Where is Jewish Art Now?

4 Jun

The End of the Six Points Fellowship (in New York), and what it means for the rest of us

by Elke Reva Sudin

IMG_8233_resizeRecently, it was announced that the UJA-Federation in New York will not be renewing their funding of the Six Points Fellowship, a program that has awarded about $1.26 million in grants to 30 Jewish artists to make new Jewish art.

In response to this news, there was an article published in ejewishphilanthropy, Making the Case for the Arts as a Jewish Communal Priority, where the author Joshua Ford identifies that this incident is part of a trend of declining support for the arts by the Jewish community that will only continue with the next generation of philanthropy. The case he makes is that Jewish communities and philanthropists should not see the arts as a distraction of the other causes they seek to support, but central to them. This comes from someone whose DC JCC, which as far as my sources had confirmed last winter, had discontinued their gallery. Perhaps the author wrote this piece because this is an issue that he is struggling with within his own institution.

As founder of Jewish Art Now, an advocate for 21st century Jewish art accessibility and innovation, I found this to be a particularly interesting call to action as Jewish art has become more and more popular among synagogues and JCC spaces in the past few years. All of a sudden it seems as if so many independent groups feel as if they “discovered” Jewish art. But when it gets to be a hassle or the money dries up, there go the arts.

These things come in waves. The Six Points Fellowship facilitated a new wave of Judaism in the arts at a time when JDUb Records was on the upswing, Matisyahu was breaking out into the mainstream, and no one acknowledged Jewish content artwork that wasn’t drawing from the traditional Ashkenazi narrative, the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel. There was also a financial surplus, and using those funds to invest in specific artists laid the groundwork for how Judaism was perceived in the arts for a new generation.

All of a sudden it seems as if so many independent groups feel as if they “discovered” Jewish art.

With a rapidly declining economy, a second wave emerged in the last few years of content creators and appreciators such as the Jewish Art Salon, Art Kibbutz, or Jewish Eyes on the Arts, who have pushed ahead with their own independent programming despite a lack of community infrastructure or financial support. Some more religious groups which were actually started during the boom of the first wave and lacked institutional support also thrived in this environment, such as Shemspeed and ATARA.

Each wave has its value, just like every generation can represent a new era in their people’s history. I believe we are at the crest of the second wave, where more and more interest in Jewish art has developed through increasing grassroots initiatives, and it is ready to crash, in a good way, to further hydrate the land. So this begs the question, should Jewish art be supported by the institutional community? Or should it be expected to develop enough mainstream credibility that it survives on its own?

Rather than arguing the value of Jewish art for its transformative value, Joshua Ford says in his article that Jewish art can be used to accomplish other goals that the community has in mind. He cites how gallery neighborhoods are built on mixed use spaces, combining residential and commercial, which foster “builders of community that provide a common cultural gathering space.” Other pointers the article gives are to have more audience participation in the creative process and that the artwork that Jewish artists are producing on their own can be a valuable asset for the Jewish community.

Should Jewish art be supported by the institutional community? Or should it be expected to develop enough mainstream credibility that it survives on its own?

As part of the second wave of contemporary Jewish art, we at Jewish Art Now follow an approach to arts engagement based on current trends in the mainstream visual art world. Our focus is on community building and interaction rather than positioning elite artists that you have to consume as the only point of engagement. We have interactive events with multiple entry ways and content that makes you feel inspired when you leave, because it is genuine both to Judaism’s traditions and visual art’s language. The experience is high quality, but not pretentious, warm and welcoming, but with a major cool factor, like an underground movement rather than a big institutional initiative. We are art experts and appreciators trying to elevate a Jewish community we care about.

Ford notes that Jewish art producers and venues don’t make enough of a case that art is crucial to the community. We agree that this needs to be made, but as grant money is harder to come by, we at Jewish Art Now don’t try to convince people that what we are doing is important for the community in the same way a fundraiser from your local (insert lame institutional event you’ve been bored by) has. What we do is show people a good time, stimulating the senses, and the response is always “we need more events like THIS!”

The younger generation gets it. We are consumers who want our consumption to bring us meaning in our lives, and that we are part of the process, not just a member of the club like a donor list. We need our senses to be overloaded with the cutting edge. The problem is that the major donors (and most individual donors) are older and don’t relate to the contemporary art we are drawn to, the brand of 21st century non-apologetic Judaism we present, and the way we deliver it with our media. They might enjoy our actual event, but can’t conceptualize it or understand its value compared to what they traditionally fund (though I would say helping to create a market of sustainability for talented folks, artists and other professionals, is a dire necessity for them, and for the cultural development of our people). There are no borders on the globalized, interconnected world anymore and we need to start thinking of our artistic community as that wide, with points in any location, large city or small town.

As the first wave of 21st century Jewish art waves goodbye (closing of J-dub, diminishing of countless print publications such as Zeek, Heeb, and the revelation of Matisyahu’s bare chin) we aspire to pave the way and lay the ground-work of the third wave of contemporary Jewish art. We see a world where there is widespread collaboration, open-source programming, and curricula that are built into Jewish communities.

Art can be the most captivating experience, but only if it is delivered in a way the next evolution of the community can engage with. It is important to retain an open communication online and in-person, changing perceptions of Jewish art within and without, with participants who would not normally engage at Jewish events or with Jewish subjects.

“The art world resists Jewish subjects, and the Jewish world does not embrace the visual arts in a profes­sional capacity.”

As we say in our official description of Jewish Art Now, the art world resists Jewish subjects, and the Jewish world does not embrace the visual arts in a profes­sional capacity. As a result there is a community of artists and culture savvy individuals who find them­selves having to choose between the two— or acting alone in their pursuit. Ford wrote “artists will continue to create art – whether we will harness those individual and collective energies into an asset for the Jewish community remains to be seen.” We see a way to create collaboration on a larger scale, leveraging already available resources while provid­ing direction and oversight, that can easily provide communities with culture content and re-engagement.

Elke Reva Sudin is the executive director of Jewish Art Now, an outlet for contemporary Jewish art and design appreciation and advancement. Jewish Art Now was recently ignited by the PresenTense New York Community Entrepreneur Program.

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