Partner Spotlight | Contemporary Jewish Museum
The Contemporary Jewish Museum on Yerba Buena's Jessie Square in San Francisco. Photo courtesy The CJM.
While the Bay Area continues to face challenges as it slowly strives to move towards reopening, we’re happy to see some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy as things do open. At this writing, San Francisco resides in the yellow tier on the Coronavirus map, which is an improvement since museums could reopen with visits at reduced capacity in the orange tier. It is good news all around and it's great news for our museum partners.
We continue the BARTable Partner Spotlight series as we touch base with The Contemporary Jewish Museum (“The CJM”) who reopened their front doors on Oct. 17. Visitors are welcome with modifications for safety and we are happy to catch up with them. Our visit is with Kerry King, The CJM Interim Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer who takes us along the journey on how the pandemic has touched the museum and describes the shining resilience that has guided them through the challenges that came with it.
Editor's Note (Nov. 17): San Francisco County has moved back into the red phase on the Coronavirus map. Please visit CJM online for hours of operation before heading out. When visiting, please wear a mask and keep a physical distance of at least six feet while riding trains or at in-person events and locations. Please note that BART closes at 9pm, plan your trip before you go.
Kerry King, Interim Executive Director/ Chief Operating Officer. Photo courtesy The CJM.
Some info about the museum, some history, Kerry’s role, how she came to the museum
“The mission of The Contemporary Jewish Museum is to engage audiences and artists at the intersection of contemporary art and the twenty-first century Jewish experience. Our building is inspired by the Hebrew phrase 'L’Chaim' ('To Life'), and so the building itself is a physical embodiment of our mission to bring together tradition and innovation to create exhibitions and programs that educate, challenge, and inspire.
In 2008, I visited The CJM in its first months on Jessie Square in the Yerba Buena District. My heart soared in the presence of the historic brick façade, Hebrew letters imprinted in the architecture, and in the jutting blue steel rooftop. I am still awestruck entering the lobby from any direction, envisioning its past as a power substation and its continuing presence as a source of light and energy. Now the letters on the rooftop and on the bright wall that first greeted me as a visitor have become a deep and personal part of my daily experience.
I was intrigued by the boldness of The CJM and by its potential. When the opportunity to join the Museum as Chief Operating Officer arose in 2015, it was an obvious fit because much of my career has combined my business background with the unique challenges of nonprofit arts organizations. Managing financial, operations and planning functions, as well as building effective and skilled teams across the Museum is a joy for me. The delicate balance of artistic and financial decision-making is rewarding but never perfect. I continue to learn from talented and thoughtful colleagues and value every chance to discover exhibitions, artists, and stories more deeply.”
Thoughts on the museum’s relationship to SF and the Bay Area
“The CJM occupies a unique space in the community. We are more than a museum, more than a contemporary art space, more than a Jewish museum—we are an organization that embodies all three of these forums. As you can see by our lineup of exhibitions at any given time, our programming strives to engage people on multiple levels. ‘Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,’ on view now, embodies this ethos perfectly, telling a story that is definitively Jewish, classically American, and deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of San Francisco. Many of our exhibitions – even if their subject matter is historic – connect to the present and provide a lens through which we can better understand our contemporary society. In doing so, we are really unique in San Francisco and the Bay Area more widely, because we are the only museum offering this specific type of experience.”
Visitors welcomed back to the museum. Photos courtesy The CJM.
How the pandemic has affected the museum
“Challenges create opportunities. We have a truly incredible group of people working at The Museum, and upon closure we were able to move quickly to digital programs, remote learning opportunities, and live virtual tours to continue to engage with and support our community. The CJM launched a live virtual tour program that allowed students and teachers to interact online synchronously with a museum education professional. In addition, The Museum launched a series of virtual programs on Facebook and IGTV, including the extremely successful Sunday Stories visual lecture series, creating opportunities for informal Jewish learning from home. The most popular of these, ‘Summer in the Catskills’, has reached over 13,000 viewers to date. This fall we are expanding our live virtual tours and short videos, and launching virtual live art workshops and artist studio visits for our Teen Art Connect (TAC) interns—local teens who participate in a yearlong paid internship at The CJM.
Due to the budget impact of the pandemic, The CJM has had to make difficult decisions in the near-term. The museum was able to maintain full-time staff for eight extra weeks through a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, coupled with a fundraising campaign, a hiring freeze, and expense reductions. Staffing reductions became necessary when the PPP funding ended, and, like most cultural organizations, we are now reforecasting and planning very differently for the next two years. We will continue to re-evaluate how the pandemic will affect our ability to host visitors and how to compensate for the financial losses of operating at reduced capacity.”
