Acting Judah L. Magnes head to focus on de-merger

Joanne Backman hopes to sharpen the Judah L. Magnes Museum's finances — but first she's got to sharpen some pencils.

"Right now I'm figuring out where I can find stationery and where to sharpen my pencils," quipped Backman, tapped earlier this month as the Berkeley museum's acting executive director and chief operating officer.

A Berkeley resident for nearly 20 years, Backman, 52, came recommended as a financial wizard with decades of service to the Bay Area Jewish community.

After 16 years as the chief financial officer of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, Backman took up the same position at the Jewish Museum San Francisco for eight months in 2000.

Hired at a time when the museum harbored grand expansion plans, Backman said she left when it became clear the extensive projects she had been hired to help finance would not take place.

Her skills will be tested by a museum yet to officially sever its merger with the Jewish Museum San Francisco, a dispersed staff, unknown assets and no regular business hours.

Her initial appraisal of the museum's financial state: "Not dire at all.

"It's really a very positive outlook. I can't give you exact figures right now, but we've got no debt on two buildings, a tremendous collection of art and artifacts, and we have an endowment and cash on hand," she said.

Before she can start adding numbers and setting priorities, the Judah L. Magnes will have to formally cut its financial cord with the Jewish Museum San Francisco. While board members on both sides of the bay initially hoped the two institutions would be de-merged by April, Backman now believes that process will require another eight to 12 weeks.

Following the de-merger, Backman hopes to "rebuild the infrastructure" of a museum that lost most of its curatorial staff in a November cost-cutting move, raising the ire of many longtime Judah L. Magnes supporters.

"The Judah L. Magnes used to have an infrastructure and we don't have one now. We have to rebuild that infrastructure from nothing," said Frances Dinkelspiel, a museum board member.

Backman is uncertain when the museum will again open with regular hours, but she can't imagine doing so without more of a staff in place. She has talked to former staff members but said it's too early to discuss if or when they might return.

Backman's own tenure is uncertain as well, and it depends upon her rate of progress de-merging and then rebuilding the museum. She was hired to jump-start the museum out of its transitional state.

"I have been primarily brought on to act in an interim capacity so that I can provide the bridge from the merged museum to the de-merged museum. There are certain phases along the way I will hopefully see the museum through," she said.

"One is the signing of the de-merger agreement. Another is to get some infrastructure in place. And another is to open the doors of the museum and see that the community comes back, the collection is celebrated, and the board and staff and docent community and overall community participate in developing a set of objectives, a road map to the future."

This is "not going to be months, and could well be years," Backman said, adding that she could entertain the future possibility of removing the "acting" from her job title.

Several of Backman's former associates and employers have described her as especially well-suited to take over the Judah L. Magnes at this time. She comes to the job with a track record of getting nonprofit organizations and startups — Jewish and otherwise — off the ground.

"She's an expert on fiscal matters relating to nonprofit organizations. She really understands organizational dynamics and brings a lot of sechel [intellectual capabilities] to the enterprise," said Bob Zimmerman of Zimmerman Lehman, a San Francisco consulting firm for nonprofits, which Backman recently did contract work for.

"She knows the donors, she knows what their needs are and how to do the necessary shmoozing and fund-raising. She's uniquely placed to do that work well."

Backman served as the chief financial officer for the JFCS from 1984 to 2000, during which time the organization's endowment grew from $4 million to $30 million.

"She is very good at strategic planning and very good at all the nuts and bolts of finance," said Anita Friedman, executive director of the JFCS.

After leaving the JFCS, Backman had been doing consulting work, including a stint as a financial consultant for the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

She holds a master's degree in arts management from UCLA and has previously worked for a number of museums, including Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Napa Valley Museum, the Palo Alto Community Cultural Center and, of course, the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.