Lisa Silberstein of Oakland Museum of California
Lisa Silberstein of Oakland Museum of California

Q&A: At Oakland Museum, she brings context to art, people and history

As experience developer at the Oakland Museum of California, Lisa Silberstein straddles the fence between the creative vision of a curator and the pedagogic skills of a museum educator. Working with an exhibition team that also includes a curator, designer and project manager, Silberstein, 40, is constantly asking herself and her colleagues, “What do our visitors need to know to get the most meaning out of a show?” The Oakland native has worked at the museum for 11 years. Early in her career, she was a program and curatorial assistant at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where she now lives.

J.: Having worked on many exhibits, you no doubt find it difficult to pinpoint one show that stands out as the pinnacle of your professional experience. But, if pressed, what exhibit would that be?

Lisa Silberstein: It would have to be “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,” which ran in 2016 and 2017. The curator and I met and spoke with more than 100 people from Oakland, including many former Black Panthers, such as Bobby Seale. It was an incredible project, both moving and powerful, to learn about the history of the Panthers. There was nothing in the curriculum in my schools about the Panthers when I was growing up, and many people have distrust of them to this day. They were followed by the FBI and were considered a threat. But Black Panther party members gave their lives to set up programs [for their communities], such as a free breakfast program that still runs today, and many are still struggling. It meant a whole lot to them to tell their stories. The exhibit led to a lot of intergenerational dialogue between younger people and older people who had lived through that time.

Anything coming up at the museum that you’re especially excited about?

Starting in April, we’ll be presenting “Queer California: Untold Stories,” which will have an emphasis on women, people of color and transgender individuals.

You hold a master’s degree in art history and museum studies from Tufts University. Art, history and museums are in your blood, aren’t they?

My parents are both teachers, my brother is a teacher, and my grandfather was an artist who trained at Cooper Union. My parents were steeped in the arts. During summers as a family, we exchanged homes with people in Europe — London, France, Ireland, Sweden — and everywhere we went, we went to museums and historic homes. That was a huge part of my growing up.

From a very young age, I only wanted to do art: painting, drawing, clay, theater, jewelry making. But once I got to middle school, where art was graded, I stopped doing it. But in high school, I took a photography and art history class, and that changed everything for me. I decided then and there that I could work in a museum.

Does your Jewish identity play a role in your work?

I think what I do is inextricably linked to the values that were instilled in me from an early age: looking at the past, bringing a voice to people who don’t have a voice, imagining a better world and telling stories that are accessible to people.

You created your own haggadah, too?

Yes, I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who kept Judaism alive in our family. He died five years ago. When he got sick, I took the mantle in leading the seders, and I created a social justice haggadah.

Other than the Oakland Museum, of course, can you name a half-dozen museums, anywhere in the world, people should visit during their lifetimes?

The Tenement Museum in New York City; the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, one of my absolute favorites; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles; the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a feast for the eyes; and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Dutch masters.

There are so many wonderful artists without the recognition they deserve. Can you recommend a handful the public should learn more about?

Hank Willis Thomas, an African American artist; Sofonisba Anguissola, a female 16th-century Italian Renaissance painter; Hung Liu, an Oakland-based Chinese American painter; Chris Vargas, who founded the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art; and Miriam Klein Stahl, a Bay Area artist who teaches at Berkeley High School.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

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.