From the inside, the Ben Uri Gallery is looking out

By David Glasser, January 30, 2014
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‘As an onlooker, it is enough for me to say that were this London Jewish Museum of Art and its collections, in New York, it would be in receipt of proud, munificent patronage, and lodged in a fine and suitable building. How can it be that such a worthy enterprise (Ben Uri), has been for so long struggling to survive, nourishing the cultural life of London with significant exhibitions and scholarship, yet those who could at a stroke, reward it with appropriate premises tomorrow, ignore it?” Brian Sewell, Evening Standard, January 9 2014.

Read again what the most significant British art critic of our generation wrote: “nourishing the cultural life of London with significant exhibitions and scholarship”, not about the great national galleries in London (which of course do, and are our constant benchmark), but about yours and London’s 98-years-young Ben Uri.

Nourishing the cultural life of London — what other institution, born and bred in the Jewish community, has had such a conclusion reached within a tough, critical review and assessment by an independent, expert witness, within a 10-million-city-wide-population, rather than 200,000-local-community, context?

The answer is none, and that is the fundamental difference between Ben Uri and our colleagues and friends within the Jewish cultural providers in the community. Our mission for the future is outside, not inside — not better, not worse, just very different — and directed to an audience pool more than 100 times larger.

We have an important heritage to offer but the trends are clear: we cannot do this on our own

The whole package of what Ben Uri is and stands for in the 21st century was not ready or proven until the extraordinary success of our current exhibition, “UPROAR!”

It has taken 14 long, hard, exhilarating and intellectually challenging years of conceptual and detailed strategic analysis and thinking, first to define and second to deliver a new expansive engagement role, for a proud Jewish museum in the heart of the local, national and international arenas. Why so long? Because it has not been done before, either here or abroad, so there were no existing models to dissect and adopt.

We have not asked people to invest seriously in this business (and, make no mistake, museums and cultural/community institutions are cash-hungry businesses) until first we invested ourselves. Our customers are our visitors, whom we don’t charge as we are generously sponsored by visionary Manya Igel (Fine Arts) to remove barriers to entry. Our products have to reflect and satisfy customers’ needs, wants, interests, and succeed against the competition (principally Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Whitechapel, Serpentine), in a location where they can easily gain access.

Now seems a good a time to explain publicly why we made the seismic shift in 2001 to represent the community proudly in the mainstream, rather than stay domestic, and secondly to reveal our future, designed to be both sustainable and make a meaningful difference to London as a whole.

When we decided to take this on in the year 2000, five years after Ben Uri closed its gallery in Dean Street, the question was, how and where best could Ben Uri exploit its principal and invaluable assets? These are: an important heritage in London’s Jewish community; an equally important and universally recorded heritage in 20th century British and European art history; major bodies of work by important émigré artists, together with our registered museum status, which the great and wealthy collectors of today cannot buy.

According to the 2001 Census, there were around 200,000 Jews in London, out of a total population of about seven million. According to the 2011 Census, our community stopped declining because of the growth of the Charedi community, and held steady at around 200,000, while London grew by 14 per cent to a population of eight million. The trends are clear.

Forecast for 2030, which is only a blink away, is a Jewish community of maybe around 230,000 and a London population of around 9.5 million. Two hundred and thirty thousand out of 9,500,000 demanded long-term strategic thinking.

The financial aspects illustrate the problem and reality of community size, aspiration and expectation even more clearly today than they did a decade ago. The Jewish Museum, which enjoyed a capital investment of around £11 million to open its beautiful new building in Camden Town in 2010, has reported increased operating losses of £775,000 for the year ending March 31 2013, up from £494,000 in 2012.

The new JW3 invested millions over previous years building their brand and programming, and more than £30m to open their fantastic new facility on Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, last autumn, with their chief executive saying only months ago in this paper that, even if their ticket sales and overall income hit budget, they would still need to raise a further £1m per annum.

The London Jewish Cultural Centre saw its surplus reduce to £14,000 for the year ending August 2012, down from £139,000 in 2011, and it, too, has expanded, with the fine new Catherine Lewis Youth Centre at Ivy House in Golders Green opening a few months ago.

Ben Uri delivered a surplus of £316,000 for the year ending March 31 2013, compared to a loss of £23,000 in 2012, but the figures flatter to deceive. If collection acquisition income is excluded, we generated an increased loss of £44,000 — and in case anyone thinks we are doing just fine, the opposite is true, as we have lost £600,000 in this development phase since 2001 — albeit we have added over £3 million of value to the collection during the same period.

Cumulatively, among the principal cultural providers, we estimate there is a need to fund about £1.5m — £2m of operating losses each year ongoing, in addition to the current annual donation of about £6m, principally from the community. The deficits cannot be made up by increased visitor numbers as that would be unrealistic and, in numerical terms, simply too huge.

So what is the formula for Ben Uri to carve out a meaningful and sustainable second century?
Our answer is Ben Uri: Art, Identity, Migration — the Art Museum for Everyone. We plan a national and international art museum. A wider institution, focusing on 20th-century and contemporary British and European art, simultaneously engaging directly with the principal social issues facing Britain this next half-century — migration and identity.
Through art, we can be a meaningful source of engagement with communities who came to London either freely or through painful forced journeys, much like our parents or grandparents.

The plan: we need 30,000 to 50,000 sq ft (that is, up to twice the size of the Jewish Museum and half the size again of JW3) sited in Whitechapel, South Bank or the heart of central London but always within easy distance of a national gallery, so that we can benefit from being second on the visit list.

The product: great exhibitions of the past and present, touring as they do now across the UK (Manchester and Ayr this year) and abroad (USA in the past two years); highest quality scholarship and publications continuing to be distributed worldwide, as available at MoMa in New York as they are at Tate or Waterstones; continued expansion of the collection; yet more ambitious schools’ learning through the London Grid for Learning and the National Education Network; development of our wellbeing programmes, with special focus on our Art and Dementia project, that will, we plan, under Professor Michael Baum’s guidance, soon start the UK’s first clinical trials to assess critically medium-term benefits; and, last but not least, telling the fascinating, inspiring émigré experiences to and in London.

The formula: diversity and inclusiveness. Last year, we held a fully-catalogued exhibition about distinguished Ghanaian and Korean artists addressing their migration and identity issues through their photography.

This coming March, there will be an exhibition of 21 African video artists from 13 different countries. Next year, we plan to exchange galleries with the Nehru Centre in South Audley Street while our centenary exhibition shows at Somerset House.

The big difference: we will permanently share our new building with up to 10 different émigré communities during any given six-month period by rotation — together sharing experiences, recording and comparing journeys to London and displaying their art in whatever format or medium that is most reflective of their traditions and presence in London.
Together we will address potential audience pools of between one and two million.

We believe that, in this way, we can attract more than 100,000 visitors a year; produce earned income significantly greater than charitable donations; make ourselves financially sustainable, intellectually robust and visitor-engaging.
It was only late last year that we were 99 per cent sure this plan would be acceptable and desirable to the cross-sections of London with the power and influence to make it happen — on the back of cross-community support.

All we now need is help, as the really hard work is done!

David Glasser is chairman and chief executive of the Ben Uri

Last updated: 4:29pm, January 30 2014