Head of Contemporary Jewish Museum promises new home will be built by fall 07

Come fall 2007, Connie Wolf knows where she’ll be. She’ll be attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the brand new home of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Bet on it, she says.

With controversy swirling about when — or even if — the habitually delayed Yerba Buena Gardens building will open, Wolf, the museum’s director and CEO, claims the San Francisco institution has never been in better shape.

“Oh yeah, this museum is going to be built — with great pride and great confidence and great support from this community. I think this will be something everyone can be proud of.

“People have rolled up their sleeves in a way they’ve never done before. They know that, this time, it’s going to work.”

Despite the museum’s tumultuous history, Wolf and members of the board of trustees contend the ongoing construction project is on schedule to break ground by spring 2006, and on budget — though Wolf declines to specify what that budget is.

“At this point we’re still doing some financial modeling and planning,” says Wolf. “So many numbers are flying about, the last thing we want to do is provide numbers and then change them.”

Wolf claims the museum has exceeded 50 percent of its revised goal toward a building and endowment fund, but she will not reveal specific numbers.

However, Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, the museum’s board president, says the final fund-raising goal will be “at least” $75 million for endowment and building, and confirms that 50 percent of that number has been reached.

But Swig says she “would love to see somebody dwell on other things besides the money.”

In late 2001, the museum had entered into a merger with Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, only to separate in February 2003, having expended vast amounts of time, effort and money in a failed partnership that resulted in bitter feelings on both sides of the bay.

Before the merger, the new San Francisco museum had been tentatively set to open by 2002 or 2003.

Wolf says when the merger was disbanded, the museum had $17 million in pledges toward its new home.

However, a December 2002 commentary in the Jewish Bulletin by Rabbi Brian Lurie, the museum’s former executive director, stated that “by September 2000, more than $63 million was pledged or solidly in the pipeline” toward the Yerba Buena Gardens museum.

Some of that difference can be explained by withdrawn pledges. Also, a “small amount” of funds were “spent on different aspects of the building site,” according to Wolf.

Wolf, Swig and others were angered by a Friday, May 21, front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing the museum’s long efforts to fund and build a new home, and concluding that both the Jewish and Mexican Museum projects presented “a dim hope for the future.”

The world-famous Daniel Libeskind, Wolf emphasizes, is still on board as the museum’s architect (and, in fact, was in town this week). She and Swig also point out that money paid to his firm and spent for structural and other such studies has not been wasted, as large portions of his original plan are still intact.

The museum at one point aimed to raise $100 million for both the building and an endowment fund.

Neither Wolf nor Swig was able to reveal how much money has been expended in fees and studies, but tax records indicate Libeskind’s firm was paid $2.69 million between the fiscal years of 1999 and 2001 alone.

“We’ve been very frugal in how we’ve spent our funds,” insists Wolf. “But this has been a process that’s gone on over a period of time.”

Wolf and members of the museum’s board also take issue with the Chronicle’s reporting of $17.1 million in “total city subsidies” advanced to the museum. “The city has not given us one red cent,” says board member Marilyn Waldman.

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency did, however, present the museum with its $6.12 million building, Wolf adds.

And she sees other financial transactions as “trades” rather than gifts. For example, in return for constructing a subterranean garage beneath the museum, the city will build the museum’s foundation.

However, Amy Neches, the Redevelopment Agency’s senior project manager for the Yerba Buena Center, says the city could have built the parking garage without offering to do any work on the museum’s foundation.

“It was part of our commitment to the museum. We’re not handing them bags of cash, but we are doing work and spending money on their behalf,” says Neches.

She adds that, including money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, total support to the museum has been $17.175 million to date. The Chronicle article, in her opinion, was “reasonable.”

Unlike that article, however, Neches does not predict a “dim future” for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “We’re continuing to work on getting them built, so we think they’re going to get built,” she says.

“I think it’s a great project and I have a lot of faith in our partners.”

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.