Essay written by Ben Uri Chair David Glasser for the Jewish Chronicle, January 2014
"As an onlooker, it is enough for me to say that were this 'London Jewish Museum of Art' (its alternative title) and its collections, in New York, it would be in receipt of proud munificent patronage, and lodged in a fine and suitable building.
How can it be that such a worthy enterprise (Ben Uri) has been for so long struggling to survive, nourishing the cultural life of London with significant exhibitions and scholarship, yet those who could at a stroke, reward it with appropriate premises tomorrow ignore it?"
Brian Sewell, Evening Standard, 9 January 2014.
Forget for five minutes why no ‘angel’ has bought in and acquired for the museum a large building in the heart of central London or for that matter in Manhattan – that maybe the controversial question but it is not the important point Brian Sewell raised to 1.7 million readers across London. Read again what the most significant British art critic of our generation told c 20% of all Londoners “nourishing the cultural life of London with significant exhibitions and scholarship” – not about the great National Galleries in London (who of course do and are our constant benchmark) it was about your and London’s 98 year young Ben Uri!
"Nourishing the cultural life of London" – "significant exhibitions and scholarship" – what other institution that was born and bred in the Jewish community has had such a conclusion made within a tough critical review and assessment by an independent expert witness within a 10 million city wide population, rather than 200,000 local community, context? The answer is none and that is the fundamental difference between Ben Uri and our colleagues and friends within the Jewish cultural providers in the community. Our market, our audience, our vision, our mission for the future is outside not inside – not better – not worse – just very different and directed to an audience pool over 100 times larger.
The reason why no-one has bought-in ‘yet’ is we have not gone to market ‘yet’ because the product – the whole package of what Ben Uri is and stands for in the 21st Century – was not ready or proven until, as it happens, the extraordinary success of our current exhibition ‘UPROAR!’ finally secured this accomplishment. Currently we are generating an average of over 1,000 visitors a week and only 13% have N or NW post-codes.
It has taken 14 long, hard, exhilarating and intellectually challenging years of conceptual and detailed strategic analysis and thinking to first define and second to deliver a new expansive engagement role for a proud Jewish museum in the heart of the local, national and international arenas. Why so long? Because it has not been done before either here or abroad so no existing models to dissect and adopt.
We have not asked people to seriously invest in this business (and make no mistake museums and cultural/community institutions are cash hungry businesses) until first we invested our own to produce a distinctive high quality range of products that have significant potential to grow demand. Our visitors are our customers who we don’t charge entry as this is generously sponsored by visionary Manya Igel (Fine Arts) to remove all financial barriers to entry. Our product/s have to reflect and satisfy customers’ needs, wants, interests and succeed against the competition (principally Tate, NPG, Whitechapel, Serpentine) in a location where they can easily and want to access. All the evidence confirms the formula is robust and the only missing link is a central location as part of a cultural visitor attraction cluster in and for London to which Mr Sewell alludes in his article.
Given the controversy over Brian Sewell’s double page ‘exhibition of the week’ review, now seems a good a time to explain publicly why we made the seismic shift in 2001 to proudly represent the community in the mainstream rather than stay domestic and secondly reveal our future and why it is designed to be both sustainable and make a meaningful difference to London as a whole.
If we were going to take this on in the year 2000, five years after Ben Uri closed its gallery in Dean Street, how and where best could Ben Uri exploit most effectively for the community and the wider public good its principal and invaluable assets: important heritage in London’s Jewish community; equally important and universally recorded heritage in 20th century British and European art history; major bodies of work by important émigré artists many of whom are today in the top echelons of Modern British Art; registered museum status which the great and wealthy collectors of today cannot buy?
Demographics: according to the 2001 census there were c 200,000 Jews in London out of a total population of c 7 million. According to the 2011 census our community stopped declining because of the growth of the Charedi community and held steady at c 200,000 whilst London grew by 14% to c 8 million. In 2011 there were 265 émigré communities in London representing 37% of the population – 3 million people up from 2 million a decade earlier. The trends are clear.
Forecast for 2030 which is only a blink away – Jewish community maybe c 230,000 – London c 9.5 million with émigré communities reaching c4.5m million – close to 50% of the resident population. 230,000 out of 9,500,000 demanded long term strategic thinking. Forecast 2050 ... the point is that as a %, if not in real terms, our numbers drop and it is inevitable that many other minority émigré communities will grasp the opportunities this wonderful country offers and in a shorter time than many imagine they will too punch well above their weight in leadership roles across the professions, arts, business and politics.
