The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History opened its doors last weekend for the first time since the pandemic shutdown in March 2020.
That would be reason enough for museum officials to rejoice. But there is more.
The reopening follows a crippling bankruptcy and marks the first time the museum will operate at its current location with no construction debt hanging over its head and no mad dash to cover regular interest payments.
Thanks to the largesse of designer, shoemaker and philanthropist Stuart Weitzman, 79, the museum has rid itself of all long-term debt incurred since the 2010 opening of its new $150 million facility off Independence. Mall at Fifth and Market Streets.
“It’s amazing,” said President and CEO Misha Galperin, as he stood in the museum lobby and greeted visitors. Galperin took over the reins of the museum just three years ago.
“We filed for bankruptcy on March 1. March 13 was a Friday and we closed due to COVID. We have canceled the big event that was scheduled for March. We had this whole plan for how we’re going to move forward. And then, you know, wham bam,” Galperin said.
COVID has struck.
“And then we weren’t eligible for [federal COVID relief loans] because we were bankrupt. So it’s been two years since we were selected. But we pivoted very quickly to be online and had huge success with that. And we were lucky to figure out how to get out of bankruptcy in September of last year, and then Stuart was successful with his gift of transformation,” he said.
And now Galperin has greeted visitors on reopening day as he waits for Weitzman, who was in town — he lives in Connecticut — for meetings with museum officials and with Penn, Weitzman’s alma mater and another beneficiary of his largesse. The Penn School of Design now bears his name.
Weitzman’s gift to the museum in November was more than $20 million, he says, and allowed the museum to purchase its own building and build its endowment.
The reopening of the museum is marked by a new exhibition of works and installations designed by the artist Jonathan Horowitz, “The Future Will Follow the Past”. Designed specifically for the museum, the exhibit explores the changes the country has seen since 2020, addressing anti-Semitism, racial violence, immigration, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Juxtaposing Horowitz’s work with objects from the museum’s main collection, the exhibition is spread over four floors. The proximity of the different works creates a “dialogue”, said the museum’s curators.
For example, a copy of “We Came to America” by Faith Ringgold (the original is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) depicts Africans swimming towards a black Statue of Liberty as a ship burns in the background. Ringgold’s powerful image hangs in front of a more conventional view of the statue from a 19th-century poster advertising, possibly for soap, said Claire Pingel, the museum’s chief registrar and associate curator.
Nearby is an untitled Horowitz sculpture that explores the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where hundreds of white supremacists, Klan sympathizers and neo-Nazis gathered in a violent demonstration against the removal of a statue of Robert E . Lee. A counter-protester was killed. Subsequently, the Charlottesville City Council ordered Lee’s statue to be hidden, covered with a black tarp. Six months later, a judge ordered the liner removed.
Horowitz’s sculpture features the covered sculpture dressed in black. Interestingly, the statue of Lee was created by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a young Jewish sculptor from Virginia who lived in Rome. Ezekiel fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and later crafted Confederate and Union monuments and sculptures decorating the United States Capitol.
When Weitzman arrived at the museum after visiting Penn, he said this type of innovative exhibit had been a hallmark of the museum throughout his experience.
“I loved it when I visited it,” Weitzman said of trips dating back several years. “I’ve been involved with Penn a lot, and then I heard that this building might become an office tower because the bank owed all this money.”
Weitzman did not like this idea. About a year ago, he sold an extremely rare gold Double Eagle coin, a single stamp and another block of four stamps at Sotheby’s for $32 million.
“These guys took advantage of it,” Weitzman said, glancing at Galperin and a few museum board members.
“I actually had an impact on the museum experience,” he said.
A few years ago he called his friend Sidney Kimmel, who had just left his post as chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, and said: “‘Sydney, I’m watching 15 big-name Americans on a screen here [at the museum], and one of the photos in the lower right corner is Ethel Rosenberg,” Weitzman said, referring to the hall of fame at the museum’s Only in America gallery. “I said, ‘What does this museum think? Ethel Rosenberg? Known? Yes. Renowned? No. And he said, ‘Hey, I don’t know. I helped build the place 20 years ago, but I don’t run it. But could you send me a photo of this screen? And within a week, his photo had fallen.
Weitzman was impressed and he realized he could make an impact.
“I started coming and sending people, my children,” he said. “This is the only museum, I believe, devoted to American Jewish history.” If he could help the museum “avoid going bankrupt and becoming an office tower,” he would find it.
Josh Perelman, the museum’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, was asked about the Ethel Rosenberg incident. He said he was not party to any conversations Weitzman had with Kimmel or other board members.
But, Perelman said, the museum is dedicated to presenting multiple viewpoints.
“We’re committed to exploring the story from many different angles,” Perelman said. “Part of understanding, whether it’s our history as a Jewish community or our history as a nation, sometimes involves asking tough questions. Sometimes that means dealing with people or events that challenge us.