Ben Uri's Chair and Chief Executive, David Glasser, explores the identity of Ben Uri and looks at its future.
Our analysis and development of Ben Uri’s online identity has prompted us to try and explain, in an easy to understand narrative, our shift from within the Jewish community to our current positioning on the national and international stage.
It has given us an opportunity to revisit questions about our identity and our purpose in what will soon be our second century of existence (Ben Uri was founded in 1915). And it is also a chance to explore our development and direction, so we are better able to communicate about who we are and why we are here.
Ben Uri is a distinctive institution with a unique collection of some 1300 artworks predominately by émigré artists, whose impact dominates the collection.
We recover the old and help to facilitate the new. But let’s start with a potted history of Ben Uri, because it is only by looking at our past that we may understand our future.
1915-1939: The Ben Uri Art Society
Ben Uri began life as an art society by and for Jewish artists, who were, predominately, émigrés from Eastern Europe and Russia, desperately poor and only spoke in their mother tongue and Yiddish (a mixture of Hebrew and German that was the universal language of the religious Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe).
Ben Uri’s first home was Gradel’s restaurant in London’s Whitechapel. In 1924/5, it broke out of its Jewish ghetto for a gallery in Bloomsbury, opposite the British Museum; but within a year it was back in the East End due to lack of money.
It wasn’t until 1944 that Ben Uri moved again to central London, finding space and favour in the West End, with a home at 14 Portman Square. During this period, the languages spoken within Ben Uri included varying levels of English, Yiddish, German, Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Russian. All these different languages reflected the mother tongues of both émigrés and their children.
1939-1945: Ben Uri during the Second World War
Ben Uri became a focal point of the London Jewish community across social and cultural arenas. It offered a warm welcome to the fortunate refugees that were able to escape the Nazis with their lives and little else.
1945-1980: Ben Uri becomes a cultural hub
Ben Uri’s influence grew and it was influenced by émigrés, or the ‘Continentals’, as they were often described, and developed into a cultural hub for the Jewish community and Jewish visitors.
Ben Uri is not only the oldest Jewish cultural institution in London but, as early as 1945, it was a forerunner of a robust Jewish cultural and Jewish community centre concept that is now so well established in both the UK and US. During this fruitful period in its history, Ben Uri had its own orchestra, theatre group, literary society and much more.
1980 -1996: Ben Uri refocuses on art
Due to a lack of demand from its community, Ben Uri refocused on art rather than ‘the arts’ in general. This and a combination of other factors resulted in Ben Uri’s Soho gallery closing in 1996. These factors included limited physical access to Ben Uri, as it was hidden on the fourth floor of a discreetly signposted synagogue in Soho’s Dean Street, an area of London infinitely more infamous for its nightlife than its culture. The synagogue closed and was sold in 1996, hence the closure of Ben Uri.
In a final wave of emancipation, the barriers to achievement and entry for Jews into British mainstream life, as evidenced in career opportunities, golf clubs, or the trustees of national institutions, quietly tumbled. Overt discrimination evaporated. Commercial galleries recruited artists regardless of race, religion and creed.
Lastly, Ben Uri’s loyal followers were decreasing because of age or the allure and accessibility of London’s many other cultural attractions.
So the factors that contributed to the original rational for Ben Uri 80 years earlier had slowly but surely evaporated.
1996-2001: Ben Uri's nomadic existence
The Ben Uri Art Society took on a nomadic existence, only surviving thanks to the efforts of its Board, led by Leslie Michaels. The society first took refuge in an office in Camden Town and, later, the East Finchley campus of the Sternberg Centre for Reform Judaism.
1999-2001: Rethinking the future of Ben Uri
At the turn of the millennium, Ben Uri needed to address crucial issues about its future. These included questions about how its famous collection could be preserved and shared. The society also needed to reposition itself, so it could flourish in a new century. The question of its identity concerned where it should be positioned: should it stay within the Jewish community, where it was founded, or move into the mainstream secular museum community, where it would be better placed to contribute to Britain’s 20th century and contemporary art history.
