doing Holocaust education in their organizations and having conversations about what do we do when the survivors are gone. … I wanted us to be in it.”
The 2010 move to Northwest Kearney Street brought the museum under the same roof as the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center; the two organizations merged in 2014.
“Two years into the merger, we were seeing the profound importance of teaching about the Holocaust,” says Judy. “It had given a resonance to our work.”
During the six years on Kearney Street, student visits increased tenfold.
“Students and teachers are interested in learning about the Holocaust and Oregon Jewish life,” says Judy.
In recent years the museum has also expanded collaborative programming with both Jewish groups and other ethnic and religious organizations. Last year’s program with the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center brought together survivors of the Holocaust and of the internment camps, in which West Coast Japanese Americans were imprisoned after Pearl Harbor was attacked. “Voices of Hope and Action” was so successful that the two groups plan to make it an annual event.
Guenther praises the museum’s progress: “OJMCHE has matured immensely under Judy Margles’ leadership and has now arrived on a deservedly larger public stage just as the political climate has drawn an ugly, jagged red line under the words ‘hate’ and ‘intolerance’ internationally. The museum’s dual mission to celebrate and educate has never been more important.
“The larger facility allows the museum to bring the story of Jews’ contribution to this community and Oregon on an ongoing basis, to a broader public audience in evolving displays that both celebrate and commemorate lives informed and empowered by Jewish identity and beliefs.”
“We want to give students the tools to understand the world today,” says Judy. “The concept is to be an upstander not a bystander. We want students to have the tools so they can take action when they see injustice.”
With double the space it had on Kearney, the museum was able to add three core exhibits designed by Bryan Potter and Eldon Potter of Bryan Potter Design to do just that. The exhibits speak to the museum’s three-pronged mission: to interpret the Oregon Jewish experience, explore the lessons of the Holocaust and foster intercultural conversations.
“The permanent collection areas on the second floor provide ongoing exhibits that discuss the history of the Holocaust – from the broad sweep of history to the first-person stories of Oregon’s resident survivors,” says Guenther. “Tolerance and humanity’s struggle against hatred are the subjects of one-third of the second floor. This will be a powerful part of the visitor’s experience thanks to the curatorial and education departments’ work to spotlight the issues of religious, racial and identity prejudice and the strategies to overcome them in one’s own life.”
The core exhibits flow together, but each has a distinct atmosphere created not just by the artifacts and documents, but also by each exhibit’s floor and stacks of different materials and arrangements in the center.
“We want people to feel uneasy when they walk into the Holocaust area,” says Judy. Metal columns stacked on their sides hold documents and artifacts; the floor appears to be broken glass in memory of Kristallnacht, with inset brass plaques that name each country and the number of Jews who perished. The area was curated by the museum’s Holocaust educator April Slabosheski.
The floor in the discrimination area is covered with words such as “scapegoat,” “protest” and “dehumanize.” The walls and columns are Lucite and Plexiglas in modern colors.
Oregon stories features a map of Oregon on the floor. Wood columns arranged like a cityscape dominate the area.
“Most striking are the use of the stacks in the center,” says museum curator Anne Levant Prahl, who curated the Oregon exhibit with Judy. “They are the interactive piece and the place for artifacts,” she says. “In ‘Oregon Jewish Stories,’ they are wooden cases all about discovery with drawers and doors to open and artifacts to discover in the columns.” The walls of the exhibit begin with an introduction to Jewish identity in Oregon and videos of five “under 40” Oregon Jews. Traveling around the walls, one goes from identity, to arrival (featuring various waves of immigrants and current transplants from other states), to settling in. The exhibit looks at the whole state including farming communities.
“Jews in Oregon have been very successful,” says Judy. “It’s delightful to share the story of the community, how Jews make a living and synagogue growth.”
“Discrimination and Resistance: An Oregon Primer” was curated by museum consultant Janice Dilg.
“It looks at the forms of discrimination and how they affect people and the flip side, resistance,” says Judy. “It will pack a wallop. We are not mincing words about the history of the state. … Oregon had the largest KKK west of the Mississippi in the 1920s. We have a KKK hood next to this quote from the constitution of Oregon: ‘No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution (i.e., 1857) shall come, reside or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein …’ This exclusion clause was not repealed until 1927.
“People don’t know about the history of discrimination in this state,” says Judy.
To enable museum visitors to take action with their new knowledge, the museum is developing an education lab planned to open in January 2018.
“The goal is to create a place where people can learn how to take action,” says Judy.
The lab will include computers, books, journals and other resources. Though Judy says she doesn’t expect people to leave the museum and volunteer four hours a week with a food bank or other helping agency.
“It’s about baby steps. If they do one thing or take one step toward human kindness, then they will make a difference,” says Judy. “Pay attention and see what you can do to make the world a better place.”