In March 2020, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The museum was $30 million deep in debt, almost four times the size of its operating budget. Now, after almost two years of uncertainty over whether it would survive the pandemic — a fate that haunted the museum in the years following the Great Recession, too — it reemerges with an eight-figure endowment and a new name paying tribute to the donor who has allowed the institution to start anew, debt- and rent-free: the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (WNMAJH).
Over a decade ago, the museum might have suspected that turbulent times were ahead. When the recession hit in late 2007, the museum was in the middle of its construction and endowment campaign. But keen on realizing its plans, the construction project barreled forward nonetheless, and the museum borrowed the remainder of what had not been raised. The NMAJH harbored grand ambitions for improving its attendance, membership, and donations with its new flagship spot. At the end of 2010, it unveiled its 100,000-square-foot building — which had been under construction for over three years — on Independence Mall, right across from the Liberty Bell. It was a huge upgrade from the one-room, 15,000-square-foot cubbyhole it had occupied since its founding in 1976 and shared with the synagogue Congregation Mikveh Israel.
In 2007, James Polshek, the same architect behind Washington, DC’s defunct Newseum, had been entrusted with designing the NMAJH’s new home, and the $150 million project now bore fruit. According to Polshek and his firm, the five-story corner edifice made of terracotta and glass was to symbolize the dialogue between openness on one hand, and survival and protection on the other. In 2010, in anticipation of the reopening, the Senate officially recognized the museum as the only one in the United States focused on the American Jewish experience.
But over the following 10 years, the loans the NMAJH had taken out for its construction represented an indubitable burden, threatening its financial sustainability. Worse, like many cultural institutions in the aftermath of the recession, the museum’s performance failed to meet the initial expectations. The museum projected 250,000 annual visitors with its new building, but could only muster 126,000 in 2011. As the decade trudged ahead, attendance numbers, along with membership and donation dollars, kept dropping. With its well-publicized debt burden, donors got cold feet and withdrew their support. Reportedly, people were asking about the museum “as if it were a sick relative,” concerned that it would not make it.
In 2017, the museum underwent restructuring and eliminated one-third of its staff to cut costs, bringing 50 full-time staff positions to just 32. “We lost half a dozen senior staff members, so that meant the remaining half-dozen all inherited a second department under their purview,” Kristen Kreider, director of visitor services and retail operations, explains to Hyperallergic. “Everybody had to take on more responsibility — whether you were senior staff or junior staff — and everybody had to work harder.”
Charlie Hersh, who worked at the museum for five-and-a-half years until being laid off in 2020, tells Hyperallergic that the layoffs in 2017 “were not handled very well” and that miscommunication was rife. Morale among staff took an immediate hit. The education department dropped from six full-time staff to three; burnout, Hersh says, was palpable. But they also emphasize that the overstretched and under-resourced daily reality they confronted on the job was “reflective of larger trends” in the museum industry, a product of the NMAJH “needing to be reliant on grants and donors.”
In 2019, after years of financial struggles at the museum, CEO Ivy Barsky resigned. After prolonged deliberation, the board decided that proceeding with the bankruptcy process, which it projected would take six months, was the best way to ensure that the museum could continue operating in the long run. The board timed the filing in March 2020 to take place while the museum was experiencing an upswing: a recent exhibition on the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was drawing large crowds, and it anticipated that an upcoming exhibition on Deborah Lipstadt’s defamation trial about Holocaust denialism would also be well-attended. But not two weeks later, owing to COVID-19, the NMAJH, like many other museums worldwide, shuttered its doors to the public.
It effectively cut off “our momentum at the knees, eliminating almost all earned revenue, and slashing philanthropic giving,” Misha Galperin, CEO of the NMAJH wrote for Jewish Exponent. To make matters worse, the museum was ineligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans that virtually all comparable institutions were now taking out as critical lifelines, owing to its recent bankruptcy filing. The museum furloughed, then laid off, two-thirds of its staff. “Things were looking pretty bleak,” Galperin tells Hyperallergic. It seemed very plausible that the NMAJH would be among the 11 to 13% of museums projected to not survive the pandemic.
Hersh was among the workers on staff laid off in 2020. This time, they say, the museum was “actually very, very supportive of staff.” The museum extended benefits several months past the layoff date, “were communicative about things like unemployment,” and provided laid-off staff free sessions to a local career support organization.
In this climate, NMAJH’s bankruptcy proceedings would end up taking three times longer than anticipated. As the museum muddled through the negotiation and litigation, a minor godsend to the museum arrived in August 2020, thanks to an absurd presidential blunder that marked the fatuity of the Trump era. While promoting national parks legislation, Trump mispronounced Yosemite as “Yo Semite.” A shirt that had been part of the NMAJH’s store collection since 2011 suddenly skyrocketed in popularity; the sum total of one week in shirt sales equaled three months of all store sales. “We were selling thousands and thousands of shirts,” Galperin says. Customers visiting the site often purchased not only the shirts but also picked up higher-ticket items like mezuzah covers and ketubots. Encouraged by its serendipitous success, the museum store adopted a conscious strategy of capitalizing on pop culture references with Jewish connotations: it ramped up its production of Notorious RBG merchandise, and when Marjorie Taylor Greene pinned the California wildfires on a “space laser” funded by the Rothschilds, it worked with a production company to manufacture a line of “Secret Jewish Space Laser Corps” products. The store went from averaging six-figure to seven-figure annual revenues.
