Chief curator adds personal touch to CJM

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Since becoming chief curator of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum last April, Renny Pritikin has had his hand in several exhibitions, each exploring the Jewish experience.

He’s also taken up interior decorating.

In the weeks ahead, Pritikin will oversee the installation of Sacramento artist David Lane’s 90-foot long, 12,000-pound “Lamp of the Covenant,” a massive, arc-shaped sculpture made of recycled steel, old tools and Edison bulbs, which will hang from the museum lobby ceiling.

That lobby, though airy and striking, definitely needed an artistic splash.

Renny Pritikin at the CJM exhibit ”J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch”

“There are no walls to hang art on in the lobby,” says Pritikin, who commissioned the piece that will go on display March 1. “It’s hard for an artist to compete with the architecture. So the only thing I could think of was to hang something from the ceiling.”

With a career that includes curating posts at several Bay Area art institutions, Pritikin, 66, thrives on artistic problem-solving.

“It’s been nine months of learning,” he says. “Learning how I can bring my experiences as a contemporary art curator to augment and rededicate this institution.”

That education helped him discover areas where contemporary art and Judaism overlap. One turned into the new CJM series “Havruta in Contemporary Art.”

It started early in his tenure when Pritikin proposed a series of artist collaborations. Associate curator Lily Siegel suggested pairing established artists with non-artists, asking them to create a project and then seeing what they come up with.

“I liked that idea and we started inviting artists,” Pritikin recalls. “I talked to our education director, told her we want to have these artist/non-artist collaborations. She said that’s chevruta.”

Chevruta is the time-honored Torah-Talmud tradition in which yeshiva students pair up to study together, grappling with and arguing about texts every step of the way. “It was a flash of recognition,” Pritikin adds. “We can hook in tradition and support local artists.”

The first chevruta project brought together art photographer Lindsay White with comedian Ron Lynch. Their 2014 exhibit, “In That Case,” was a series of images, many depicting Lynch as his character Mesmerizo, a bumbling magician.

The next pairing teams San Francisco artist Helena Keefe with Berkeley chef, author and food activist Jessica Prentice, a neophyte when it comes to art-making. Their exhibition, which premieres Thursday, Jan. 22, will explore the processes that touch on the food system and community life.

The content is not expressly Jewish, but the process that brought the work into being most definitely has Jewish origins.

Pritikin, a native of New York, earned his master’s at San Francisco State University. He landed his first museum job in 1979, serving as co-director of New Langton Arts in San Francisco, a job he held until 1992. From there he became chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts until 2004, and then went on to U.C. Davis, where he served as director of the Nelson Gallery until 2012.

The CJM had been on his radar long before the museum moved to its current facility on Mission Street. Pritikin says that from the time the museum opened in 1984 (formerly as the Jewish Museum San Francisco), he doubts he missed a single exhibition.

“I knew [former CJM executive director Connie Wolf] and always respected her,” he says. “The CJM has been a very feisty, interesting and vigorous institution.”

Working with new director Lori Starr, who came aboard in 2013, and the staff has been thrilling, he says. Currently, Pritikin is preparing his first personally curated CJM exhibition, “Bound to Be Held: A Book Show,” which opens March 26.

Created by San Francisco artist Josh Green, it celebrates the old-fashioned paper version of the book as an object worthy of veneration. The exhibit will include a collection of books personally read and donated by celebrities, along with statements explaining why the books matter to them. It will also feature a lending library and a quiet reading area.

For a museum dedicated to the people of the book, this one’s a natural.

“No one can argue about our relationship with books, an accumulated 2,500 years of text and scholarship that is absolutely at the center of Jewish experience,” Pritikin says.

Over the course of his career, Pritikin has traveled widely, from Ecuador to Japan to the Ivory Coast, exploring homegrown art. He visited Israel on a 1995 Koret Fellowship, an experience that solidified his appreciation for the country’s energy and diversity.

But in the Bay Area he has particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work with contemporary artists. Pritikin has a few words of advice for talented newcomers thinking of making art their vocation.

“I’ve been very lucky to have this career,” he says. “I tell [art] students you’re not going to get rich, but you’re going to have a heck of a lot of fun.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.