Philadelphias Jewish history museum reopens after bankruptcy and a 2-year shutdown – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted By on May 20, 2022

The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History opened this past weekend for the first time since the pandemic lockdown shut its doors in March 2020.

That would be cause enough for museum officials to celebrate. But theres more.

The reopening follows a crippling bankruptcy and marks the first time the museum will operate at its current location with no construction debt hanging over its head and no mad scramble to cover regular interest payments.

Thanks to the largesse of designer, shoe manufacturer, and philanthropist Stuart Weitzman, 79, the museum has shed all of the long-term debt carried since the 2010 opening of its new $150 million facility off Independence Mall at Fifth and Market Streets.

Its unbelievable, said president and chief executive Misha Galperin, as he stood in the museum lobby and greeted visitors. Galperin took the reins of the museum just three years ago.

We had filed for bankruptcy on March 1. March 13 was a Friday and we closed the doors because of COVID. We canceled the big event that was scheduled for March. We had this whole plan for how were going to go forward. And then, you know, wham bam, Galperin said.

COVID hit.

And then we werent eligible for [federal COVID relief loans] because we were in bankruptcy. So thats two years we were held up. But we pivoted very quickly to be online and had enormous success with that. And we were fortunate to figure out how to exit bankruptcy in September of last year, and then Stuart came through with his transformational gift, he said.

And now Galperin greeted visitors on reopening day as he awaited Weitzman, who was in town he lives in Connecticut for meetings with museum officials and with Penn, Weitzmans alma mater and another recipient of his largesse. The Penn design school is now named after him.

Weitzmans gift to the museum in November was more than $20 million, he says, and allowed the museum to buy its own building and build its endowment.

The museum reopening is marked by a new exhibition of artworks and installations conceived by artist Jonathan Horowitz, The Future Will Follow the Past. Designed specifically for the museum, the exhibition explores the changes the country has experienced since 2020, addressing anti-Semitism, racial violence, immigration, womens rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Juxtaposing Horowitzs work with objects from the museums core collection, the exhibit is scattered across four floors. The proximity of the various works creates a dialogue, museum curators said.

For instance, a copy of Faith Ringgolds We Came to America (the original is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) depicts Africans swimming toward a Black Statue of Liberty as a ship burns in the background. Ringgolds powerful image hangs in front of a more conventional view of the statue from a 19th century advertising poster, possibly for soap, said Claire Pingel, the museums chief registrar and associate curator.

Nearby is an untitled Horowitz sculpture that explores the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where hundreds of white supremacists, Klan sympathizers, and neo-Nazis gathered in a violent protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. One counter-protester was killed. Afterward, Charlottesvilles city council ordered that the Lee statue be hidden, covered by a black tarp. Six months later, a judge ordered that the covering be removed.

Horowitzs sculpture presents the covered sculpture cloaked in black. Interestingly, the Lee statue was created by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a young Jewish sculptor from Virginia who lived in Rome. Ezekiel fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and later crafted both Confederate and Union monuments, as well as sculptures decorating the United States Capital.

When Weitzman arrived at the museum after visiting Penn, he said that this kind of innovative display has been characteristic of the museum throughout his experience of it.

I loved it when I visited it, Weitzman said of trips going back several years. Im involved with Penn a lot and then I heard that this building might become an office tower because the bank was owed all this money.

Weitzman did not care for that idea so, about a year ago, he sold an extremely rare Double Eagle gold piece, a unique stamp, and another block of four stamps at Sothebys for a reported $32 million.

These guys benefited from it, Weitzman said glancing around at Galperin and a few museum board members.

Ive actually had an impact on the museum experience, he said.

A few years ago, he called up his friend Sidney Kimmel, who had just stepped down as museum board chair, and said, Sydney, Im looking at 15 renowned Americans on a screen here [at the museum], and one of the pictures in the lower right corner is Ethel Rosenberg, Weitzman said, referring to the museums Only in America gallery hall of fame. I said, What in the world is that museum thinking? Ethel Rosenberg? Known? Yes. Renowned? No. And he said, Hey, I dont know. I helped build the place 20 years ago, but I dont run it. But would you send me a shot of that screen? And within a week her picture was down.

Weitzman was impressed, and he realized he could have an impact.

I began to come around and send people, my kids, he said. Its the only museum, I believe, that is dedicated to American Jewish history. If he could help the museum avoid falling into bankruptcy and becoming an office tower, he would find it.

Josh Perelman, the museums chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, was asked about the Ethel Rosenberg incident. He said he was not party to any conversations Weitzman had with Kimmel or other board members.

But, said Perelman, the museum is dedicated to presenting multiple viewpoints.

We are committed to exploring history from multiple different perspectives, Perelman said. Part of understanding, whether its our history as a community of Jews or our history as a nation, sometimes that means asking hard questions. Sometimes that means facing people or events that challenge us.

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Philadelphias Jewish history museum reopens after bankruptcy and a 2-year shutdown - The Philadelphia Inquirer

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