Programmatically — despite remaining closed since March 2020 — the past two years have been formative for the museum’s redirection moving into the future, Galperin indicates. In November, the museum rolled out a virtual three-dimensional walkthrough of its core exhibition, which tracks Jewish experience in the Americas since the 1600s. Virtually, “you can actually see the exhibits in the collection better than you can see them in-person because you can zero in on every text and every object,” Halperin says. The complete digitization of the museum’s core exhibition was funded by philanthropist George Blumenthal, who has previously funded efforts to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls and Vatican antiquities.
The museum also put out a prodigious amount of programming despite its shrunken staff. Over the past two years, the museum has published over 60 virtual shows, partnering with various institutions such as the Kennedy Center and attracting over four million online visitors. An online fundraiser event, framed around the induction of Harry Houdini and David Copperfield into the museum’s hall of fame, was surprisingly successful, garnering over $800,000 in donations. Directors Claudia Gould and Chad Coerver at New York City’s Jewish Museum and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum respectively noted the same phenomenon taking place with their virtual exhibitions: they were reaching new, non-geographically constrained audiences — especially students and older folks — with virtual programs.
As the museum continued to navigate the pandemic, it finally came up for air, thanks to the contributions of a coalition of donors. On September 17, 2021, the NMAJH resurfaced from its bankruptcy, principally due to former trustee Mitchell Morgan and his family’s $10 million commitment to the museum. As part of this commitment, the Morgan family bought the building and leased it back to the museum for $1,000 per month and was willing to do so for three-and-a-half years until the museum was on firmer footing to buy it back. Important also was the generosity of a list of creditors including Morgan, who forgave the museum’s debt to them, which cumulatively totaled $14 million. Finally, although the museum was $17 million in debt, the bankruptcy settlement allowed the museum to return just $14.5 million.
In December, the NMAJH had more good news to report. It had received an “extraordinary new gift” from shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Although the museum did not disclose the amount, he donated at least $32 million, the sum total that he garnered at a Sotheby’s auction of three objects in his collections: the world’s most expensive coin, the world’s most expensive postage stamp, and a block of four stamps with airplanes printed upside down. The NMAJH could buy back its building and start an eight-figure Stuart Weitzman Endowment to remain financially stable going into the future. And it would henceforth be known as the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History.
The WNMAJH is devising a strategic plan for the next 10 years and is now preparing to reopen sometime around May after almost two years of closure. High on its priority list is lobbying the Smithsonian to take it on as an official arm of the institution. The Smithsonian already nurtures a number of cultural museums, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the soon-to-come National Museum of the American Latino under its auspices, the reasoning goes, and so it should next consider adopting the WNMAJ, which is already a Smithsonian affiliate. So far, 23 senators have voiced their support for this proposal.
Halperin believes that many curatorial, attendance, and outreach challenges are unique to the WNMAJH because its mission “is not only to work with the Jewish community but to expose all Americans to the history and diversity of the American Jewry.” Smithsonian adoption, he believes, would be the ideal nod to the museum’s singularity in the landscape of Jewish museums in America. The WNMAJH would gain additional federal support and free admission were it to become a Smithsonian museum. In 2019, when it experimented with a period of donor-funded free admission, attendance quadrupled.
Still, existential questions surrounding who Jewish museums serve, what their purpose is, and what values they stand for are front of mind for many curators and directors.
“Most Jewish museums we know are products of the 20th century. Many of them had a lot of material to inform their creation, whether that was documentation around survivors and their stories or making sure that Jewish experiences were represented in mainstream museums,” Melissa Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, tells Hyperallergic. “As we look at what will happen in Jewish museums in America in the 21st century, I think many will take on new priorities and change emphases.” This is the planning that will now be underway at the WNMAJH, granted a new lease on life.
Hersh is happy for the WNAMJH and hopes the museum’s newfound stability will allow it to develop more meaningful objectives and rework its identity to be more inclusive. In particular, they remember pointing out to visitors “three, maybe four, Jews of color in the entire museum.”
“There are so many valuable contributions to the American Jewish community from Jews of color, or Jews by choice, or disabled Jews, or queer Jews — and all those voices are missing,” they say. “My biggest hope is to get wider representation, beyond the couple of white middle-class straight donors who gave artifacts.”
Prior circumstances of “being a cultural institution working within capitalism, having all these expectations to produce numbers for reports — all of that really took away from this mission of representing this community,” Hersh explains. But, they continue, “this museum has real potential to be a huge, foundational presence within the American Jewish community.”
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