Shaping the Future from the Past

David Glasser, Executive Chairman: Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London

Out of Chaos

‘Out of Chaos’ is often an understatement of the trauma involved in journeys of migration – each narrative is defined by the precise context of ‘from what to what’ and ‘from where to where’. Right at this moment there will be a banker, or a lawyer, and his or her family, crossing the Atlantic first-class, transferring from Wall Street to the City of London. When they reach their new home, the temporary chaos of moving will end sweetly. Equally, right now, there are refugees being trafficked or cast adrift in unseaworthy, decrepit boats at extortionate financial and personal cost as they flee tyranny and uncertainty to find a new life in Europe, gambling, if they actually know, on beating the odds of the high risk of drowning in the Mediterranean and surviving the journey. For them, it is not when, but if, they reach land; as they exchange one chaos for another. This is the way it has always has been for those fleeing for their lives. This too is our context and reflects the history of Ben Uri, The Art Museum for Everyone, and the art and scholarship that we share.

Out of Chaos, Ben Uri: 100 Years in London explains our history via visual stories, both traditionalist and modernist vocabularies frame the artists’ ‘forced journeys’ from Russian pogroms at the turn of the 20th century, and from Nazi persecution and genocide in Europe during the years 1933–45. The London narrative begins in a congested, tightly-knit immigrant society in Whitechapel, where two languages (Yiddish and English) were spoken.

The beginnings

Berson’s characteristic logo and letterhead

Berson’s characteristic letterhead

The institution, Ben Uri, was founded in July 1915 by Russian-Jewish émigré Lazar Berson, a decorative artist who had recently left Paris, where he had shared an apartment with the famous sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. Ben Uri was originally intended as an ‘Arts Society’ to provide support for Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant artists and craftsmen who were working outside the cultural mainstream. It was named after Bezalel Ben Uri, the biblical creator of the tabernacle in the Temple in Jerusalem, and to indicate kinship with the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, established nine years earlier in 1906. Its vision was to become a National Museum of Jewish Art and Crafts in the mould of the Bezalel School, and Berson and the founding fathers aspired to build a permanent collection of work by Jewish artists, the majority of whom were immigrants.

Stop for a second and imagine the scene: a Russian émigré arrives in London from Paris in 1914. His language is Yiddish and he inspires a mix of mostly left-wing intellectuals and thinkers, small business-men, artisans and, of course, artists, to create a Jewish art society with the ambition of becoming a National Museum. The charisma, foresight and tenacity of Berson and his fellow founders must have been extraordinary in an area as poor and cramped as Whitechapel at the best of times, but this occurred in the first two years of the First World War, when concerns were elsewhere as many residents were fighting and dying for King and country. Berson was both politically aware and engaged, which conflicted with the founding members’ view that the institution should be non-political and non-religious, solely focused on art and creativity (a policy also adopted by the new Board in October 2000, some 85 years later).  Following a dispute about Berson’s political activism, he left London suddenly in late 1916. Soon after, the creative parameters of the Society were extended to embrace the ‘plastic arts’ and to  facilitate the formation of a collection of outstanding importance, not just for Ben Uri but for the nation at large.

Soutine's 'La Soubrette'

Soutine’s ‘La Soubrette’

The art collection

A century later, the collection, principally in store, comprises in excess of 1300 works by some 380 artists (67% of émigré, 27% women, 33% contemporary) from 35 countries, with significant bodies of work by many important British artists, including Frank Auerbach (11 works), David Bomberg (14), Jacob Epstein (6), Mark Gertler (11), Josef  Herman (10), Jacob Kramer (12), Simeon Solomon (13), alongside celebrated examples by European masters including Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Max Liebermann, Reuven Rubin and Chaïm Soutine.

On the move

During its formative years, Ben Uri moved frequently within the East End, and to and from the West End, eventually acquiring its first permanent premises – a Georgian townhouse at 14 Portman Street, behind Marble Arch – in late 1943, where it remained until 1961. In 1964, it moved to the fourth floor of asynagogue building in Dean Street, in ‘swinging’ Soho, where it was eventually awarded museum status, but was served notice in 1995 and forced to close in 1997, when the site was redeveloped as The Soho Theatre.

Ben Uri subsequently became homeless and moved from one office to another, successfully kept alive by a determined and committed leadership. In October 2000 a new Board, inspired by the richness and diversity of the collection, took over responsibility for the museum. Fired by a radical vision and strategic plan to reposition an intensely heritage proud Ben Uri as a fully-engaged mainstream art museum, it implemented far reaching changes and established art, identity and migration in London as the principal focus.

The Art Museum for Everyone

Successfully re-launched as ‘The London Jewish Museum of Art: The Art Museum for Everyone’ in January 2001, Ben Uri quickly found a temporary new gallery / home in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, in June 2002, where it still uncomfortably exists, having long outgrown both the physical space and the north London location.

A centenary is a rare achievement and provides an opportunity to reflect and explain what makes the museum distinctive. More people visit museums every weekend across the country than sporting fixtures, but without the same sense of passion and ownership. London has some ten ‘national’ art galleries, attracting some 25 million visitors each year, and they are the dominant players, presenting to the public unparalleled, world-leading exhibitions and engagement. We visit regularly but how many of us or London’s minority communities feel ownership – feel they are ours?

