Jerusalem Musings: My Hour in Israel with James Snyder, Now Director-Designate of NYC’s Jewish Museum

With the Jewish Museum’s imminent change of leadership, I can soon revisit its landmarked 1908 Warburg mansion on 5th Avenue in New York (which I’ve largely avoided under the 11-year directorship of Claudia Gould), feeling much more confident that it is under auspicious auspices. James Snyder, who had directed the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, for 22 years, has been named to assume the NYC museum’s directorship this November, taking over from chief curator and acting director Darcie Alexander.

James Snyder
Photo from Jewish Museum‘s press release, courtesy IMJ, by Elie Posner

I had lost faith in Gould early on: When she was named to succeed the museum’s widely admired veteran director, Joan Rosenbaum (no relation to CultureGrrl), Claudia candidly admitted (through the museum’s spokesperson, responding to my written queries) that she was “not a religious person. She was raised in an interfaith family, exposed to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions. She identifies very strongly with Jewish and Italian cultures.” (As I noted here, for those of the Jewish faith “religious identity is determined by matrilineal descent.”) It had seemed to me that an “identity” museum (such as those devoted to Latino or African-American art) should be directed by someone who unambiguously embraces that identity.

More importantly, I was so turned-off by the initial reinstallation of the permanent collection galleries under her leadership that I seldom returned. I missed the coherence and resonance of Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey—the signature permanent-collection installation on Joan Rosenbaum’s watch, which had told “the unfolding story of Jewish culture and identity through works of art, archaeology, ceremonial objects, photographs, video and interactive media” (in the words of the above-linked webpage).

But enough of the past: Let’s have a closer look at the incoming director: I’ve known and liked James Snyder since the 1980s, when he had helped to guide the Museum of Modern Art (where he rose to become deputy director) through its controversial César Pelli-designed expansion, about which I had raised serious questions concerning its design and urban impact in a long, detailed article for the November/December 1977 issue of Art in America magazine (for which I can find no link).

As he told me during our hour-long conversation when I visited his office in Jerusalem in 2012, the Israel Museum had a mandatory retirement age of 67 for its professional staff. But he also told me that as director of the museum, he was exempt from the retirement requirement. That said, he moved to the Jerusalem Foundation in 2019, where he served as executive chair, according to the Jewish Museum’s press release about his NYC appointment. In that position, he “work[ed] closely with the Foundation’s leadership to champion its vision to promote the city’s role as an urban model for communal coexistence across the social, cultural, and economic spectrum and for the benefit of the diverse communities that live and work there.”

While at the Israel Museum, he and his staff “completely reorganized the collection galleries,” as he told me during my visit. “Nothing is as it was before. We were able to increase the space for collection galleries from 100,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet without changing the footprint or the envelope….If you want to do a continuous narrative from a million and a half years ago to yesterday, you can do it.”

While the blockbuster exhibition at the museum when I visited was A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews (which I wrote about here), Snyder maintained that “we’re not a Jewish museum at all! Jerusalem is a city of all the cultures that live here and we are a museum that relates to all those cultures—Jews from ultra-orthodox to ultra-secular, Christians and Muslims.”

He noted that “part of the reason for founding this museum in 1965 was to create a venue to showcase the best of the archaeology that the state authority for archaeology was excavating….What’s different for us is that nearly all this material is indigenous: 90% of [the archaeological material] we display is identified to source of excavation here.”

Another of his proud accomplishments: “I brought fresh iced tea year-round to Jerusalem!”

But seriously, he was particularly proud that half the audience for “A World Apart Next Door” consisted of “members of the Hasidic communities that generally don’t visit museums, and we realized that they were coming because it was a point of pride….Normally, if you’re a member of one of those communities, what you read in the media is not always positive.”

I can’t help but wonder about how long this septuagenarian director (who at the Israel Museum considerately introduced golf carts for the elderly and the mobility-challenged) will remain in his new gig. In a flawed self-defense against charges of ageism, I can only say I’m a bit older than James, and that I had previously decried John Elderfield‘s mandatory retirement from the Museum of Modern Art.

But for now, as the Jewish High Holidays are about to begin, come join me and James in Jerusalem during my 2012 visit, for our overdue reunion (accompanied by the museum restaurant’s decidedly secular background music):

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