Chicago Museum Closes Contentious Exhibit
- Chicago Museum Closes Contentious Exhibit
By Rebecca Spence
Thu. Jun 26, 2008
MAPS: "Landslide," by the artist Shirley Shor, was one of the art
works in a controversial exhibit at the Spertus Museum in Chicago.
In the wake of an outcry from Chicago-area Jews, the Windy City's
only Jewish museum closed down a high-profile maps exhibition that
parsed the issue of Israel's borders and boundaries.
The Spertus Museum, part of the 84-year-old Spertus Institute of
Jewish Studies, located on Chicago's South Loop, announced June 20
that it was shutting down Imaginary Coordinates, which was
originally scheduled to close in the fall. The institute's board of
trustees came to the decision after nearly two months of vocal
opposition from constituents. "When it came down to the bottom line,
there were large numbers of people who were deeply pained by the
exhibition," said the institute's president, Howard Sulkin. "Every
exhibition should have some disagreement or it's not good art, but
this went beyond that."
The controversy generated by the Chicago exhibit is raising
questions about the broader role of Jewish museums around the
country. As Jewish museums come of age and seek to define themselves
in the contemporary landscape, they are taking more risks. Indeed,
according to trustee Marc Wilkow, who has served on the Spertus
board for a decade, the museum which only six months ago unveiled
its new home, a $50 million architecturally cutting-edge building
is seeking to serve as a platform for discussion of timely issues.
"Our mission goes well beyond looking back at our heritage. We also
want to talk about current issues, and serious issues, but we don't
want to offend people," Wilkow said. "That line can be hard to
identify, unfortunately, and sometimes you don't know that you've
crossed it until you've unwittingly crossed it."
The recently closed exhibition opened on May 2 and featured the
institute's collection of historic "Holy Land" maps, which date back
to the 16th century, as well contemporary Israeli and Palestinian
women artists' works that take up the question of regional
One video piece that raised eyebrows featured a woman asking
Israelis in Jerusalem for directions to Ramallah. The Israelis all
give her different directions and think that Ramallah is far away,
despite its close proximity to Jerusalem.
"The Israelis come across as unfeeling," said Michael Kotzin,
executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation
of Metropolitan Chicago. "It was seen by some as part of a pattern
of sympathetic treatment of Palestinians and a less sympathetic
treatment of Israelis."
Indeed, many Jewish viewers complained that the multimedia show
which was part of a larger citywide celebration of maps expressed
an anti-Israel bias.
The timing of the provocative exhibition, which opened during the
same month that Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, was also
viewed as particularly jarring for Jewish museum goers who had
anticipated that the show would celebrate the Jewish state rather
than raise tough questions about its borders and its treatment of
In addition to a number of complaints coming in from individual
Jews, Chicago's Jewish federation also brought concerns to the
museum's leadership within days of the exhibition's opening. The
federation funds the institute to the tune of $700,000 a year, or
about 10% of its overall $8 million operating budget.
The museum tried conciliatory measures, such as having docents give
tours of the show to provide context for the work. When that failed
to assuage critics, the 37-member board voted to shutter the
exhibition. Over the course of a painstaking four-hour meeting to
decide the show's fate, some trustees worried that a decision to
close the exhibit could be perceived as caving to pressure and that
it might be seen as censorship. At least one board member, whom
Sulkin declined to identify, threatened to resign if the exhibition
In a Chicago Tribune article, Lynn Pollack of the Chicago chapter of
the advocacy organization Jewish Voice for Peace said that she was
disappointed by the decision.
"These were mainstream artists who are able to display in their own
country," Pollack told the Tribune. "Why can't this art be seen by
American Jews? It's really a shame."
Jewish museums are straying from more traditional corners
nationwide. San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, which was
designed by Daniel Libeskind and opened to great fanfare in early
June, has no collection, and instead of looking at Jewish history,
it in part explores how Judaism in America has affected the broader
Kotzin said that the Spertus board's decision to close the
exhibition reflected the fact that Spertus was first and foremost a
Jewish communal institution. Still, some critics contend that Jewish
museums should function no differently than other museums, even as
they tackle thornier subject matter.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a museum expert who is currently
leading the core exhibition development team at Warsaw's Museum of
the History of Polish Jews, said that the role of museums is to
spark discussion and engage with controversial issues. And Jewish
museums, she said, are not exempt from that mandate.
"Museums should open a wider conversation, and there was an
opportunity here to do just that," Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. "I
don't think museums should be about consensus. They should be a
catalyst, and then they should be prepared to deal with the
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