A Short History of the Jewish Museum in New York

The Jewish Museum, one of the world’s largest and most important institutions devoted to exploring the remarkable scope and diversity of Jewish culture, was founded in 1904 in the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where it was housed for more than four decades. In 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg, widow of the prominent businessman and philanthropist, Felix Warburg, who had been a Seminary trustee, donated the family mansion at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street to the Seminary for use as the Museum.

Located along New York’s Museum Mile, this elegant former residence has been the home of the Museum since 1947. A sculpture court was installed alongside the Mansion in 1959, and the Albert A. List Building was added in 1963 to provide additional exhibition and program space. In 1989, a major expansion and renovation project was undertaken. Upon completion in June 1993, the expansion doubled the Museum’s gallery space, created new space for educational programs, provided significant improvements in public amenities, and added a two-floor permanent exhibition called Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey. The expanded Jewish Museum preserves the French Gothic chateau style exterior of the original Warburg Mansion, which was designed by architect Charles P.H. Gilbert and completed in 1908.

Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated the first gift of 26 objects of fine and ceremonial art to the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America with the suggestion that a Jewish museum be formed. Subsequent gifts and purchases have helped to form the Museum’s distinguished collection and develop the concept of the institution, whose mission has been to preserve, study and interpret Jewish cultural history through the use of authentic art and artifacts, linking both Jews and non Jews to a rich body of values and traditions. Today, The Jewish Museum’s permanent collection, which has grown to more than 28,000 objects paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, ethnographic material, archaeological artifacts, numismatics, ceremonial objects, and broadcast media materials – is one of the largest and most important of its kind in the world.

Beginning in 1947, Stephen Kayser, the first director of the Museum in its building on Fifth Avenue, saw fine art as a means of exploring the substance of Jewish life and history. His wish was that “the American community…be given insight into the traditions, history, legend and aspirations of the Jewish people.” First under his leadership and subsequently under directors Alan Solomon, who was appointed in 1959, and Sam Hunter, who succeeded him in the mid 1960s, The Jewish Museum became well known for the exhibition of works by artists of the then avant garde: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler and others. Although these modern art exhibitions raised controversy over the role of The Jewish Museum, some view this period as but one example of a long and distinguished history of Jewish art patronage and support for the vanguard of intellectual and artistic activity.

In the early 1970s, when Joy Ungerleider Mayerson became director, the Museum expanded its focus to encompass all of Jewish culture, including the development of an ancient Israelite archaeology collection and exhibition, and the establishment of an education department. Since 1981, director Joan Rosenbaum has reinforced that identity while greatly expanding the Museum’s program to include large temporary and permanent exhibitions of an interdisciplinary nature. Such exhibitions often employ a combination of art and artifacts interpreted through the lens of social history in order to explore important ideas and topics. The Museum’s highly successful The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice (1987), Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy (1989), From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage and Power 1600-1800 (1996), ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee (1997), and Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture 1890-1918 (1999) are examples of this type of exhibition.

Today, the Museum is known for its exhibitions of fine arts interpreted in the context of social history, such as Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900 1945 (1991); social history exhibitions such as Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews (1992); and monograph shows of significant artists such as Camille Pissarro (1995), Marc Chagall (2001 and 1996), Chaim Soutine (1998), George Segal (1998), and Adolph Gottlieb (2002). The Museum also regularly presents the works of contemporary artists in group exhibitions such as Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities (1996) and one-person shows like Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” (1997). Its education department presents a diverse and wide ranging array of programs for individuals, groups, families and schools.

The Jewish Museum’s collections and exhibitions address the entire Jewish experience from biblical times to the present. The centerpiece of the Museum is a magnificent, two floor permanent exhibition that explores the essence of Jewish identity the basic ideas, values and culture developed over 4,000 years. Occupying over 11,000 square feet of gallery space, the permanent exhibition provides a frame of reference for particular topics and themes explored in the Museum’s temporary exhibitions, educational activities and public programs.

For nearly a century, The Jewish Museum has illuminated the Jewish experience, both secular and religious, demonstrating the strength of Jewish identity and culture. Its unparalleled collection and unique exhibitions offer a wide range of opportunities for exploring multiple facets of the Jewish experience, past and present through art, and for educating current and future generations. It is a source of education, inspiration and shared human values for people of all cultures.