How could Ben Uri continue its key role of putting a spotlight on European émigré artists of the late 19th and early 20th century who were central to the development of modernism? Could it have a positive impact on everyone and not just those interested in principally 20th century artworks by émigré artists?
1999-2001: A strategy for securing Ben Uri’s future
Ben Uri based it strategy on three key realities. First, changing demographics meant Ben Uri’s support base was reduced because of a diminishing Jewish community (to around 250,000) and declining school visits. Both these factors meant Ben Uri was unable to generate the 75,000-125,000 annual visitors it needed.
Second, Ben Uri’s heritage was the communities of Jewish/minority immigrant groups, but it was also secular in character and engaged with a universal audience. ‘Art, Identity and Migration’ are a part of everyone’s lives in London and cities - everywhere.
Third, Ben Uri needed to ensure its relevance and appeal. In business, great products achieve local, national and international distribution – and this is also true for the museum sector. Ben Uri’s collection is unique in composition and meaning, its programming is distinctive, and its stories of social and art history, told through the eyes of immigrant artists and those they influenced, are universal in relevance.
The Ben Uri Board concluded that Ben Uri was an art gallery and museum that proudly represented the Jewish community to Britain’s mainstream cultural arena.
2001: Planning a vibrant and different future
In the main, most Jewish artists are happily Jewish by birth rather than by orthodox religious observance; they are artists first who study and work alongside other artists. Today many of the artists involved with Ben Uri through its history are internationally critically acclaimed. It is our history and the work and influence of artists of Jewish descent, including their heritage, which gives Ben Uri a unique and distinctive national and international platform from which to explore art and its amazing stories.
Ben Uri’s future is as a mainstream central London art gallery and museum, engaging local, national and international audiences. Our stories and the differences in people’s outlook and lives are local, national and international.
January 2001: From arts society to museum
With a new Board and organisation, Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art (The Art Museum for Everyone) launched with a critically acclaimed exhibition at the Bond Street galleries of Bonhams, the auctioneers. The museum was launched and opened by Teddy Kollek, the iconic Mayor of Jerusalem, who founded the Israel Museum and the Jewish Museum in Vienna.
Ben Uri proudly rebranded, repositioned and reenergised itself with a fresh enlightened vision of a Jewish Museum of Art, operating right in the heart of London’s art and museum sector. It opened with ‘The Ben Uri Story, from Art Society to Museum: The contribution of Anglo Jewish Artists to British Modernism’.
This exhibition was a critical success and set the scene for one of the most remarkable journeys of a British museum or Jewish institution.
2002: A temporary art gallery for Ben Uri
Ben Uri took possession of a small, temporary gallery (secure to national museum standards) in London’s St John’s Wood, just off the famous Abbey Road and close to the original Saatchi Gallery. To our public it is an exhibition gallery but to Ben Uri it is also a factory, producing exhibitions, catalogues, learning programmes, artist development and social health initiatives.
All of this work is in preparation for a much larger and appropriate museum space in the heart of central London, so we can engage alongside London’s other great galleries and museums.
‘Art, Identity and Migration’
We had chosen the three themes that best represent our heritage and ability to discover the past and facilitate the future: ‘Art, Identity and Migration’
Ben Uri and art
We explore the work of artists of Jewish descent within a broad national and international artistic, rather than religious, context. For nearly 100 years, our focus has been on artists of Jewish descent, either born here or who came to the UK, which as a group have contributed to Britain’s rich cultural mosaic. These artists worked with and alongside their peers rather than from within any religious milieu. The museum critically assesses the practice of these artists alongside their peer groups from an art historical perspective, just like many other art museums in the world.
We curate exhibitions that without Ben Uri would not be seen. Over the last 10 years, we have published over 30 fully illustrated scholarly and accessible catalogues. Our first publication in 2002 was a 60-page soft back publication and in November this year, we will publish a 200-page hardback on the work and career of the iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago.
Ben Uri’s world-class art collection
We have raised the bar of our renowned and world-class collection with important acquisitions by celebrated artists including seminal works by David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler, Emmanuel Levy – all from the modern British school.
