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You don't have to be Jewish ...

Judaism is the launching pad for the increasingly multicultural, eclectic entity that is the Skirball Cultural Center -- and a major expansion is underway.

September 07, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Debt-FREE and growing like crazy, the Skirball Cultural Center must be doing something right. Since opening seven years ago in a steel, glass and stone complex in the Sepulveda Pass, it has attracted more than 3 million people to its multicultural program of performing and visual arts, literary events, lectures, conferences and classes.

Perhaps the world's largest Jewish cultural institution of its kind, the Skirball will have a grand total of 500,000 square feet of built space on 15 acres when it opens the final phase of its current construction program, in 2005.

Exhibitions have always been part of the attraction at the airy, freeway-side oasis where people gather for lunch, weddings and ethnic music on the plaza. "Vision and Values: Jewish Life From Antiquity to America," the permanent "core" exhibition, drawn from the Skirball's 30,000-piece collection, tracks 4,000 years of Jewish history. Temporary shows have focused on everything from Sigmund Freud's psychiatry to Maurice Sendak's children's book illustrations, Larry Rivers' "History of Matzah" paintings and Joe McNally's life-size Polaroid photographs of ground zero heroes.

But the eclectic lineup can be perplexing to outsiders who try to get a grip on the exhibition program and figure out what, if anything, unites the disparate parts. Are the Skirball's galleries a venue for Jewish art and artifacts, multicultural shows with a Jewish connection, exhibitions with a social message or celebrations of Jewish people's accomplishments?

"It's not art for art's sake," says Uri D. Herscher, president and chief executive of the Skirball. "It's art for enrichment of a civilized world." And even though the material on view may not be art at all, that's about as close as anyone comes to defining the exhibition program.

Still, the Skirball is not a static institution, and now would seem to be the perfect time to give the center a sharper identity. For one thing, the display space is about to expand considerably with the addition of Winnick Hall, a three-story structure with a curved roof designed, like the rest of the campus, by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie. For another, the Skirball Museum, which runs the center's exhibitions, has a new director, Lori Starr, who is also the Skirball's senior vice president. She joined the institution in 2001 after 15 years as director of public affairs and communications at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Trust.

Winnick Hall contains two 8,000-square-foot galleries, which will nearly double the exhibition capacity to 33,000 square feet. One gallery -- called the Getty Gallery, in honor of the J. Paul Getty Trust's financial support of the Skirball -- is a temporary exhibition space on the third floor. It will open Sept. 12, 2004, with a landmark examination of Albert Einstein's life and scientific work. The second-floor gallery, to be inaugurated in 2005, will be the permanent home of "Noah's pArk," a rotating children's exhibition from a collection of 120 Noah's Ark sculptures created by folk artists and donated by Los Angeles collector and philanthropist Lloyd E. Cotsen.

"The new building reflects a priority," says Herscher, a scholar of American Jewish history who was born in Tel Aviv in 1941 to German Jewish refugees and immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1950s. "The fact that you will have an 8,000-square-foot gallery for changing exhibitions is saying to the world: The Skirball wants to have more of this."

But no radical changes are in the works. And that means presenting a broad array of exhibitions as integral components of the entire program. As Skirball publications state, the institution is "dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals," and it aims to "inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity."

That may sound like a recipe for a multicultural muddle, but Herscher says it's an expression of Jewish hospitality. "The joke in our home is that a Jewish dinner table is expandable," he says. "There is always room. At the Skirball, there is always room."

Begun in a basement

The museum -- which maintains a collection of archeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, Jewish historical materials and fine art -- got its start in 1972, in the basement of Hebrew Union College, near Exposition Park.

"When it was at its prime, it had a wonderful following," Starr says, "but with the exception of its school program it was basically a museum showing Jewish art to a Jewish audience. When we moved here, the museum team tried to take the best of what was, but they also wanted to explore new types of exhibitions. One real departure is the belief that we don't necessarily need to show the art of Jewish people to advance our mission."

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