Director steps down as Magnes restructures

The director of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley is stepping down, marking further integration of the museum with U.C. Berkeley.

Alla Efimova, who has served as the Magnes director for six years and oversaw the museum’s transition from an independent entity to being part of U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, will leave at the end of June, according to a May 30 university press release.

Rather than hire a new director, the Bancroft Library will appoint a faculty committee to advise it on the collection during the next year.

Alla Efimova

Curator Francesco Spagnolo, who has been with the Magnes since before the merger, will remain in charge of exhibits and community programming.

The leadership restructuring has been on the horizon since the Judah L. Magnes Museum gifted its 11,000 items to the university and left its longtime home in a converted Berkeley mansion, reopening in January 2012 on Allston Way near the U.C. Berkeley campus.

“It’s going to become a different kind of institution. That was always anticipated,” Efimova told J. “I’ve taken my part of the Magnes leadership as far as I can.”

U.C. Berkeley law professor Ken Bamberger, faculty director of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, said the latest step is part of the plan to integrate the collection with the university’s world-class academic assets.

“What we’re seeing in terms of the place the Magnes has arrived and the potential going forward is tremendous,” said Bamberger, who will serve on the Magnes’ new faculty advisory committee. “I think this is a moment where we can certainly celebrate past accomplishments and look forward to a really robust, exciting future.”

Bamberger said the collection’s relationship with the university’s new Center for Jewish Studies, created last October, will continue to grow.

Graduate students in Jewish studies already have done work in conjunction with the Magnes, including “Saved by the Bay: The Intellectual Migration from Fascist Europe to UC Berkeley.” The student-driven research project grew into a full-fledged public exhibit.

Bamberger said that kind of synergy is what many had hoped for when the Magnes donated its astounding collection of Jewish artifacts from around the world — the third largest in the United States, according to the university — and its archive documenting Jewish life in the West to a high-caliber research university.

Indeed, many have observed the merger in a positive light. After the Magnes reopened 30 months ago as part of the Bancroft Library, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker named it “most improved” museum of 2012.

The Magnes museum in Berkeley

Efimova has been with the Magnes for 10 years, four years as curator and six years as director. A press release from U.C. Berkeley noted that “she has effectively orchestrated and led the effort to make the Magnes a public asset for teaching and research, and a showcase of the Bay Area’s Jewish heritage.”

Under her directorship, the Magnes has put on many important exhibits, including “Global India: Kerala, Israel, Berkeley,” which drew on the collection’s extensive holdings to document the 2,500-year history of Jews in Kerala, India. Recently, Efimova co-authored and developed the catalog “The Jewish World: 100 Treasures of Art and Culture.” Scheduled to be published in the fall, the book showcases special pieces from the collection, providing an overview of Jewish art that spans multiple dimensions of Jewish life across the globe.

Additionally, Efimova has developed long-lasting partnerships with many Bay Area cultural and social service organizations. She told J. she anticipates staying involved in Magnes affairs “in one way or another.”

Elaine Tennant, director of the Bancroft Library, said in a press release, “I am most grateful to Alla Efimova for her years of dedicated leadership,” adding that she “has done a splendid job guiding the transformation of the Magnes” from a private museum into its new role.

Prior to the transformation, the Magnes went through a tumultuous series of events. In 2001, the boards of the Judah L. Magnes Museum and the Jewish Museum San Francisco (now the Contemporary Jewish Museum) agreed to merge and become the Magnes Museum.

The merger was a result of both museums’ failure to raise money for competing Jewish museums on either side of the bay. But financial problems plagued the institution from the start and led to infighting among museum leadership.

The new joint museum suffered from a $2 million budget shortfall, was $400,000 in debt and laid off half of its 19 employees, leading to bitter complaints from patrons and even Magnes founder Seymour Fromer.

A J. editorial at the time captured the anxiousness with which many community observers viewed the floundering partnership, questioning why the Magnes pursued a merger with the Jewish Museum San Francisco to begin with.

“Now,” the editorial noted, “the Berkeley museum’s future is as murky as that of the San Francisco museum.”

After just 13 months together, the museums reverted back to distinct entities, but the Magnes’ troubles were far from over. Financial and staffing issues prevented it from reopening with regular hours until October 2003.

Part of the trouble — perhaps eased since 2012 by the visibility that has come with its new home — was that despite its impressive collection, the stand-alone museum on a quiet, residential street in Berkeley never seemed to attract the attention it warranted.

“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,’ ” Efimova told J. in 2009 when the museum was in negotiations with U.C. Berkeley.

The Magnes collection is recognized as one of the finest Judaica collections in the country. Fromer, who died in 2009, opened the museum with his wife, Rebecca, in 1962 and the two traveled across Europe, Morocco, India and elsewhere to build the collection.

Named for the first rabbi born in the Western United States, the museum was intended to serve as an ethnographic reflection of world Jewry as opposed to simply a depository for valuable objects.

The collection is also famous for its Western Jewish History Center (now called the Western Jewish Americana Archives). The archives contain artifacts and documents tracing Jewish involvement in the Bay Area and Western states since the Gold Rush.


Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.