$3 million Diller gift spurs catalytic changes at CJM

Thanks to a significant gift from a major Bay Area foundation long associated with Jewish philanthropy, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is deepening its connection and commitment to modern Jewish scholarship.

A $3 million grant from the Helen Diller Family Foundation will lead to the creation of the Helen Diller Institute, a 2,700-square-foot center in a currently undeveloped space of the museum that will serve as a hub and incubator for ideas and museum projects. The gift is the single largest to the museum since it opened its new building on Mission Street seven years ago.

“My mother took an early interest in the CJM,” said Jackie Safier, daughter of philanthropist Helen Diller, who died in January at 85. The decision to make the grant to the museum, she added, took place during one of “the last phone calls we had with my mother” late last year.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

What is most gratifying for the foundation, said Safier, who serves as its president, is that the Diller Institute will bring under one roof three of her mother’s greatest interests: art, education and Jewish life.  She added that the foundation’s gift was also a vote of confidence in the CJM and its staff. “We always like to invest in institutions with incredible leadership,” she said.

The centerpiece of the new institute will be a beit midrash (study room), where Jewish scholars, creative professionals and community leaders will be able to engage in prolonged, meaningful conversations with the CJM’s curators, educators and other staff about contemporary Jewish life and the direction and scope of upcoming exhibitions and museum projects.

In addition to state-of-the-art teleconferencing technology for scholars and artists-in-residence who need to communicate with colleagues from afar, the beit midrash will provide space for training docents and gallery guides and for meetings convened by the CJM’s partnering institutions, such as the Wexner Foundation and the Shalom Hartman Institute. It will also house the museum’s growing library and archives.

The soon-to-be-transformed space will accommodate open workspaces and individual nooks for each museum exhibition. Until now, the space has been used to hold models for exhibitions.

Lori Starr, the museum’s executive director, said the designers and planners of the CJM — including renowned architect Daniel Libeskind and his firm — were prescient in creating this additional unfinished space for future uses.

Starr said the renovation will begin in early 2016. If all goes as planned, the Diller Institute will be up and running next fall.

Discussions for the establishment of a center that could serve as a breeding ground for innovation in museum programming started in November 2014.

Starr said that when she assumed the helm at the CJM two years ago, the thought of something akin to the Diller Institute was “a twinkle in my eye” that “really crystallized as we developed our strategic plan” last year. She described the Diller Family Foundation gift as “catalytic,” one that will not only inspire future gifts from other donors, but that will also propel the museum from “CJM 2.0 to CJM 3.0.”

Marc Dollinger, Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State University, who has often collaborated with the CJM, is among those anticipating such a propulsion. He said that by creating a dedicated space in which Jewish thinkers from around the world would be able to help hatch ideas and initiatives in collaboration with the museum’s staff, “the CJM is upping its game.”  Whereas academics have become accustomed to working with the museum on an ad hoc basis, the CJM is putting a system in place that will ensure these partnerships will occur with greater frequency and regularity, he said.

“If they want to be on the cutting edge of scholarship,” he said, “they are doing it the right way.”  Of the Diller family, he said, “They have been absolutely phenomenal for Jewish life … [Their gift] will have a qualitative impact on what the CJM can do.”

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.