The financials: illustrate the problem and reality of community size, aspiration, expectation and supply even more clearly today than they did a decade ago. The Jewish Museum which has enjoyed a capital investment of c£11million to open its beautiful new building in Camden Town in 2010 has reported increased operating losses of £775,000 for the year ending 31 March 2013 up from £494,000 the year previous. The new JW3 invested millions over previous years building their brand and programming and over £30m to open their fantastic new facility on the Finchley Road, Hampstead, last autumn with their Chief Executive saying only months ago in this paper that should their ticket sales and overall income hit budget they still need to raise a further £1m per annum. The LJCC saw its surplus reduce to £14,000 for the year ending August 2012 down from £139,000 in the year previous and they too have expanded with the fine new Catherine Lewis Youth Centre at Ivy House in Golders Green opening only a few months ago. Ben Uri delivered a surplus of £316,000 for the year ending March 13 compared to a loss of £23,000 in the year previous but the figures flatter to deceive as if collection acquisition income is excluded we generated an increased loss of £44,000 – and in case anyone thinks we are doing just fine the opposite is true as we have lost £600,000 in the 14 year development phase since 2001 albeit we have added over £3 million pounds of value to the collection during the same period. Cumulatively between the principal cultural providers we estimate there is an annual need to fund an incremental c£1.5m – £2m of operating losses each year in addition to the current annual give of c £6m all principally from the community. The deficits cannot be made up by increased visitors numbers as that would be unrealistic and in numbers terms simply too huge.
So what then is the formula for Ben Uri, a proud Jewish Museum of Art to carve a meaningful sustainable second century in the knowledge that the community is far too small in both total and interest levels to sustain the existing and that c 90% of the non-Jewish community will not, under normal circumstances, select somewhere ‘Jewish’ by name to visit for no other reason that ‘it is not for us’?
Our answer: is Ben Uri: Art, Identity, Migration – The Art Museum for Everyone - a National and International Art museum and wider Institution focussing on 20th century and contemporary British and European Art simultaneously engaging directly with the principle social issues facing Britain this next half century – that of migration and identity. Through art we can be a meaningful source of engagement with communities who came to London either freely or through painful forced journeys much like our parents or grandparents.
The plan: we need c30, 000 to c50, 000 sq. ft. (to give you a measure that is up to twice the size of the Jewish Museum and half the size again of JW3) prominently located in either Whitechapel, London Bridge, South Bank or the heart of Central London but always within easy walking distance of a National so we can benefit from being second on the visit list.
The product: great exhibitions of the past and present, touring as they do now across the UK (Manchester and Ayr this year) and abroad (USA last two years); highest quality scholarship and publications continuing to be distributed world-wide so as available at MoMA as they are at Tate or Waterstones; continued expansion of the collection where we have added over 200 works and over £3 million pounds of value in the past thirteen years; yet more ambitious schools’ learning through the London Grid for Learning and the National Education Network meaning Ben Uri collection and learning modules are on the whiteboard of 25,000 schools nation-wide; development of our well-being programmes with special focus on our Art and Dementia project that will we plan, under Professor Michael Baum’s guidance, soon start the UK’s first clinical trials to critically assess medium term benefits; artist and community development initiatives and last but not least telling the fascinating, inspiring émigré experiences to and in London.
The formula: Ben Uri delivers diversity and inclusiveness. Last year a fully catalogued exhibition about distinguished Ghanaian and Korean artists addressing their migration and identity issues through their photography. This coming March we exhibit an exhibition of 21 African video artists from 13 different countries. Next year we plan to exchange galleries with the Nehru centre in South Audley Street in Mayfair whilst our centenary exhibition shows at Somerset House. [Art, Identity, Migration: 100 Years of Ben Uri in London 1915–2015, 1 July – 13 December 2015, Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College London]
The Big Difference: we will permanently share our new building with up to ten different émigré communities during any given six month period by rotation - together sharing experiences, recording and comparing journeys to London and displaying their art in whatever format or medium most reflective of their traditions and presence in London. Together we will address potential audience pools of between 1 and 2 million excluding whatever proportion of the 16 million visitors to London relate to the constituents at the time.
Business Model: 100,000+ visitors a year and growing: earned income significantly greater than charitable donations; financially sustainable; intellectually robust and visitor engaging.
Brian Sewell was right in his question but premature as we had not asked yet for support for a building as not until late last year were we 99% sure this formula will work and was acceptable and desirable to the cross sections of London that have the power and influence to make it happen on the back of cross-community support.
Exciting, realistic, valuable to our community and to London – Yes – all we now need is help as the really hard work is done!