cultural change agents speak out
The Jewish cultural renaissance in North America has led to an explosion of Jewish art initiatives and cultural projects, independent spiritual groups, and alternative educational programs. Since 2008, due in part to the economic downturn, several major Jewish culture initiatives faced serious challenges, evidenced by the closure of JDub Records and the discontinuation of the printed editions of Heeb and Zeek magazines. These changes have shown how Jewish culture initiatives attract funders and the need for increased second-stage or mezzanine funding to help organizations mature past their start-up phases.
On August 29th, 2011, a panel of key young Jewish culture professionals participated in a conference call about leadership in the Jewish art sector. We asked them to think critically about their role as stewards of cultural change and reflect on ways our sector might improve.
Aaron Bisman co-founded JDub, a not-for-profit forging vibrant connections to Judaism through music, media, and cultural events, and led the organization as President and CEO from inception through 2011. He co-founded the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, was a Joshua Venture Fellow, and has been recognized by the Forward 50 and the White House as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. Aaron discovered and managed Hasidic Reggae singer Matisyahu and Israeli globetrotting superstars Balkan Beat Box. In 2005, Aaron co-founded Altshul, a traditional egalitarian community in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Paige Dansinger has a master’s in art history and specializes in art that reflects Jewish life. Paige is working on creating JAMM - Jewish Art Museum Mobile, an innovative, globally accessible smartphone Jewish museum including drop pin GPS walking tours and street-corner digital museum experiences at significant Jewish sites. Paige is an internationally known fine artist and designer of restaurants, interiors, and exhibitions.
Josh Feldman is the Associate Director of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. Passionate about the intersection of art and leadership development, Josh was most recently the Jeremiah Fellowship national director for the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He is an alumnus of the Jeremiah Fellowship and Selah and is a member of the Selah National Leadership Team. He is a co-founder of East Side Jews.
Dara Solomon joined the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) of San Francisco in 2006 to develop the inaugural exhibitions for their Daniel Libeskind-designed building. She has become the curator of the Museum’s exhibition program. Prior, she worked at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, and with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. She holds an M.A. in arts administration from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a B.A. in religion and art history from the University of Toronto.
When discussing leadership in the arts, people often focus on creative thinking as a professional asset. What are skills unique to this field that have made you a Jewish arts leader?
Dara: The ability to do outreach well is an asset to be a leader in the field: outreach in terms of reaching an audience, gaining visitors, but also in terms of fundraising.
Paige: Passion: self-motivation for a larger cause. In line with the concept of outreach, it’s trying to reach as many people as possible, coming from a very personal place to reach a universal audience.
Josh: Listening is a cornerstone of relationship-building and community work—to engage deeply in listening to others with the best intentions, and creating a culture where community partners and funders are participants. I believe in building community through our personal stories. Another important piece is mentorship. Both formal and informal mentors have invested in me, and in turn have invested in the field. It’s also important for me to be a mentor and invest in the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Innovation has been an “in” word in the Jewish community for some time. However, when it comes to art and culture, “new” has always been the name of the game. Do you think that Jewish arts and culture programs, organizations, and artists are pushing boundaries in similar ways as the secular arts community?
Dara: We’ve had lots of different discussions at the CJM about the types of technology that a museum can use. A couple of my colleagues did a workshop in New York a couple of weeks ago about creating gaming situations to engage the Jewish community. Approaching this from the arts side, I’m a bit wary of adding a heavy layer of technology onto an exhibition just for the sake of technology. As a curator, we want to ensure technology used at the CJM enhances an exhibition and that we’re finding ways to engage with audiences on different levels in ways that are innovative, thinking beyond the use of technology.
Paige: I’m interested in digital innovation, but I agree—there’s a time and a place. For me, museum exhibitions allowing participatory experiences are exciting innovations.
Aaron: Where I see funders often missing a major step is the ‘why.’ Why do we do this work? Why do we care that it’s Jewish? Why do people make Jewish art? Why do people engage with it? Once you get to meaning and personal relevance, and figure out both what’s driving people to create it and audiences to interact with it, whether that will then be described by others as “innovative” or not is beside the point.
Josh: Funders who are willing to explore the ‘why’ have made a huge contribution to Jewish life and arts and culture as a whole. I am grateful to the funders of the Six Point Fellowship. Yet I am concerned with the lack of mezzanine funding in the field. There are many organizations that have created innovative and new models. How as a community we continue to support the work they’re doing is of the utmost importance. On that note, I would say that JDub’s closing is a major loss for the field and their great contribution has paved the way for many of the projects of the innovation sector.
If we reflect on the Jewish arts and general organized Jewish community, what are ways we could improve in this upcoming year 5772? Do the Jewish arts or the broader Jewish community have anything to repent for this year?
Aaron: Going back to comparing Jewish arts to the secular arts world, the community needs to be pushing artists more in the quality of work and Jewish content. We’re often sensitive to wanting to honor anyone’s desire to contribute, and we should be excited that an artist wants to make a Jewish project, or start a new Jewish program or initiative. But we have a responsibility as leaders, as stewards of philanthropic support, and as artists working with peers, to be able to give honest feedback to help our peers improve and to be all that they can. Great Jewish art is not kiruv (the act of bringing secularized Jews closer to Judaism). Great works of Jewish art challenge us and push us to ask questions and delve deep inside. That only happens when you have deep, thoughtful work. I really believe that requires a practice of feedback and self-reflection that I’m often afraid we lack in the Jewish community.
Josh: Six Points is committed to offering applicants feedback, even if we can’t take them as fellows, to help them strengthen their future applications. In LA, our grant information sessions provided a meeting ground for Jewish artists. We learned that regional artists were hungry for a peer community. We’re committed to facilitating these micro-communities where artists can reach out to each other and continue to deepen the Jewish content of their work.
Dara: One of my most memorable experiences at the CJM was our inaugural exhibition. We commissioned seven contemporary artists to respond to Bereshit, and the artists—not all of whom were Jewish—met with scholars at JTS in New York to engage in serious text study. They really found it meaningful, and their projects took on different tones after their study. For our “Are We There Yet?” exhibition, we had a couple sessions with scholars and artists to think deeply about Jewish questions. But I have heard some criticisms from people in the local arts community that we are pushing artists to work in a way that they wouldn’t naturally. I definitely take that criticism seriously.
The Jewish Artist’s Initiative (JAI) has had a similar project, an Artists’ Beit Midrash, where various rabbis in the community lead study sessions with our members, in part funded by the Jewish Community Foundation. Some members shared that they always wanted to go to Jewish study groups but felt intimidated because they did not have formal Jewish education as a child. However, being in a room full of artistic peers created a safe place. On the other hand, not as many people created new work as we expected. You can provide the study context, but this
will not always generate immediate creation of new works of art.
Paige: I know many local communities have Jewish art groups which meet to study and create specific works. Are we guiding our community to create a voice of identity through exploring these concepts and study sessions? What is our role in these situations as innovators and leaders? How we control, steer, and influence the Jewish cultural community to have a conscious voice and speak for themselves is important. As Jewish innovators, we could choose to work together to help the Jewish culture field find a unified voice and shared message of why we do this work.