by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, housed in a shiny new building on Michigan Avenue (you can read my review of the building here) has long had an identity problem. Now, it has a serious financial problem, too. This situation - no doubt exacerbated by a series of curatorial and public relations missteps by the Spertus Museum since its opening - has led the Institute's new leader to the drastic move of virtually closing down the building in order to save it.
The situation, which mirrors similar crises at other Jewish and Arts institutions throughout the country, is one of the most extreme measures yet taken by any American Jewish cultural institution. I have previously written about problems at the Touro Synagogue Foundation and at Hebrew Union College.
An article in the business section of the ChicagoReader.com details the situations, which involve serious staff cutbacks and other cost saving measures. I have been following the situation at the Spertus for several years. It was clear before the creation of the new facility that the Spertus was struggling to asset itself as the leading Jewish cultural force in Chicago, and the leading Jewish cultural institution in the Midwest. But the institution has been conflicted, for as it desperately needs conventional Jewish community financial support and participation, it has on many occasions risked the support by distancing and even antagonizing its base constituency. It is hard to be traditional and contemporary at the same time. Somehow that Spertus has wanted to be THE Jewish institution but it has sent ambivalent message about its "Jewishness." In New York, the Jewish Museum learned long ago that for every "Too Jewish" exhibition, there needs to be one about "Chagall and the Jewish Theater." To my mind, the new Spertus tried to challenge its base too soon, and instead drove many of them away.
I still believe that the Spertus has the potential to be to Chicago a combination of New York's Jewish Museum, the Jewish History Center and the 92nd Street Y. But as the institution has learned in the two years since its new building has opened, that one can't be all those things at once and overnight. While much blame can be laid on the national economic crises and drop in endowment values and charitable giving to all cultural institutions, The Spertus was already on shaky ground long before the financial quake, since many of its most effective programs are not lucrative ones. The Spertus pioneered distance learning in Jewish education, but distance learning is exactly NOT the kind of activity to fill, support and fund an expensive new building. Nor is the Asher Library, one of the great research resources housed at the Spertus, a money maker.
I admire Howard Sulkin, who helped build the Spertus and lay its course. Howard is a visionary and an idealist. But it looks like Hal Lewis, who has taken over the helm at the Spertus, is going to have to be much more of a pragmatist. He has a long career of moving from one Jewish organization to another. Will he be able to move the Spertus along in the right direction - or any direction in order to survive?
Pending better financial times, the Spertus cuts its hours to two and a half days a month.
A Museum in Sleep Mode
By Deanna Isaacs
July 2, 2009
The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies issued some stunning news last week: in response to financial difficulties blamed on the economic downturn, the Spertus—which consists of a college, a museum, and a library—is making operational cuts so drastic they’ll practically shut down portions of the glossy, Krueck & Sexton-designed building that opened less than two years ago. As of July 1 the Joyce and Avrum Gray & Family Children’s Center will be open only two Sundays per month. And by mid-August the Spertus Museum, which is located on the top two floors of the ten-story building, houses an extensive collection of Judaica, and offers ambitious gallery programming, will have its hours reduced to the same two short Sundays plus a single monthly Thursday evening.
Read the entire article here.
More stories about the Spertus can be read here: