Magnes in Berkeley will reopen after summer break

Docents' fears that the Magnes Museum will not reopen its Berkeley site after temporarily cutting its public exhibits for the summer, is "much ado about nothing," according to the museum's director.

While the Berkeley building on Russell Street will not host an exhibit for the next few months, its library and history center will remain open for use by appointment, said director Connie Wolf. Meanwhile, the museum staff will be "organizing and strengthening our collection" and planning an exhibition for the fall, she said.

The museum's San Francisco site, currently located in the Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street, will also close for the summer. While the museum will probably not reopen in this San Francisco location, Wolf anticipates that the Magnes will conduct public programs throughout the Bay Area.

"People have it in their mind that because we're not doing an exhibition this summer, that that's the end — but that's a false notion," said Wolf. "We never once used the word 'closed.' The reality is this: We are a merged institution with a location in San Francisco and in Berkeley."

The Judah L. Magnes Museum and the San Francisco Jewish Museum officially merged on Jan. 1. At that time new bylaws and procedures were drafted for the institution, the boards and staffs were combined into one, and Wolf, former director of the S.F. museum, became director.

Several docents have expressed dissatisfaction with the summer closure of the Berkeley site.

"None of the docents are happy about it," said Alice Prager, a docent for 16 years. "No one even told us about it until the very last minute."

A letter detailing the reasons for the summer closure, which starts today, including long-term debt and the cost of staffing, was sent to the docents last week.

"They feel they have to do this for economic reasons," explained Seymour Fromer, founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum. "I wish this wasn't necessary, but if we have the pledge to continue after the summer, that's about the best we can hope for."

Prager said she and others are still not satisfied. "It would be just wonderful if we could just keep it open," she said. "We could do our own fund-raisers to cover the daily expenses."

But Wolf said the closure is necessary to make the museum "financially stable and programmatically acceptable." She said the decision was based on her 20 years in the museum business, not an impulsive whim.

"There is a very small but vocal minority who are frustrated and unfortunately don't know a lot of the issues we face as a merged institution," said Wolf. "We too want the museum to succeed and to be here for generations to come. We are all fighting for the same thing."

The Magnes has been working to "make the transition as seamless as possible," said Wolf, mentioning the museum's infrastructure, databases and finances as some areas of focus.

Pre-existing construction plans for a proposed 90,000-square-foot site in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, and a new site on Allston Way between Shattuck and Oxford in Berkeley, are still expected to go on as planned, but Wolf said exact details are still unknown.