How the BLM movement has affected the museum
“Our awareness of the significant amount of work to do within The museum and across the arts and culture sector as a whole has increased dramatically, and we recognize that there is a lot of work to do. The CJM is committed to being an anti-racist organization and creating programming that reflects and supports the diversity of our community. The Museum recognizes that much of this work must begin internally, and we have developed an Anti-Racist, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (ARIDEA) working group comprised of staff members from all levels of the organization, which is designed to address issues of systemic racism internally as a first step toward re-thinking and redeveloping The Museum’s external programming.
The CJM has also been selected to participate in Facing Change, a three-year initiative led by the American Association of Museums (AAM) to help diversify museum boards. A focused curriculum has been developed for The CJM’s Board of Trustees and management to increase awareness and inclusivity in the highest levels of leadership. As part of this program, The CJM is also committed to recruiting new and racially diverse individuals onto the Board. Enacting the principles of anti-racism is a top priority for us right now.”
Where this pandemic has provided silver linings for the organization including best lessons learned and new best practices that will remain once things return to a post-pandemic “new normal”
“As often results when faced with a challenge, our staff will emerge from this experience stronger than ever. Our team has grown closer, and I believe that we have all become more flexible and more resilient. We’ve learned to jump into new and unknown things, to take on tasks that may not have previously been part of our jobs, and to reinvent The museum experience at a time when in-person gatherings are not possible.
As I mentioned before, our education team was able to pivot extremely quickly and create virtual tours for schools, and this provided an opportunity for us to be a leader in the community. Many of our museum colleagues admired our approach to virtual tours, and asked for our input. In response, The CJM’s education team led a workshop for other Bay Area art museum educators, which included insights in to best practices based on their learnings and a demonstration of a mock live virtual tour. It was inspiring for all of us to guide and help our community during this time.”
Museum welcome back messaging. Photos courtesy The CJM.
Personal experience and perspective during this pandemic
“More than anything, this time has helped me see how health and safety must always be our first priority. This is not a new concept, but the pandemic has certainly reframed our perspective on visitor and staff safety. It’s the first thing we think of now and I expect it will continue to drive our decision-making for a long time to come.
Working in the pandemic has also helped me realize that none of us can take our jobs, our teams, or our successes for granted. We celebrated the opening of ‘Levi Strauss: a History of American Style’ just a month before The museum had to shut down. It was a truly celebratory evening and something that we all appreciated and enjoyed—and in the following weeks, we had great attendance and enthusiasm for the exhibition. We saw new visitors and audience at The Museum. While we appreciated this at the time, looking back at it now, that experience becomes even more meaningful as it marks the last time that we all celebrated together at The Museum. I think we will all appreciate these moments more fully now.”
How the re-opening has gone and how you feel this pandemic will affect museums for the long term
“We worked for months to ensure that we could re-open safely, and now that we have, we feel really good about the smooth transition. We are operating at 25% of our total capacity and visitors are booking timed tickets online for contactless admission. In addition, visitors are asked to maintain physical distancing, and all visitors and Museum staff are required to wear face coverings. We are confident in our protocols including frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, placement of hand-sanitizing stations throughout the building, and updates to our air filtration systems.
Looking to the long term, reopening is only the beginning of recovery for us and for the museum community. I expect that creative new working models will emerge. At The CJM, we will explore new ways to monetize programming, while continuing to prioritize accessibility. We will seek new audiences, and as we do so, we will need to shift our thinking and planning to engage them. We have learned to work much more closely and collaboratively with colleagues at other institutions, to truly learn and grow together as the pandemic continues. This is a difficult time financially for museums as revenue losses persist; however, I am confident that we will find creative solutions over time.”
Hopes for 2021
“I hope that we hold on to the resiliency and generosity that has emerged as our communities begin to recover. I hope that the end of the pandemic will be in our sights, and that people will be able to safely return to meaningful work and other activities in their lives, that schools will be fully functioning, and gathering for all the arts will be possible.
While I think that many safety protocols will remain in place even after the pandemic ends, I look forward to The CJM operating at full capacity, to having in-person programming again, and to be able to celebrate the opening of an exhibition with our community. We all are eager to create a new experience of normalcy, and I truly hope that we see that within the next year.”
Let's get social.
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