In the Greater Washington area, I’ve identified an estimated 95 congregations, five Jewish day schools, three JCCs, a number of national Jewish organizations, and one Jewish cultural center at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Locating even one Judaic fine arts gallery, however, has proven impossible. While there are a handful of art galleries with the potential to be high-level, serious Judaic art galleries that could sell to any Jew (or, for that matter, non-Jew) who shows an interest in Judaic art, my findings reflect that these few Jewish cultural facilities will tell you their priorities are: one, Jewish artists creating any art; and two, no Judaic themes.
The idea of cultural diversity is important. There is much to learn about other cultures from their dance, music, drama, and visual arts. In recent years, however I have noticed something very sad: our Jewish institutions have opted to only display other cultures’ art or secular creations in place of our own. When we do speak of Jewish artistic works, the only name I hear hear is Marc Chagall. There has been major growth in Jewish art well beyond Chagall, and my impression is that we just don’t know much about it.
If Jewish art is something we have little knowledge of and we do not prioritize it within our Jewish scope of learning, then the few art galleries we do have will not make Jewish art a priority.
To be clear, when I say Judaic art gallery, I am not speaking of the typical gift shops common to many synagogues, nor am I referring to the wall art that hangs in many Jewish institutions, given as gifts by its members. That art is permanent. In fact, having been up on the walls for so many years, too often the art is rarely noticed and exists as white noise. What I envision is a space that changes exhibits about every two months and markets each new exhibit not just to its own members but to the general community. In a short time, the community will become familiar with the gallery’s schedule and will soon anticipate new art displays.
A few years ago, I was called by a local congregation to guide them on how to properly set up an art gallery. Lighting, walls, and ways to best display the art are critical factors in addition to marketing new exhibits. I spent much of my time ensuring that the end product was something to be proud of.
Upon completion, I handed the committee chair a list of about 17 highly accomplished Judaic artists in the local area. The response was immediate: “Oh no, this gallery is only for secular art!” Shocked, I asked: “Why? Are you not a Jewish institution that should help promote Jewish culture?”
“Secular art sells better,” she said.
When we do have fine, quality Judaic art galleries within a synagogue or day school, the benefits are manifold. First, a Judaic art gallery can be an wonderful teaching tool for students learning about Jewish values, tradition, and history. The artists themselves may very well be guest lecturers for our many adult education lecture series or be available to do hands-on workshops with our children or teens. When the art is marketed properly both inside and outside the community, people will purchase the art and the revenue will flow back to the institution, but without proper, effective marketing, there can be no expectations.
When quality art sells and ends up in a Jewish home, it can often have a meaningful Jewish message. One time, a few years ago, a man from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, purchased a serigraph print of my work, “Shlome Bayit,” or peace and respect in one’s home. He was excited to tell me that after this art work that I called “Family Love” was placed in an important location in the living room; he wanted me to know that its message of love and respect for all family members had stopped numerous family arguments simply by having one family member point to it saying, “Remember, shalom bayit — let's have peace in this home.”
We have much to learn about Jewish life if we intend to pass on our theological, ethical, and cultural values to future generations. A high-quality gallery of Jewish art can be a wonderful tool for learning about Jewish life, and respecting our own culture (while at the same time respecting others) rather than replacing it.
Let’s look around our Jewish institutions and see how we can find ways to set up wonderful new Judaic art galleries that will not only bring in needed revenue, but be a major contribution to Jewish values, Jewish culture, and Jewish continuity.
By Avrum I. Ashery
Avrum I. Ashery is a Judaic artist/designer based in Rockville, Maryland.