Is This New York's Best Little Museum?

Mackenzie Stroh

Under a trailblazing director, the often-overlooked Jewish Museum has become a design powerhouse.

It started in March with “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History,” a retrospective of the popular fashion designer and TV personality. Then, in May, came “Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist,” dedicated to the prolific landscape designer. Rounding out the year is the November opening of “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design,” about the celebrated Frenchman (1883–1950) who built an extremely early glass house from 1928 to 1932.

It would seem that New York City’s Jewish Museum, long associated with fine art and religious artifacts, has caught the design bug. One might even say that it’s giving the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, a block down Fifth Avenue, some unexpected competition.

Certainly, the Jewish Museum, founded in 1904 in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and now occupying the Felix M. Warburg House, a 1908 French Renaissance Revival mansion at the corner of East 92nd Street, has mounted design-related shows before. “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life” (2009), for example, presented ingenious interpretations of menorahs and Seder plates, among other religious objects. But it was typical in highlighting Jewish identity and practice. This year’s exhibitions have a much broader curatorial scope.

What’s behind this design-related development? Ask Claudia Gould. “We have good taste. What can I say?” says Gould, 60, the museum’s Helen Goldsmith Menschel director, speaking in her immaculate office.

The museum is housed in a 1908 mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Courtesy David Heald)

More design energy is lavished on the installations as well. Visitors to the Mizrahi show entered through a many-colored gateway of fabric swatches, and museumgoers found the products of Burle Marx’s extravagant creativity (he was also a painter, jewelry maker, and textile artist) heaped on a big, multitiered platform that was inspired by the designer’s gardens. When the Chareau exhibit opens on November 4, it will be in a setting by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the High Line park downtown, that encompasses more than 150 pieces, including furniture, lighting, and textiles.

The design thinking doesn’t stop with the exhibitions. These days, when visitors to the museum are footsore and hungry, they can find comfort downstairs at Russ & Daughters. A stylish outpost of the Lower East Side eatery opened in February with Thonet bentwood chairs and a mural depicting bagels, cats, and herring by graphic artist Maira Kalman. As for how it happened, Gould was quoted as saying, “You cannot be a top-notch cultural institution without an exciting food anchor such as Russ & Daughters.” She approached; they declined. But eventually the owners came around, and the opening marked their first expansion outside the Lower East Side in 102 years.

Even the museum’s logo, recast in 2014 by the New York graphics studio Sagmeister & Walsh, is gorgeous. Spiky, exotic, redolent of ancient cultures and yet fresh, it was much better received than the recent collision of capital letters making up the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new emblem.

The “Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History” exhibition. (Courtesy Will Ragozzino/

When Gould arrived in late 2011, after leading Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, she unofficially began a rethinking of the Jewish Museum’s aesthetics. Facing a near-empty slate of exhibitions, she handed Barbara Bloom, a conceptual artist known for her deft orchestrations of groups of objects, the keys to the collection and told her to do anything she wanted. Evoking the building’s original use as a family home—albeit the very grand one of a German-born American banker—Bloom organized the 2013 show “As It Were...So to Speak” around the idea of argument, a mainstay of Talmudic law and no stranger to family life. She designed furniture to display her pickings. A bed was laid out with marriage certificates and divorce decrees. A gaming table held antique playing cards, including nasty ones made by Nazis from a desecrated Torah scroll.

Three years later, Gould takes exactly five seconds to rummage around and produce a swatch of the pale green-blue paint that Bloom used in the installation. “I thought one day I would have a wall with this,” she says. She is wearing a geometric-patterned silk skirt, a black blouse, and open-toed leather wedge shoes. Behind her an Arco floor lamp gracefully bows its head.

When it comes to design, Gould’s a bit of a Zelig. She has been a force in several contemporary-art institutions, but from the beginning her interests overflowed into music, fashion, and architecture. Riffle through old snapshots of leading designers from every corner of the field and you may find her in the picture.

The “Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist” show. (Courtesy David Heald)

Gould was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut—her father happened to be Jewish, her mother not—and studied at Boston College and New York University. While curator of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in 1990, she hired the French interiors legend Andrée Putman to design an exhibition of black-and-white fashions dating from the 1920s to the present. Working independently, she was behind the historic pairing of architect Steven Holl and artist Vito Acconci in the 1993 overhaul of the Storefront for Art and Architecture’s façade in New York’s Nolita, incorporating a dozen folding panels that open onto the street. (Remarkably, it still exists.) After taking the helm at Artists Space in SoHo in 1994, she gave now-celebrated architects and designers, including Greg Lynn, Toshiko Mori, and Abbott Miller, their first solo shows.

Her projects at ICA, which she joined as director in 1999, included a retrospective of work by Austrian-born fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in an installation by Vienna-based architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. She also gave splashy platforms to Kalman and Stefan Sagmeister, graphic artists who would contribute to the Jewish Museum’s new sensibility.

Galia Solomonoff, who helped convert a Nabisco box-printing factory into the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, in 2003, was one of the architects Gould promoted at Artists Space in the ’90s. They remained friendly. Three years ago, Gould asked Solomonoff to design the Russ & Daughters café. Then came the invitation to do a Marc Chagall show. To date, Solomonoff has designed six exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, including Mizrahi and Burle Marx. She also renovated Gould’s West Village home. “Claudia loves beautiful things,” she says simply.

Samplings from the museum’s Russ & Daughters outpost. (Courtesy Russ & Daughters)

The generality is the point. Gould uses design, the most overarching of disciplines, to underpin every one of her efforts, especially now that she is leading an institution centered on culture and history rather than a style or period of art. Design exhibitions help illuminate the broad spectrum of Jewish creativity. At the same time, her refinements create a graceful environment whose beauty is less seen than felt. The Jewish Museum, she says, represents “a wide purview, and we’re expanding it because we need to expose many different people to the museum. There are many ways in.”

Her current project is updating the permanent exhibition on the third floor, which has gone largely untouched since 1993. Called “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” it has been criticized for emphasizing the northern European side of the odyssey. The installation lacks relevance, Gould believes, and is thematically remote from the museum’s temporary shows. Next fall, she hopes to unveil its replacement, a rotating group of objects potentially called “From 26 to 26,000,” alluding to the growth of the collection since 1904. She envisions nine art pieces speaking about their own journeys across geography and time to get to the museum, such as a sofa that traveled from a 19th-century German synagogue, where it had been used in marriage ceremonies. Gould has also commissioned Dutch architecture firm UNStudio (ICA exhibition, 2006) to do a feasibility study of design solutions for the Warburg mansion—not to create more space, but to make better use of what exists. “It’s all design-related,” she says about...well, everything. “And even if it’s not, it is.”