We had to think afresh when we set about the challenge of forging a new direction for Ben Uri in order to secure its future for the final 15 years of its first millennium, and the whole of its next. We had to address one fundamental question if we were to find a route to be distinctive, meaningful and successfully compete for London’s time and attention:

  • What is the real opportunity for museums to make a continuous difference to people’s lives and the society we live in as it has to be bigger than simply sharing great collections?
  • Work that out and we could analyse how the smaller museum (Ben Uri) can add incremental value to its society?
  • How we could generate a communal sense of ownership?
  • How we can engage six figure visitor numbers and share experiences?
  • How in a world of increasing options and reduced funding we could be distinctive and sustainable?

Our conclusion was that museums have an unique opportunity to exploit their assets – collections, scholarship, communication skills and inventive programming – as an effective and needed vehicle for ‘social integration’ which is, and will continue to be, one of contemporary society’s greatest challenges. That remains our over-arching objective and our programming is the vehicle.

Art as a leveller

Art is an extraordinary leveller. People of diverse ethnicity, social status and age stand together in front of it, or draw and paint side by side, and the differences melt away. Art is a universal, unspoken language between them. Museum programing has to constantly exceed expectations but, for smaller institutions like Ben Uri, to survive and prosper we have to generate measurable incremental value, to actively shape our programming as a whole to widen audience appeal, much in the vein that the immigrant artists, who were the backbone and beneficiaries of Ben Uri a century ago, found ways to integrate without subsuming their personal or artistic identities. London today has over 3.5 million immigrants, richly contributing to the success and diversity of our incredible city, and this number will continue to grow exponentially for as long as London is a world-leading economy and a safe haven from corruption and autocracy. Exhibitions of African, Korean and Caribbean artists in recent years demonstrate our unswerving commitment to this philosophy.

Having clarified our purpose, we could design the vehicle. We add to our wide ranging exhibitions – both historical and contemporary – a complementary agenda addressing issues of migration and identity. We tour our exhibitions nationally and internationally in partnership with other museums. We publish scholarly but accessible books distributed world-wide. We maintain a spotlight on Nazi looted art and the moral stance that has to dictate actions. We continually develop new pupil and teacher resources, available to over 16,000 schools through the London Grid for Learning and the National Education Network. We pioneer wellbeing and art therapy programmes. We offer iPad-drawing, as well as life-drawing classes. All this has resulted in significant increased visitor numbers which, by our analysis, are now some 80% secular and increasingly multi-cultural, compared to less than 5% a decade ago. Find out more about our work on the Ben Uri.

The future

The future for Ben Uri in our second century will continue to focus on social integration as its principal purpose, through our twin strategic initiatives: the first, a new ‘Museum of Art, Identity and Migration’ which will uniquely share its space with fellow minority communities so that they, alongside us, can tell stories of their recent émigré journeys to London and together we will exhibit contemporary art emerging from within our communities. The second is a large, carefully located central London home for Ben Uri, where the current formula of sharing our world-class collection, combined with fresh minded survey exhibitions embracing two centuries of creativity and associated learning and wellbeing programmes, can be expanded appropriately to attract and engage significant visitor numbers. We continue to search for the right location to present individually, or combine both visitor engagements as our planned acquisition of some 60,000 sq. ft. on the South Bank would have delivered, but just slipped through our hands to an in-funds commercial bidder – the perennial challenge of the not-for-profit sector.

The visitor potential for a museum focusing on identity and stories of migration through high art and emerging artists, much presented by individual communities themselves is based on the reality that minorities in any context feel strength and confidence in numbers and in this context, the greatest pride in seeing their heritage being explained and shared with large, wide ranging audiences by them, not others. We believe this is the key to creating a real sense of diverse community ownership and ever increasing visitor number engagement. The opportunity is to stimulate and engage with new generations of visitors many of whose communities don’t see the traditional ‘we present to you’ museums relevant or of interest. Museums can play an important role in enabling social integration. Generating pride in differences (through art)  is a much preferable alternative to suspicion and scapegoating easy targets, particularly the immigrant population, for society’s problems as this museum’s Jewish founders and so many of its artists collected over the first 50 years would testify.

Life and choices today are of course very different but to give you a measure of the potential of community pride and sense of ownership, in 1906 at the Whitechapel Gallery over 150,000 people visited the exhibition Jewish Art and Antiquities in the six weeks to 16th December. The opening hours were between 12 noon and 10pm daily to facilitate the majority who worked extended hours every day to survive. 100,000 Jews lived in Whitechapel at the time. Was it community pride or wide general interest across London generating 150,000 visitors – 25,000 visitors each week? The principles demonstrated a century ago are equally valid today.

Ben Uri is a jewel in London’s rich cultural crown, albeit still desperately in need of a permanent home in the centre of our great city. We have all the components in place and the people ready to deliver the vision and secure the museum’s exciting future and together, with your and London’s support, we can and will.