In 2010, we acquired Marc Chagall’s lost masterwork from 1945, ‘Apocalypse en Lilas Capriccio’, which is the artist’s response to the Holocaust. We have also acquired George Grosz’s compelling large-scale work illustrating Nazi brutality, titled ‘Nazi Interrogation’, and Max Liebermann’s classic self-portrait.
Ben Uri’s most recent acquisition is a classic portrait titled ‘La Soubrette’ (waiting maid) by Chaim Soutine, who was in many ways the inspiration of 20th century modernism in Britain, through Francis Bacon, and in the US, through Willem de Kooning.
Nearly half of the 160 works acquired by purchase or gift in the past 10 years are by contemporary artists of fame or promise. These include one of Frank Auerbach’s most vibrant recent landscape, ‘ Summer Morning 11, Mornington Crescent’, from 2004; Ron B Kitaj’s portrait of Lord Moser; and Komar and Melamid’s ‘Big Bang’. We have also acquired works by emerging artists Sarah Lightman and Carole Berman from the UK; Natan Dvir and Yaki Assayag from Israel; and Marcia Annenberg and Aithan Shapira from the US.
We continue to seek out great works and raise the standards of quality and diversity of medium and period.
The Ben Uri Collection is everything to us; it is the great source of inspiration that drives our programming and ongoing strategic reviews.
We have digitally photographed and created condition reports for each artwork (nearly 1300) currently in the collection. We have restored over 200 works in recent years and carried out research (to various degrees), as part of a long-term scholarship project.
Ben Uri and identity
Identity: to explore and consider the effect of the artist’s perception of his/her identity and that of their subject.
From its beginnings as an arts society in 1915, Ben Uri’s central focus has been exploring identity. Our exhibitions examine and explore all possible impacts on an artist’s life and oeuvre, and we regularly juxtapose the work of artists of Jewish descent with those of their peers, who may not be émigrés or have experienced a ‘forced journey’.
Ben Uri’s identity: proudly Jewish by heritage and universal by programming, staff and audience.
Ben Uri and migration
London remains a thriving metropolis and melting pot of different and changing immigrant groups. The East End of London’s proximity to the docks of the River Thames has been the starting point for immigrant communities for centuries. Just a century ago it encompassed the Jewish ghetto, with Whitechapel at its core. Today it is the Bangladeshi, Bengali and Somali communities that live in this area.
The Great London Mosque, on Brick Lane, is a perfect illustration of the diversity of the area. In 1743 this building became a church for the Protestant French refugee community, in 1819 it became a Methodist chapel for 70 years, before the Jewish population turned it into ‘Spitalfield’s Great Synagogue”. Now it has adapted once more for Whitechapel’s latest majority culture by becoming a mosque.
Think of how many of your neighbours or work colleagues were born in the UK. Migration remains one of the 21st century’s great political issues at government level and one of the greatest community challenges at a local level. Ben Uri’s history is enriched by its artists’ stories of migration, stories of fascinating diversity and enlightenment.
2002 – 2012: Ben Uri’s decade of development
In the last 10 years, the collection has grown by over 170 works, raising its quality and distinctiveness yet further. To date we have curated 46 scholarly but accessible exhibitions, some of which have toured 15 different institutions across three continents.
Ben Uri has published 33 catalogues of scholarly interest that are distributed internationally. We have a learning programme for teachers and students, accessible to 25,000 schools across the UK. Our Art as Therapy project is developing well as part of our care and rehabilitation programme.
We have a library that includes some 1000 reference books and is growing at a pace, and an archive yet to be translated from Yiddish to English. We are building our sponsorship and business preferred partnerships to mutual advantage.
But we need an appropriate building.
2012-2015: Ben Uri needs a central London home
In 2012, Ben Uri underbid on London’s Design Museum, located at Butler’s Wharf. This museum of 35,000 sq feet on the River Thames, near Tower Bridge and the Southbank Centre, would have been perfect.
Our principal task is to identify and raise funds for the most accessible location that we believe will maximize visitor numbers and public engagement. Then London will have a vibrant, enlightened, buzzing new art gallery and museum that explores ‘Art, Identity and Migration’.
2015: Our centenary year
Simple - we hope to be opening the new Ben Uri art gallery and museum in the heart of London’s cultural arena.
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