Scaled-back Jewish museum in S.F. gets a new name

As it prepares to dramatically shrink a building project that once had a $100 million price tag, the Jewish Museum San Francisco is also changing its name.

Starting with an exhibit opening in early March, the museum, which is renewing fund-raising efforts for a smaller home near Yerba Buena Gardens, will be known as The Contemporary Jewish Museum, said Connie Wolf, the institution’s director and CEO.

This marks the fourth time the museum has changed names in just over two years while forming — and then ending — a contentious merger with Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Known as the Jewish Museum San Francisco prior to that January 2002 partnership, the institution became part of the combined Magnes Museum until last summer when the paired organizations split and the San Francisco entity reverted back to its former name.

Wolf said the new appellation was selected to better reflect the San Francisco museum’s mission as a showcase for “contemporary perspectives on Jewish art, history and culture.”

Museum leaders, she said, were “really wanting to better reflect who we are and what we’re doing.”

The name was suggested by museum supporter Rich Silverstein, co-founder of San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein and Partners ad agency, according to Wolf.

The museum, meanwhile, is moving forward with design revisions and the “quiet phase” of a capital campaign to raise money for a scaled-back building designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, Wolf said.

“We are looking to reduce our expenses and our square footage by about 40 percent,” said Wolf in a phone interview this week.

She said that Libeskind remains “100 percent on board” as the project designer of the museum’s home at the historic PG&E substation on Jessie Street.

The acclaimed project became stalled last year by the economic downturn and lagging fund-raising efforts.

And the partnership, formed so the two institutions could collaborate, instead was beset by financial troubles and sharp criticism. Supporters of the Berkeley museum alleged that the San Francisco building project was jeopardizing the survival of their 40-year-old institution, which houses the country’s third-largest collection of Judaic items.

Back on its own, the Magnes reopened in October with an exhibit showcasing 130 artifacts from its 30,000-piece collection. The museum, now based near the Claremont Hotel, hopes to build a new site in the next two to four years in downtown Berkeley.

The San Francisco institution offers periodic shows at the Steuart Street offices of the Jewish Community Federation, but has no gallery space of its own.

Wolf said the name change would be unrolled in early March with the opening of a new traveling exhibit, “100 Artists See God.” Directors approved the name in December.

And next month, Wolf expects to present a revised construction schedule to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has issued $27 million in bonds to build a 450-car garage on the publicly owned site along with foundations for the Jewish museum and a Mexican museum.

While construction of the subterranean garage is underway, plans for the Jewish museum were still being worked out. Wolf said the revisions call for roughly a $38 million budget for a building that would measure about 60,000 square feet. On top of the construction costs, Wolf said the project needed funds for an endowment and operations.

“We have not finalized that number yet,” she said. But Wolf was optimistic about the renewed fund-raising campaign, saying that the project received $11.5 million in addition to the $17 million previously pledged.

In addition, she said the museum had received a “2-to-1” challenge grant from a group of anonymous donors who promised to contribute $10 million once the museum raises another $20 million.

She described museum directors as “filled with hope and promise” about the institution’s future.

Each week, Wolf said she receives calls from Libeskind, who is one of the architects tapped to rebuild the World Trade Center site. “This is a project that’s important to him,” Wolf said.