Magnes partners with U.C. Berkeley to preserve collection

An expanded catalog of Jewish life, history and culture, from music and art to rare books and archives, soon will be available at U.C. Berkeley.

The Judah L. Magnes Museum’s 10,000-piece, preeminent collection will be under the university’s care and given a new name: the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library.

In the meantime, and while the library inventories the new surplus of materials, the Magnes will unveil a revamped website in July, giving the public online access to the collection database, thousands of images and the history of the Berkeley institution at

“It’s been a long journey,” said Alla Efimova, the Magnes’ director and chief curator. “It’s really a win-win situation and an elegant solution that makes sense fiscally and culturally.”

The relocation of the collection from Russell Street, where the Magnes has been since 1966, is being made possible by gifts totaling $2.5 million over five years from local philanthropists Warren Hellman, Tad Taube and the Koret Foundation.

Taube called the “expanded vision” of the Magnes “wonderful [and] important,” noting that digitizing the collection will “get a lot of younger people involved, broaden the horizon of scholarly inquiry and round out the very diverse assets that this community already had in those areas.”

Hellman, a former chairman of the museum, credited his participation in the historic move in part to a familial commitment to his cousin, Frances Dinkelspiel, president of the Magnes board of directors. He also carries a certain “loyalty and affection” for the museum, as his family is mentioned in the archives.


Architect rendering of the renovated Magnes building on Allston Way photo/courtesy of pfau long architecture

“I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it,” Hellman, who sponsors the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, said of his contribution. “There’s a tremendous overlap with the materials at the Bancroft and Magnes. Putting the two ‘thangs’ together, as we say in the folk music world, seemed to be great.”


The Magnes’ Western Jewish History archives, the world’s largest collection of letters, diaries, photographs and other documents relating to Jewish settlement in the West, will be housed in the reading room of the Bancroft Library on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Musical manuscripts and sheet music will be located at the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library.

Support from additional Magnes donors will finance the renovation of a building at 2121 Allston Way, in the heart of Berkeley’s arts and commerce district. The museum purchased the building, situated two miles from the original site, in 1997 for more than $2 million. About $1.5 million is still needed to complete the renovation fundraising campaign, Efimova said.

The 25,000-square-foot space will feature lecture and seminar rooms for visiting scholars and a state-of-the-art exhibit space for the Magnes’ prints, paintings, photographs, costumes and ceremonial objects.

The refurbished building is expected to open in August 2011, Efimova said. In the meantime, the collection is being kept temporarily in off-site storage.

“We expect to have a very vibrant center that will tap into the resources already existing at U.C. Berkeley,” she said. “I’m looking forward to opening the new building and collaborating with the campus and community to create this new space and resource.”

As for the Magnes’ infrastructure, the key curatorial staff from the museum, including Efimova, will move over to the Allston site.

Dinkelspiel will serve as one of two Magnes representatives on the Council of the Friends of the Bancroft Library, the library’s governing body. A second representative will be selected in the future.

The Magnes, a nonprofit entity, will convert to a supporting foundation under the tent of the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay. The Magnes will be the organization’s 11th supporting foundation, according to Executive Director Lisa Tabak.

The foundation’s board also is set to include Mark Reisbaum, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, forming a Bay Area–wide partnership. Hellman is chairman of the S.F. endowment fund.

The Magnes, founded in 1961 by Seymour Fromer (who died in October 2009), has faced challenges at different points in its existence.

A January 2002 merger with the Jewish Museum San Francisco (now the Contemporary Jewish Museum) proved unworkable and was dissolved. During the 13-month merger, the Magnes was virtually stripped of its curatorial staff and closed for the summer of 2002; it did not reopen with regular hours until October 2003.

Moreover, the Magnes has had difficulties selling itself as a must-see museum like San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art or the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the de Young and Legion of Honor.

“For most people, the word ‘museum’ brings certain connotations,” Efimova told j. in 2009. “Gift shop, exhibits all the time, coat checks and catalogs. Although it did a lot of very interesting, innovative work in terms of exhibitions and programs, the Magnes was never able to fully [become] this kind of ‘museum as destination.’ Because of its location in the shadow of a great research university, it’s not in the middle of the tourist traffic.”

Taube, a longtime financial contributor to the Magnes, said the three primary benefactors — the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the Koret Foundation and Hellman — took those factors and others into consideration and opted to “explore other avenues to put a solid foundation under a world-class institution.”

That led to the idea of partnering with a university, Taube said, referencing the success of the merger years ago between Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and University of Southern California, known now as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

Once the Allston Way building renovation is complete, the core Magnes collections will be more available to the public than ever before, according to Charles Faulhaber, director of Bancroft’s rare books and special collections library.

“This is the best of both worlds — a new and revitalized Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life as in integral part of the Bancroft, and a prominent physical and programmatic presence at the heart of the Berkeley arts district,” Faulhaber said. “What’s not to like?”