Tag Archives: Spertus

Two lost battles this week: Spertus Museum and Pluto Press

We’ve been following the distressing story about the powerful show on display at Chicago’s Jewish Spertus Museum on maps and the Holyland which featured Palestinian and Israeli artists. First it opened, then suddenly closed, then opened. In a follow up post about how the exhibit ruffled feathers in the institutional Jewish world (read: funders), we pointed to a Chicago Reader story about changes the museum was forced to make when the exhibit re-opened. Hat tip to Richard Silverstein and Google Alerts for the devastating news from the Chicago Tribune tonight that the exhibit was forced to close down altogether by upset funders.

Under intense pressure from angry Jewish patrons, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Friday abruptly closed the controversial “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibition, which explored Israeli and Palestinian concepts of homeland and how that is defined both historically and in the present day.

Critics charged that the combination of historical Holy Land maps and contemporary artwork cast Israel in a negative light.

“Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel,” said Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition. I was surprised and saddened by it.”

Jewish Voice for Peace’s own Lynn Pollack is quoted concerning the critically well received exhibit:

“These were not fringe Palestinian and Israeli artists,” she said. “These were mainstream artists who are able to display in their own country,” she said. “Why can’t this art be seen by American Jews?

Yet again, what’s the take home message here? That Jewish institutions can be counted on to be no-independent-thinking zones? For shame. Spertus deserves our support for having mounted such an important show.

Meanwhile, thanks to a tip from a reader, we learned from Inside Higher Ed that the University of Michigan finally, as many had long anticipated, severed its relationship with left publisher Pluto Press after pressure from right-wing pro-Israel groups.

In September, the University of Michigan Press faced intense criticism from pro-Israel groups–and questions from some regents–over its distribution of a book called Overcoming Zionism, which argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake and urges adoption of the one state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a
new country, without a Jewish character. Michigan wasn’t the publisher, but it distributed the book under a deal with Pluto Press, a leftist British publisher with extensive lists on the Middle East and international affairs.

Some critics of the book demanded that Michigan stop distributing the book, which it briefly did, and cut ties to Pluto immediately. The university declined to do so, and resumed distributing the book, citing both contractual obligations to Pluto and concerns that halting distribution because of content would raise issues of academic freedom. By the end of this year, however, Michigan will no longer be distributing the book or have any ties to Pluto Press.

This is a sad week.

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.

Holy Land map exhibit closed “for repairs”

Exhibit reopened, with newly appointed guides-see below.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies’ museum shut down an exhibit featuring Israeli and Palestinian born women artists. This is a transitional time. Staffers in Jewish institutions are taking baby steps towards open debate and inquiry. While we do not know the back story, it’s entirely likely that in this case, as in many similar instances, a major donor to the museum demanded a change. We’ll let you know when we find out more.

Spertus museum shutters Holy Land map exhibit
Curator says building repairs behind closing of controversial show

By Charles Storch and Alan G. Artner

A controversial exhibition on Holy Land maps and boundaries, both ancient and contemporary, was suspended in the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies’ museum less than a week after it opened.

Rhoda Rosen, the Chicago museum’s director and curator of the exhibition, “Imaginary Coordinates,” said Tuesday that the show was closed last Thursday because of maintenance issues in the 7-month-old building’s 10th-floor gallery. She acknowledged that the show is provocative and “some people expressed concerns about presenting these issues in a Jewish museum.”

She declined to elaborate on those concerns, saying only that they are coming from members of the institute’s “core audience.” She contended that the public response has been generally positive.

Because of the hiatus forced by gallery repairs, she said, “we took the opportunity to look at concerns as well.” She said shows on other floors are not affected.

She said she was hopeful the exhibition would reopen this week.

The show, which opened May 2 and is to run until Sept. 7, includes works by eight Israeli- and Palestinian-born female artists as well as maps from the Spertus collection.

Thematically, the show goes beyond conventional notions of national borders and mapping. It expresses the ideas in such means as a video by a Palestinian artist has her discussing her sexuality while showing images of her nude mother.

UPDATE: The Tribune reported on May 15 that the exhibit reopened after a week to move items out of the “harsh light.” (No unintentional use of metaphor there.) As we anticipated, a change was made: now, “selected” docents have been added to the tour. Following the logic of the stated reason for the closure, it’s not clear if they were necessary to shield the exhibit from the glaring light of visitors. While it is good to see the exhibit open, and with the content unchanged, this can hardly be seen as a victory for artists and free speech advocates. You can see art, but only if we tell you what to think about it. (What must the artists think about this?)

An exhibit on Holy Land boundaries and maps reopened Thursday in the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies museum after a week’s suspension.

Museum director Rhoda Rosen said the “Imaginary Coordinates” hiatus was needed to shift fragile items away from harsh light. Hourly tours led by her, selected docents and educators have been added to foster discussion about issues presented by the show, particularly Israelis’ and Palestinians’ differing ideas of homeland.

She acknowledged that after the show opened May 2, some visitors expressed concern about its geopolitical subtext but not about any exhibits.

She said the show’s content was not changed.