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The collection that seeded the museum began with a gift of 26 Jewish ceremonial art objects from Judge Mayer Sulzberger to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on January 20, 1904, where it was housed in the seminary’s library. The collection was moved in 1931, with the Seminary, to 122nd and Broadway and set aside in a room entitled ‘The Museum of Jewish Ceremonial Objects’. The collection was subsequently expanded by major donations from Hadji Ephraim Benguiat and Harry G. Friedman.
In January 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg, widow of philanthropist Felix M. Warburg (d.1937), donated the family mansion as a permanent home for the museum, and the site opened to the public as ‘The Jewish Museum’ in May 1947. The building was expanded in 1963 and by architect Kevin Roche in 1993.
In the 1960s, the museum took a more active role in the general world of contemporary art, with exhibitions like Primary Structures, which helped to launch the Minimalist art movement. In the decades since, the museum has had a renewed focused on Jewish culture and Jewish artists. In 1992, the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center teamed up to create The New York Jewish Film Festival, which presents narrative features, short films and documentaries.
Today, the museum also provides educational programs for adults and families, sponsoring concerts, films, symposia and lectures related to its exhibitions. Joan Rosenbaum has been the museum’s director since 1981.
The museum has over 26,000 objects including paintings, sculpture, archaeological artifacts, Jewish ceremonial art and many other pieces important to the preservation of Jewish history and culture. Artists included in the museum’s collection include Marc Chagall, George Segal, Eleanor Antin and Deborah Kass. This represents the largest collection of Jewish art, Judaica and broadcast media outside of museums in Israel. It has a permanent exhibition called Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, which explores the evolution of Jewish culture from antiquity to the present. The museum’s collection includes objects from ancient to modern eras, in all media, and originated in every area of the world where Jews have had a presence.
Over the past twenty years, some of the museum’s important exhibitions have included: The Circle of Montparnasse: Jewish Artists in Paris, 1905–1945 (1985), The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice (1987), Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900–1945 (1991), Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (1996), Assignment: Rescue, The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee (1997), An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine (1998), Voice, Image, Gesture: Selections from The Jewish Museum’s Collection, 1945–2000 (2001), Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (2002), New York: Capital of Photography (2002), Modigliani Beyond the Myth (2004), and Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 (2008).