For more than two decades, artist Robert Sutz has been working in his Scottsdale, Arizona studio to create an expansive body of work focused on the Holocaust. Soon, his artworks will be part of a new Holocaust museum those pieces helped to inspire.
The Arizona Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) plans to expand its Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center near downtown Phoenix to create the Center for Hope, Humanity, and Holocaust Education. The 17,000-square-foot facility is expected to open in late 2025, according to Lawrence Bell, executive director for AJHS, who spoke with Hyperallergic in late September.
When the museum opens, it will include a gallery filled with Sutz’s artwork, as well as galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions. The AJHS presented its first exhibition of Sutz’s artwork in 2011, and later launched a “We Remember” campaign dedicated to creating a gallery that could house it before broadening its vision to building a new Holocaust museum.
“Robert’s work really highlights the personal stories behind the Holocaust,” explained Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association.
To date, Sutz has created over 145 sculptural busts called “life masks” and pastel portraits of survivors, liberators, and righteous gentiles. “I want the future generations to know that these people look beautiful, they look just like us,” Sutz says in a video that shows part of his creative process. “I feel as though I am still in a race against time; the survivors are leaving us and with them their beautiful faces and unbelievable stories and memories.” Sutz’s own father lost his family in Nazi concentration camps.
He’s painted nearly 100 scenes based on his own interviews with Holocaust survivors, who’ve described memories of prisoners being marched towards gas chambers, bodies lying in mass graves, soldiers shooting children, and more. “I guess what I try to capture is the emotional feeling, to have the viewer imagine being in the situation,” Sutz explains.
It’s possible the museum will create an interactive exhibition using digital images of select Sutz paintings along with sound, according to Bell. The museum will also feature an interactive hologram of Oskar Knoblauch, a Holocaust survivor born in 1925 who sat for one of Sutz’s life masks and featured the artist’s work on the cover of his book titled A Boy’s Story A Man’s Memory-Surviving the Holocaust 1933-1945.
Phoenix is currently the largest US city without a Holocaust museum, and proponents have cited several reasons for the current need — including rising hate crime rates in the US and a 2021 Arizona law requiring that “students be taught about the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between the seventh and twelfth grades.”
Often, regional centers are the first places community members learn about the Holocaust, according to Christina Chavarria, a program coordinator for Holocaust education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “They hold the local histories and memories, and play an important role in Holocaust remembrance,” said Chavarria.
“It’s essential that we build the museum now because so many Holocaust survivors are dying and won’t be here to tell their stories,” explained Bronkesh.
Organizers expect the Phoenix museum, which will also house Holocaust artifacts, to cost over $14 million. So far they’ve raised about half that amount. The City of Phoenix could contribute $2 million through a bond program if the city council decides to include the museum in a larger bond initiative likely going to voters in November 2023.
Currently, AJHS is showing a selection of Sutz’s portraits inside its existing gallery space, where the touring USHMM exhibition Some Were Neighbors is also on view. Much like the proposed museum, the gallery is a place to amplify voices of the past while addressing contemporary genocides and other injustices.
“The Holocaust isn’t some distant historical event,” said Bell. “It has direct relevance to what’s happening today.”
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