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Jewish diaspora boosts attendance

January 12, 2003|Chris Reynolds

Unless you have Andy Warhol photos of Impressionist paintings in King Tut's tomb, it's hard to be certain what will draw crowds to a museum. But if recent results at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and the Skirball Cultural Center are a fair indication, the lives of far-flung Jews are a good bet.

At the Autry in Griffith Park, officials say "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation" (which opened June 21 and continues through Jan. 20) was the engine behind an 18% increase in museum attendance from 2001 to 2002.

The show, organized by Autry senior curator Michael Duchemin with help from associate curator Meredith Hackleman and Ava Kahn, who edited the catalog, follows the growth of Jewish culture from the 1840s to the 1920s, when historians estimate that the Jewish population in the American West grew from nearly nothing to 300,000. But some of the show's accompanying programs have ranged well beyond those years. One screening and discussion in August, in fact, looked at the cultural perspective director Mel Brooks brought to his 1974 comedy, "Blazing Saddles."

In the first 5 1/2 months of the year, before the show opened, the museum drew 45,962 visitors, said Autry spokesman Jay Aldrich. In the next 6 1/2 months, with the Jewish show up, the museum counted 293,234 visitors -- a sixfold increase officials say far exceeds the usual summer bump in visitor traffic.

At the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood, "Shalom, Y'all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South," opened Dec. 12 as a secondary exhibition during the run of a larger show on artist Maurice Sendak. The Southern show, which runs through Feb. 9, features about 40 black and white photos by Bill Aron with accompanying text by Vicki Reikes Fox. Related programs included several documentaries full of eye-opening Judeo-Southern facts. (For instance: "Strange Fruit" may be widely known as a song sung by Billie Holiday, but it was written by a Jewish teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol under the name Lewis Allan.)

Accompanied by a catalog, the show grew out of a project by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson, Miss., and will travel to several other cities, including Miami. Like the Autry's show, the Skirball exhibition was supported in part by grant money from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.

Though the Skirball hasn't logged specific visitor figures apart from its overall holiday-season tally of about 1,200 visitors daily, a spokeswoman said the Southern show has been "wildly popular" and has inspired, at least temporarily, the introduction of grits to the Skirball restaurant's brunch menu.

-- Chris Reynolds

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