San Francisco Jewish Museum Has a Blank Space for Dissenting Artists

San Francisco Jewish Museum Has a Blank Space for Dissenting Artists

This winter, a guest curator selected nearly 70 artworks to include in the California Jewish Open, an exhibition starting Thursday at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. More than 500 Jewish-identifying artists in the state had submitted works under the general theme of “connection.” Many pieces were apolitical. Some articulated support for Israel. Others expressed solidarity with Palestinians.

Executives and curators had expected jostling perspectives when they issued an open call in November, at a moment the American Jewish community was already splintering over Israel’s military response in Gaza to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks.

What they did not foresee, though, was that after the selections were made in February, seven artists (two worked as a pair) would pull their six works out of the show in April following back-and-forths with the museum. The artists made demands, including wanting control of their works’ presentation, institutional divestment by the museum from companies that do business with Israel and boycotting Israel itself.

Now, visitors will see, alongside the 63 works by 47 artists in the exhibition, six wall spaces left intentionally blank by curators — preserved, according to accompanying text, “to honor the perspectives that would have been shared through these artworks, and to authentically reflect the struggle for dialogue that is illustrated by the artists’ decisions to withdraw.”

The dispute and the museum’s response go to the heart of a debate over how institutions ought to lend voice to dissent and how artists might balance the idea of expressing their disagreement by pulling out of a show against remaining in the exhibition as dissenters.

Much as the museum was surprised by the retractions, several of the artists did not expect their work to be accepted. Members of a collective that calls itself California Jewish Artists for Palestine had submitted pro-Palestinian pieces to the open call — believing they would be rejected — in order to “bring visibility to anti-zionist Jewish artists in California,” according to a statement by the group. But works by five of the artists were accepted, among them Steph Kudisch’s “nisht keyn tsedek, nisht keyn sholem,” a linocut with the Yiddish and English words for “no justice, no peace.”

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s refusal to agree to several of the collective’s demands compelled those members whose works had been chosen to leave the exhibition.

“Some of us initially agreed for our artworks to be included in the show upon their acceptance because we dared to hope that maybe this was a sea change moment,” the collective said in an email.

“Maybe the CJM would be the first mainstream Jewish museum to take a stand against the genocide of Palestinians through the display of our artworks. However, this was not the case,” the group added.

(Israel says its military campaign is intended to destroy Hamas in response to Oct. 7.)

Kerry King, the executive director of the museum, told the dissenting artists that these asks were not feasible. She also drew a line defining what speech the museum would and would not tolerate: “As an institution,” she wrote to the artists, “we have before, and will continue to present works that may be critical of Israel and show support for Palestinians. However, what we cannot do is question the right of Israel to exist at all, implicitly or explicitly.”

In interviews, the artists who remained in the show, including ones who are also critical of Israel’s conduct, defended staying inside the institution’s conversation. “I felt removing my work wasn’t going to further goals toward ending a war, and it was a net positive to have Jewish voices being heard, creating community and support,” said Kim Kyne Cohen, whose exhibited work, “Jug” (2023), is a ceramic sculpture that recalls a bottle of Kedem kosher grape juice bearing the words “Oy Vey!”

She added, “I feel sad their work isn’t going to be shown because I am a believer in all perspectives being represented.”

The conflict is the latest summoned by the Israel-Hamas war over how to balance institutions’ right to curatorial freedom against artists’ desire to express themselves.

Activists have protested this year’s South by Southwest festival, the Venice Biennale and Eurovision over Israeli or Israel-aligned participants. (When Israel said it would proceed with its Biennale pavilion, despite calls for the country to withdraw, the artist and curators chose to close their exhibit until “a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached.”)

Last month, employees walked off the job at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle over an exhibition whose language they felt framed “Palestinian liberation and anti-Zionism as antisemitism.” Earlier this year, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — which sits across the street from the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood — closed for weeks after some artists altered their own works with pro-Palestinian slogans and imagery.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s open call was initially conceived under the theme of “joy.” But after Oct. 7, the team settled on “connection” to recognize both successful feelings of kinship and the failure to find common ground in a community already divided over Israel.

The museum has played with this notion before: A 2022 exhibition around the theme of “tikkun,” the concept of repair, featured a triptych of vases, each bearing a small Palestinian flag.

“I thought the open call could be very fraught because of what had just happened here at Yerba Buena and what was happening around the country and around the world with more typically Zionist spaces or spaces with clearly Zionist backing, the darts being thrown in every direction,” said Amy Trachtenberg, an artist who remained in the show. “I still was interested in being within a conversation about Jewish identity and this war, and if it was possible to feel comfortable in a Jewish-designated space as an artist.”

Elissa Strauss, an author and the director of LABA Bay Area, a Jewish cultural group, was tasked with curating the show. Her picks represented diverse viewpoints because, she said in an interview, “Change can happen in conversation, in the context of relationships, and art really makes space for that.”

Tom Kasten, the chair of the board of trustees, affirmed this perspective in an email, saying it is the museum’s role “to create a space where people can come see artwork that may or may not reflect their own viewpoints.”

After Strauss made her picks, Heidi Rabben, the museum’s senior curator since 2018, informed the artists that the exhibition would include political works, among them pieces mourning Oct. 7 or expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments, and asked them to confirm their participation.

Trachtenberg said the museum’s choices had reassured her that “a range of voices” were included.

The collective’s requests for full autonomy over wall text and framing of their works as well as the museum’s institutional divestment from Israel and donors that benefit from Israel could not be met, the museum said.

In a response to their demands, King, the executive director, noted that young students visit the museum, so it requires final say over wall text and framing; King also said the museum could not agree to the proposed conditions on funding.

Faced with the works’ exclusion amid the increasingly ironic “connection” theme, Rabben conceived the idea of the blank wall space.

Robert Storr, an art historian, critic and former dean at the Yale School of Art, praised the curator’s decision, saying, “It’s a kind of Quaker solution to what’s an otherwise violent rhetorical situation.”

The collective and the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace are organizing a “family-friendly creative action” in front of the museum during the show’s opening Thursday evening.

The collective said it is approaching this contretemps “as Jews, with radical love — which means honesty, openness and true recognition of ‘Connection,’ the theme of the exhibition.”

From the opposite side, Rabben, the curator, said the museum, too, could express its perspective within the tradition it had inherited.

“One of the things that I always lean on as a defining element of Jewish culture is disagreement, debate,” she said. “Even if we anticipated some level of intense disagreement, it didn’t feel like something we either weren’t open to or are incapable of navigating.”

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