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Museum Seeks a Comeback

By Steven Rosen · November 30th, 2011 · The Big Picture

Beginning Sunday with a 4-6 p.m. reception, the Skirball Museum (3101 Clifton Ave., Clifton, www.huc.edu/museums/) is opening a new exhibition: Jewish-related fine-crafts objects, such as driedels, mezuzahs and shofars, made of Venetian glass by Michael Gore, an Illinois artist.  

The work, which is for sale, is elegant in shape and very attractive. But it has a greater significance. It is an attempt by Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, on whose campus the Skirball sits, to reintroduce the museum to the public-at-large. It is hoped that when people come to visit Gore’s show, which will be open Sundays from 1:30-3:30 p.m. through Feb. 12 (except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1), they will walk down one floor to permanent exhibition, An Eternal People, of Jewish artifacts and artwork. It is significant in its beauty, rarity and historical significance. 

For a variety of reasons, the Skirball has slipped off Cincinnati’s radar in recent years. Hit by the Great Recession and other concerns, the museum has had by-appointment-only hours and also lost its curator. And, in general, the Cincinnati campus reduced its community presence. 

Reversing that appears to be a priority of HUC-Cincinnati’s newly appointed dean, Jonathan Cohen.

“We have a gem of an art collection at the Skirball Museum,” he says during an interview in is office. “We are discovering a great deal of interest in (it), and in bringing in new exhibits and new programming. I believe it is our role to share our treasures and to really elevate the cultural life of our community using our resources. This is why we are investing effort in the Skirball Museum and bringing attention to the treasures on this campus.”

Eternal People ranges from an ancient (Before the Common Era, or B.C.E.) clay menorah to the impressive Weinberg Torah commissioned for a German synagogue in 1845; from a 1724 Bible Paraphrase Book in Hebrew and Ladino (medieval Spanish) languages to the secret 1942 Riegner cable, which alerted the World Jewish Congress of the Nazi plan to exterminate 3-4 million Jews in German-controlled territories. (The cable actually belongs to another collecting wing of HUC — the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.) There is also a paintings collection. 

The college was founded as a rabbinical seminary in 1875 by Rabbi Isaac Wise, Cincinnati founder of Reform Judaism. Over the decades, its educational and outreach mission has widened and in 1950 it merged with New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion. This school year marks the 100th anniversary at its Clifton location. HUC has been developing and displaying its art/artifacts collection almost from its start in Clifton. Its Skirball Museum opened there in 1990, and for quite a while attempted a high community presence. 

Meanwhile, another Skirball Museum opened at HUC’s Los Angeles campus in the 1970s and moved into a new and much larger Skirball Cultural Center there in 1996. Its core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, consists of many objects transferred from Cincinnati. (The late Jack Skirball, who studied for the rabbinate in Cincinnati, became a successful Hollywood producer.)

During the financially difficult 2008-2009 academic year, there was informal discussion of HUC closing in Cincinnati in favor of its campuses in L.A., New York and Jerusalem. But news reports prompted strong community support for keeping Cincinnati open. 

And that support is a factor in this new attempt to raise Skirball’s Cincinnati profile. “This was one of the reasons we decided we needed to redouble our efforts at outreach,” Cohen says. “Not only to express gratitude but to demonstrate that we are an active member of the community and give great value to the community.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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