NEW YORK, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The Jewish Museum, which started as a small collection of ceremonial objects at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is celebrating its centennial as a repository of 28,000 ethnic artifacts as well as an art institution that mounts some of the most provocative exhibitions to be found anywhere.
Unlike the Holocaust museums that continue to be built or expanded in Europe and the United States, the Jewish museum offers visitors a total Jewish experience covering 4,000 years of a culture that has contributed much to the arts. The centerpiece of its centennial will be a major exhibition of the work of Amadeo Modigliani, a favorite artist of museum-goers around the world.
Ensconced in the handsome neo-Gothic Warburg family mansion on upper Fifth Avenue since 1947, the Jewish Museum offers a permanent exhibition of 800 artifacts titled "Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey" that is unrivalled even in Israel. It covers an amazingly wide range of topics from the origins of synagogue architecture to the importance of European cafes in Jewish intellectual life.
According to statistics supplied by Joan Rosenbaum, the museum's director since 1981, the number of visitors has increased steadily to about 200,000 a year, of which about 64 percent are Jewish. The museum was greatly expanded in 1993 by an addition in the original neo-Gothic style, a gift shop, and a café serving kosher refreshments.
Under Rosenbaum's direction, the Jewish Museum has moved back to its ethnic roots after decades of indecision as to its mission. In the 1950s and 1960s it had acquired a reputation for exhibiting avant-garde art by such artists as Jasper Johns, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Rauschenberg with tenuous links if any to Jewish culture. Its rich collection of Judaica was downplayed in those years.
"We didn't want to return to being a contemporary art space where Jewish content didn't matter," Rosenbaum said in an interview. "So we began to define this institution as an art museum that presents Jewish culture for people of all backgrounds. We continually ask how can people of all backgrounds can find some meaning here?"
Rosenbaum and her curators seem to have found the answer to this question by putting on shows related to Jewish art and the Jewish experience that have universal appeal, such as the current exhibition focusing on the intellectual dialogue between the visionary abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky and the revolutionary composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Other popular shows in recent years have featured the rarely seen works of Chaim Soutine and early paintings by Marc Chagall from his World War I years in Russia. An innovative exhibit devoted to Bohemian novelist Franz Kafka set new standards for displays of literary materials, and a show about the Dreyfus Affair successfully integrated the visual arts and social history..
Ignoring the old ethnic slur about Jews controlling Hollywood, the museum courageously originated a show titled "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting" that received a positive response from viewers. But another show that took chutzpah as well courage, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," roused a storm of controversy, especially on the part of Jews who thought some of the art trivialized the Holocaust.
The centennial exhibits promise to be more celebratory than controversial.
Eighty works of the Italian-born Jewish painter Modigliani, including his famous portraits with elongated features, will be on view from May 21 through Sept. 10. Also being offered are a commissioned laser installation by Shimon Attie and Norman Ballard, which opened last week, and the photographs of Lotte Jacobi, opening Feb. 6.
Also on the schedule are another major exhibition, "My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955," a reading of a work in progress by playwright Tony Kushner, a screening of selected films from the New York Jewish Film Festival, three centennial books focusing on the museum's collections, and a centennial ball in March at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
After its presentation at the Jewish Museum, the Modgliani show will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.