Jewish Museum S.F., Judah L. Magnes vote to merge

The Jewish Museum San Francisco and Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum voted Tuesday to merge into one institution.

The executive committees of both museums unanimously approved the merger during a joint meeting. Both boards of directors had formerly given tentative approval prior to the due diligence process, which preceded Tuesday's vote.

Also at the meeting, the Jewish Museum San Francisco's executive director and chief operating officer, Connie Wolf, was selected to take the reigns of the new institution, to be called the Magnes Museum. According to Wolf, the Judah L. Magnes Museum's executive director, Susan Morris, will also play "a major role" but "it is not clear what yet."

The museums will continue to operate as separate institutions until the successful completion of a three- to four-month legal process.

In the meantime, said Wolf, "There is an understanding that we will be working side by side in good faith and with good feeling" to prepare for the eventual merger.

"We're all aware of the great deal of work it will take to ensure the new institution is as efficient and effective as possible," she added. "We need to rethink the whole structure: staff, program, governing board, collections, capital project, by-laws. There's a lot of planning to be done."

Decisions regarding the new museum's organizational structure, particularly the capital campaign, will be made by a new board of directors comprising both existing boards. A new executive committee will be selected.

A merger of the two institutions had been discussed several times in the past, with attempts in 1987 and in the early 1990s, but plans always fell through.

This time, however the timing was right, said Wolf and Morris, crediting changes in museum leadership and the approaching capital campaigns of both institutions as the driving forces.

The Jewish Museum San Francisco was seeking $100 million for its proposed 90,000-square-foot site at the historic Jessie Street Power Sub Station building in Yerba Buena Gardens. World-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who previously designed the new Jewish Museum Berlin, drew up the plan. It is tentatively set to open in 2003.

The Judah L. Magnes Museum, meanwhile, was preparing to announce a goal of $46 million for a new site on Allston Way between Oxford and Shattuck in Berkeley. The site was purchased in 1997, and preliminary designs were drawn up by Mark Cavagnero, an award-winning architect who also worked on the new Oakland Museum of California and the remodel of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

No decision has been made as to the fate of the current site of the Judah L. Magnes Museum on Russell Street.

The pre-existing construction plans for both museums will go ahead as planned, but the merger will significantly reduce the costs, said Wolf, noting that there are "financial efficiencies" to having one institution with two locations.

The exact goal of the new capital campaign is currently unclear, as are many other specifics about the new museum's organizational structure.