Riding the wave of a cultural renaissance

Far from destroying other community hubs, nearly a year after opening, JW3 has ushered in a boom of participation

By Simon Rocker, July 17, 2014
a girl tests the surf machine

a girl tests the surf machine

The busy Finchley Road which links Golders Green to Swiss Cottage is a far cry from the seaside. But those unable enjoy a coastal break might want to take a trip there - for the sand has arrived at JW3.

The new Jewish community centre is offering a "pop-up beach" on its piazza, which, in winter, sported an ice rink.

A month of outdoor activities for families runs until mid-August as part of a holiday season programme, which also includes a children's play scheme, a summer university, ranging from art to opera, and a Hebrew ulpan.

A decade in the planning, the new complex finally opened its doors at the end of September. According to chairman Michael Goldstein, a former vice-chairman of the UJIA, the public response has been encouraging. "We are pleased with the level of participation," he said. "It is a busy place - busier than we thought."

Over the first six months, the centre received 130,000 visits - more than double the initial forecast, said JW3 chief executive Raymond Simonson. How many of those are repeat visits they do not know but it would include, for example, people who "might come in to buy a ticket, have a coffee and then come for a performance a few day later".

JW3’s Raymond Simonson

JW3’s Raymond Simonson

Originally, they had anticipated 1,200 to 1,300 a visits a week in the opening months. "In a full week, it rarely dips below 4,000," Mr Simonson said. In peak weeks, attendance has climbed over 5,000. More than 2,500 households have taken out membership, which offers a discount on tickets for activities and eating at the restaurant, Zest.

While the footfall has been "fantastic," he said, "it does come with headaches. We have had to double the number of staff on the box office."

The numbers so far have proved sceptics wrong. "So many people have said we were in the wrong location, that we should have been in Borehamwood," Mr Simonson said. "They said we would struggle, people won't shlep here and if we don't have a car park, they won't come."

The centre was the brainchild of Dame Vivien Duffield and it is her family foundation which has met around 80 per cent of the estimated £50 million start-up cost, making it the single most expensive charitable venture undertaken within the Jewish community.

While there have been rumours of running over budget, Mr Goldstein is quick to dispel them. "I don't know where that comes from," he said.

From the outset, the plan was to ensure there would be enough in the bank to cover the first three years of running costs, he explained. When the three years is over, the centre will have to raise around £1 million a year in addition to ticket sales and events income and preparations are under way for its first fundraising dinner in October.

"It is important that people understand the centre is functioning as planned," Mr Goldstein said.

The first couple of years was always going to involve a learning curve, Mr Simonson said. "Some things are doing better than planned, like the nursery. Not everyone realises that every penny Zest makes in profit goes back into subsidising activities that need subsidising."

If £1 million a year seems a tall order, that is also the target to balance the books for the London Jewish Cultural Centre further up the road at the Hampstead end of Golders Green. Donations cover more than half the cost of its educational and arts programme.

While some feared that the advent of JW3 might hit attendance at the LJCC, it is reporting the opposite. Over the past five years numbers have risen from around 1,200-1,400 a week to 1,800-2,000.

The first six months of this academic year, compared to the previous year, show a 16 per cent increase in purchase of tickets for courses, events and activities, said LJCC marketing director Mandy King.

"This only includes elements for which people have to pay, reserve a place or commit to attendance. In addition, we have many free exhibitions throughout the year, where people come and go without registering on our database. Similarly, the café is open to the whole community throughout the week.

"We host a ballet school daily, Israeli scouts weekly, and partner or let the building on a very regular basis to many communal organisations and private individuals for conferences, meetings, and parties. So if those elements are taken into account, we believe the increase is much closer to 20 per cent."

The LJCC has built up a loyal following among the retired and semi-retired with time on their hands. But it has also increased its appeal to a younger clientele, opening a youth centre at its Ivy House base. Its after-school clubs teach skills such as photography or cooking, while sushi-making and cartooning are among the activities offered for children in August.

It has also raised its profile through staging the annual Hampstead and Highgate Literary festival and the recent Gefiltefest.

Another adult education centre, the Orthodox London School of Jewish Studies in Hendon, has also found no adverse effects. Its numbers increased last year to around 600 students a week and it is maintaining them this year, said chief executive Jason Marantz.

"Some of our star teachers have been booked to teach at JW3 on a partnership programme and that has actually led some people to LSJS who didn't know about us before," he said. "We do text-based Jewish education programming, whereas JW3 is more culturally-based, so there is really not that much of an overlap when it comes to fundraising."

Other cultural institutions appear confident that they can hold their own. The Jewish Museum, which reopened four years ago in its expanded home in Camden, needs to raise around 75 per cent of its £1.5 million budget. Last year, it posted a deficit of £775,000, but entry fees have to be kept a reasonable level so as not to deter visitors.

"It's tough," said chief executive Abigail Morris, "You can see fabulous museums for free in London and obviously we have to charge. Other Jewish museums in Europe get public money."

But school visits are up in two years from 11,000 to 14,000. And it has also begun to put its exhibitions on tour. The exhibition on Jews and football, Four Four Jew, is showing now in Manchester, while its Amy Winehouse exhibition, which attracted 18,000 at the museum, is in Vienna, before going to Beit Hatfutsot in Israel and then San Francisco.

"Next year, I hope to eliminate the deficit," she said. "The deficit is going down and visitors are going up. Things are going in the right direction."

For David Glasser, chairman of the Ben Uri Gallery in St John's Wood, British Jewry is too small to sustain the current number of arts and education institutions on its own, hence the importance of attracting the wider community. When the gallery staged its Uproar exhibition on 20th century British art earlier this year, it reckoned by analysing postcodes that 85 per cent of visitors were non-Jewish.

In just three and a half months, Uproar attracted 7,000 visitors. "That's more than double the half-year attendance figure for the previous year," he said.

Numbers might have been helped by Ben Uri's decision last year to end its £5 entrance fee. "We had to make a trade-off," Mr Glasser said. "The unemployed and people short of money can come to us because it's free."

Most of the gallery's £500,000 budget has to be covered by donations, but it is also looking at other ways of raising income, through selling services to other institutions. "We are deep in negotiations for a major project in Russia," Mr Glasser said. "That way we can generate income by sharing and selling our expertise. Only three museums were invited to be on the delegation to Russia - the V&A, the British Museum and the Ben Uri."

The Ben Uri's efforts to secure wider recognition have also enabled it to find a prestigious central London venue to celebrate its centenary next year. "We are going to be in Somerset House for five months," he said. "It's going to be an incredible exhibition about the Jewish community and its artists."

For Mr Simonson, JW3 is all about adding to the cultural mix rather than taking away business from others.

"It is not like a football club, where if you support Spurs, you don't go to Arsenal," he said. "You can be an LJCC regular or go to all of Rafi Zarum's shiurim at LJSS but once a month there will be a concert or something for you at JW3.

"We want more people to see this as a second home. I would not want that to be at the expense of these

The visitors to JW3 every week

The amount that JW3 and the LJCC need to raise to break even every year

The number of visitors to the Amy Winehouse exhibition at the Jewish Museum

The increase in ticket sales for courses, events and activities at the LJCC

Last updated: 2:40pm, July 17 2014