Jewish Museum Faces Its Own Reckoning


We are living through challenging times. The Jewish Museum, along with other museums, cultural centers and public spaces, has been closed to the public since mid-March due the Covid-19 pandemic. While we cannot yet give an exact date, the museum is working toward reopening in the fall.

I can say for sure that when The Jewish Museum reopens, the way we operate will not be the same. In accordance with government and public health guidelines, we will be instituting health and safety protocols to allow visitors to enjoy coming to the museum with peace of mind. We will limit the number of visitors to support social distancing best practices, and attendees will be asked to purchase their tickets online in advance for specific dates and times. These measures will allow us to limit points of contact between visitors and staff. At all times, visitors will be required to wear masks in the building. We are also increasing our cleaning protocols and reviewing our ventilation systems.

Things may feel very different. But we hope that one thing won’t change: that The Jewish Museum can be a place for our audiences to engage with art. We aspire to be a refuge where our visitors can connect with and learn about the diversity of Jewish culture and experience across time and place, and where they can spend precious time with friends and family. It is our hope that our safety measures will help alleviate the stress that may come with an outing after a long period of self-isolation. We are all craving connection — to others, to our shared humanity and to the broader world.

The temporary closing of the physical space of the museum has also provided an opportunity for us to think differently about how we can serve our audiences outside the walls of our galleries, auditorium and classrooms. Our curators and educators have developed a range of programs online — videos, interactive concerts, lectures and art-making classes — that have helped our constituents in new ways. It has been a time of great experimentation and creativity. We will continue this expanded range of virtual experiences in the year ahead, when social distancing requires us to create new ways of being together, while separated.

The extended closure and economic downturn have also presented financial challenges. While our financial fundamentals remain strong, the resulting loss of revenue meant that, like many cultural institutions, we had to act responsibly to protect the sustainability of the institution. The museum reduced its operating budget for the coming fiscal year by 20 percent through expense reductions across the institution. The short-term Paycheck Protection Program loan we received enabled the museum to keep all staff employed for 12 ½ weeks following closing on March 13. After that expired, we made the difficult decision to reduce staff; 17 positions were eliminated through a combination of layoffs, reduced schedules, retirements and attrition, and front-of-house staff were furloughed. Previously, the museum reduced salaries for staff earning $100,000 or more.

The last few months have been marked not only by the worldwide response to Covid-19, but also by a national cultural reckoning on systemic racism. As an institution, and as a group of individuals, The Jewish Museum has been doing the work of reflecting, educating and finding a path forward to be a proactive contributor to a more just, equitable and inclusive society. Our staff has played an important role in this effort; a group of 28 Jewish Museum staff members sent an open letter to the museum expressing their desire to see the institution “work toward shaping a more equitable workplace and a more active public platform for advancing social change.” We are grateful to our staff for their dedication and have formed an internal anti-racism working group to help identify and prioritize initiatives to move the institution forward.

As public institutions, museums have a responsibility to be engaged in public discourse and to respond seriously to this watershed moment. As an art museum striving to foster cultural understanding, and as a special touchstone for Jewish people of all backgrounds, we have a special role to play in standing against the scourges of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in our society and around the world. We aspire to live up to that role. As we open our doors, we also hope to widen the tent.

I am grateful to The Jewish Week for asking our thoughts on “next steps” in this unique moment in time. These are the ideas that will inform those steps for the museum: being a place to reconnect; finding the inspiration to reinvent and find new paths forward; and recommitting ourselves to be a force for good in the world. We hope that you will join us in exploring these ideas — whether when we open our doors in a few months, or whether you choose to explore The Jewish Museum from home through our online programming.

Claudia Gould is the Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum in Manhattan.