Follow up on “surreal” events at Chicago’s Spertus Museum

More on the story about the Spertus Museum:

Last week, the Chicago Reader spoke with Rhoda Rosen, the smart and courageous director of Spertus, Chicago’s Jewish museum. The Imaginary Coordinates exhibit on maps of the Holy Land (held as part of the city’s Festival of Maps), which Rosen worked on for 3 years, recruiting both Israeli and Palestinian artists, “was suddenly and mysteriously shut down” a week after opening. The public reason for the closure was too much sun light shining on the displays. This excuse was, pardon the pun, transparent. Chicago Reader’s Deanna Issacs remarks that the museum was housed in a spectacular state of the art showpiece building completed 6 months before, making the excuse unlikely.

For the next few days the museum’s Web site carried a notice that Imaginary Coordinates had been closed due to “unanticipated maintenance.” Reached by phone early in the week, Rosen blamed “building issues” but declined to elaborate. A call to Krueck + Sexton was referred to architect Tom Jacobs, who hadn’t heard anything about it. Subsequent calls to Rosen were returned by the museum’s outside public relations rep. No further information was available.

Meanwhile, word on the street was that the exhibit had proved too controversial for some key members of the Spertus audience. The Jewish United Fund, a major Spertus supporter, had taken a look and promptly canceled a May 13 fund-raising dinner booked for the tenth floor boardroom. Michael Kotzen, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, says he moved the event after hearing from “a number of people who thought the exhibit wasn’t appropriate” in “content and point of view.”

Then came word that the show would reopen “tweaked,” as Rosen put it, and with a new protocol: visitors would be admitted only on guided tours, to be conducted hourly. On May 15, she led the first tour herself, providing background on everything from Heinrich Bünting’s 16th-century German map, The Whole World in a Clover Leaf (with Jerusalem as its nexus), to Barbed Hula, a two-minute video of Israeli artist Sigalit Landau on a Tel Aviv beach, twirling a hoop of barbed wire around her naked torso. Other pieces include Ahmad Ibrahim’s Memory Map of Jimzu, showing every house destroyed in his Palestinian village in 1948, and artifacts like a menorah with shell cartridges for candleholders.

Other changes were made as well:

Rosen, who worked on the exhibit for three years, notes no art was removed from the show during the closure, although wall cards were revised and objects were rearranged. A case containing a paligirl T-shirt and black shorts with palestine emblazoned across the butt (sold by Detroit-based HZwear) was moved from its original spot on the path between the elevator and the boardroom. Rosen no doubt had some difficult days during the hiatus, but insists she’s not defensive about the result: “The board, staff, and myself stand behind the integrity of this exhibit,” she says, adding that the guided tours will provide “context” and encourage discussion.

It sets a terrible precedent to require tour guides for an art exhibit, to revise explanatory cards on the wall, and to even move items, but it’s important to see the forest for the trees. It’s likely that Rosen and staff did everything they could to protect the show. She and Spertus deserve support and kudos for standing behind the exhibit, which by all accounts is thought-provoking, beautiful and terrible, and highly relevant to political discussions today.

Funders used to supporting independent and critical thinking on everything BUT Israel-Palestine politics will have to get used to this new landscape. Besides, exhibits like these, are indeed, “good for the Jews.” Thank Spertus and Rosen for standing behind the show.