Integration and Sustainability in Jewish Arts and Culture

The pillars of salt and shadow – from Woof and Drash: Weaving the Jewish Experience; currently on exhibit at Spertus; courtesy.

Jewish arts and culture matter – they have their own intrinsic values, and they also teach us about innovation and creativity in ways that can be remarkably useful and enriching in our lives and work.

by Dean Phillip Bell

The recent announcement of the closing of the Foundation for Jewish Culture and other Jewish arts and cultural projects, as well as several posts on eJP and elsewhere, require serious reflection. I write, therefore, to offer some brief thoughts on the issues facing Jewish arts and culture, based on experiences at my own institution – Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, an institution whose public programs address various arts and cultural themes and whose collections and exhibits often feature local or regional artists.

As many commentators have pointed out, arts and culture, broadly defined, are essential for a healthy and vibrant Jewish community. Indeed, robust Jewish communities throughout most of history have engaged the arts in one form or another – from the paintings of the Dura-Europas synagogue in the third century to Jewish involvement (as patrons and producers) with illuminated manuscripts and ritual objects in the Middle Ages, theater in the Renaissance, music in the early modern and modern worlds, and architecture and a range of visual arts over the past two and a half centuries. To that extent, Jewish arts and culture should be invested in, developed, and made available across the full spectrum of the Jewish communities and beyond.

There are certainly many ways to invest in and cultivate the arts. Experience leads me to believe that it is often more challenging to find financial support for arts and cultural offerings in and of themselves than for other programs and initiatives. To be fair, there are limited philanthropic funds (from both individual donors and foundations) and grants available and there will always be competing priorities and perceived priorities. As such, much like Jewish Studies course offerings at universities, Jewish arts and culture have to be engaging to Jewish audiences at the same time that they are compelling and competitive in the broader markets beyond the Jewish community. Along that line, it may not be too surprising that trying to fund and program Jewish arts and culture on their own may, in the long run, not be tenable given the size of the Jewish community and the various other pressures that Jewish communities face today. Even in the broader society, arts and culture may be valued but they are under-funded, especially in the current economy, and in great danger. We need look no further than the difficult financial challenges facing museums and other cultural organizations (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) and the fact that many such institutions have had to merge collections, alter operations, and/or explore ways to fund their offerings, through programs and exhibits that go beyond their core missions.

A more promising approach, it seems to me, is to find ways to integrate Jewish arts and culture in everything we do. While some might argue this can water down the arts, I think that it establishes the value of arts and culture, makes important contributions (not the least of which is re-establishing aesthetics and creativity as fundamental and routinized aspects of our lives and professional work), and positions arts and culture to receive the attention they need to thrive. At Spertus we strive to integrate arts and culture – through individual programs and exhibits and through the utilization of collections onsite and online – into our graduate courses and programs, public programs, and even in our daily administrative life (displaying around campus and discussing important pieces of the collection as well as staff artwork). What we seek is to take collections out from exhibit cases and storage facilities and performing arts and film out of the theater and weave them into broader educational and programmatic experiences. It is not always easy and I cannot say we always realize the full potential of the possibilities. The ongoing and conscious attempt to make Jewish arts and culture a part of all that we do – including in our leadership and professional studies programs, where we have an entire course on Jewish aesthetics – secures an important place for Jewish cultural expression and the advancement of Jewish arts and culture and it enormously enriches those programs, developing significant sensitivities and skills in our students, attendees, and patrons.

As in many areas, funders are often looking for partnerships and collaboration. They want to see their funds work across institutions and disciplines. While it is increasingly difficult to secure funds for individual exhibits, cultural programs, and even collections acquisitions (as it is by the way for stand-alone programs in most areas of Jewish life and education), there are still many exciting opportunities to support important and innovative arts and culture initiatives by weaving them in to other or larger initiatives.

Take for example, the use of technology. While performances and exhibits are central to our work, we also realize that the use of technology allows us to expand that work and to broaden the access and engagement of our programs and collections. We have found that our work providing online access to arts collections and other resources as part of a broader technology proposal – which also demonstrates the teaching value of including material culture in curricula, for example – has been very appealing to individual donors and foundations. We have also had a great deal of success in finding funding and off-site venues for smaller exhibits and displays related to broader themes or programs – with Spertus-curated events at synagogues, Federations, and JCCs, for example – that reach and impact a range of population segments in the Jewish community. Such exhibits lend themselves organically to the development of related programs and institutional partnerships.

At the end of the day, there are a great many challenges facing Jewish arts and culture. Still, rather than throwing up our hands at the lack of willingness of donors to support the arts, it may be more fruitful to find ways to integrate the arts and culture into everything that we do. That will require thinking differently than we currently do about the nature and engagement of the arts and how best to extend their role in our communities and beyond. But Jewish arts and culture matter – they have their own intrinsic values, and they also teach us about innovation and creativity in ways that can be remarkably useful and enriching in our lives and work. As with arts and culture more generally, we must apply those skill sets not only in the products, but in the processes of development and programming and in the engagement of the community. Jewish arts and culture need support, of course. At the same time, those who practice and value them must find ways to make them part of the community’s life and priorities – in traditional as well as new ways – so that they remain sustainable and relevant for the future.

Dean Phillip Bell is Dean and Chief Academic Officer at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and a scholar of early modern Jewish social and cultural history.