Ill-fated marriage of 2 museums slated to end June 30

Representatives of the Jewish museums of Berkeley and San Francisco will vote Tuesday on officially going their separate ways.

If the combined 57-member Magnes Museum board approves the split of the ill-fated merger as expected, the two institutions will end their combined operation as of June 30.

"We're looking forward to an amicable separation," said Irv Rabin, president of the Berkeley-based Judah L. Magnes Museum board. "I'm very, very optimistic that people will be happy in the long run with the arrangements."

Reached on a trip to New York, Connie Wolf, the CEO and executive director of the merged museums, declined Wednesday to give details on the future of the San Francisco facility until after the board vote.

"I don't think this is the moment [to speak] until everything is approved," said Wolf, who will become the director and CEO of the Jewish Museum San Francisco. "Our board hasn't even seen the de-merger agreement."

The San Francisco board will be headed by Roselyne "Cissie" Swig, who was not available for comment.

In February, the Magnes Museum board voted overwhelmingly to undo a merger of the two institutions that was launched in January 2002 amid fanfare and high hopes for two new museum locations. But the deal soon was beset by budget woes and community criticism.

The organization's two co-chairs, business executives Warren Hellman and Daniel Offit, abruptly resigned in January, citing the "unabating uproar" from unhappy museum backers in the East Bay.

Museum managers had came under attack for staff cuts made to close a $2 million budget shortfall. Supporters of Berkeley's Magnes, the home of the country's third-largest collection of Judaica, complained that the layoffs, which included an equal number of workers in San Francisco, had gutted their institution.

Meanwhile, a new San Francisco museum, a $100 million facility planned for a historic PG&E substation on Jessie Street, was stalled by lagging fund-raising efforts and the sour economy. The museum has offered occasional shows on the first floor of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building.

While Wolf said Wednesday that she would provide more details about the San Francisco museum's future after next week's vote, Magnes officials said in recent interviews that the future looks bright for their Berkeley museum.

Joanne Backman, hired in March to serve as the Berkeley museum's acting executive director and chief operating officer, said she hopes to reopen the Magnes in mid-October with an exhibit.

Curated by Magnes co-founder Seymour Fromer, the show will feature his favorite pieces, artifacts that represent his best acquisition stories and objects telling stories of rescue from vanishing Jewish communities, she said.

"It's very exciting," Backman said. "Each time he tells a story, [staff members] get goosebumps."

For now, the Berkeley museum's three galleries are empty. Operating with a staff of one half-time and four full-time employees, the museum's historical archives and library are open by appointment.

"This is such an amazing opportunity here," said Backman, a former financial officer at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services and the Jewish Museum San Francisco. "I just feel like we're giving back to the community a real gem and a treasure, and I'm excited about it."

Backman described the negotiations leading up to the proposed de-merger agreement as "fairly straightforward…and very productive because everyone had the same goal in mind."

The Magnes is now located on residential Russell Street just west of the Claremont hotel, but it also has a building on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley. Both buildings are owned "free and clear," according to Rabin.

He said plans to build a two-story museum on Allston Way topped by a couple of floors of faculty housing are "alive and moving."

Rabin added that "we expect to have a substantial size facility," one that could be up to five times the size of the Russell Street museum.

He hopes to see the new Berkeley facility built and opened in three to five years. "I'm very, very upbeat," he said.