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Ben Uri, and a hundred years

    Mark Gertler: Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914)
    Mark Gertler: Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914)

    Ben Uri celebrates its remarkable centenary this month . One hundred years of the Jewish community in London from July 1, 1915 seen through the eyes and art of principally émigré artists, predominantly Jewish. First, they were forced to flee from the Russian Pale and East Europe and then, 50 years later, from Nazi-occupied Central Europe to Britain. Ben Uri and literally millions of people who bore witness to its many guises over the century have been part of a most extraordinary story.

    Ben Uri Museum is the oldest cultural institution of the community. It was founded by a Russian émigré, artist Lazar Berson, who arrived in London from Paris in 1914. He was charismatic and persuaded artisans and small businessmen of the need for a Jewish art society.

    The artistic establishment led by the Royal Academy, had no great interest in foreigners who looked and sounded different and wanted to paint portraits and landscapes in shapes and colour rather than photo type realism. So Berson and a group of community visionaries founded Ben Ouri, as it was known at the time.

    If you think such an initiative was incredible given the chaos and poverty of the period, then try to imagine all this was going on in the midst of the Great War when Whitechapel had its fair share of Jewish men fighting and dying for King and country. Then you start to understand the extraordinarily ambitious spirit that has dominated so much of Ben Uri's 100 years.

    Before the Second World War, Ben Uri had a wide vision of its role within 20th-century art in London. Often before London's great museums, Ben Uri exhibited or acquired works by the emerging European masters such as Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine.

    Alfred Wolmark: Sabbath Afternoon (1909-10)
    Alfred Wolmark: Sabbath Afternoon (1909-10)

    In addition, there was the remarkable generation of Jewish refugees, including Adler, Meidner, Herman and Bloch. Exhibition and acquisition programmes featuring these artists and our own Bomberg, Epstein, Gertler, Kramer and Wolmark pre-1939 and post-war artists including Auerbach, Kitaj and Kossoff, to name just a few, highlights the national and international relevance of the collection and reach of the museum.

    Ben Uri has a rightful and respected place in British 20th-century art history. Visitors to our centenary exhibition will see compelling art addressing the great issues of the 20th century: immigration and exile, two world wars, the Holocaust and emancipation.

    The 1990s were dominated by upheaval, losing our gallery on Dean Street in the West End, and the need to survive, and our predecessors successfully steered a determined and prudent course. In 2000 and 2001, the new board set about the challenge of creating and implementing a radical strategy for a new millennium for an art museum without a gallery, where the artists involved were Jewish by birth but seldom by practice; where the subjects of their work were rarely Jewish (only 5 per cent of the 1,300 collection works); where an original need to support Jewish artists in the face of discrimination had long passed; and a shrinking small mainstream Jewish community of 150,000 across London could generate only a small percentage who were committed to the visual arts.

    Our strategy, intelligently and imaginatively implemented over 15 years, was inspired by the strengths and characteristics of our world-class collection. We re-positioned the museum to the centre of London's gallery and museum sector- unique within the community. We thought long and hard about the future role of museums and how Ben Uri, steeped in 20th-century history and Jewish values, could share these virtues with, and meaningfully benefit, a large, diverse public.

    Two-thirds of the 308 artists in our collection were/are immigrants; our artists originate from 35 countries; 27 per cent were/are women; 95 per cent of the artworks have no visual connection to religion; most, if not all, worked within their artistic peer groups and not within a Jewish milieu; research told us that around 90 per cent of non-Jewish museum visitors did not prioritise religion-specific institutions to visit. All this contrasted with the traditional concept of a Jewish museum predominantly engaging a Jewish audience.

    We played to our strengths; delivered high-quality museum exhibitions and focused on important issues facing societies across Britain, and beyond. In particular, we focused on Migration, Identity, Education and Well-being through the visual arts.

    Fifteen years later, some 80 per cent of our visitors are not Jewish and are of increasingly diverse ethnicity. We tour exhibitions widely, our catalogues are distributed internationally, we support an award- winning learning team whose programmes access 20,000 schools nationally and we are deeply committed to Well-being through art therapy and research into how art can slow dementia. Put Art, Identity, Migration into Google and seven out of the 10 references on the first page are Ben Uri. Search Ben Uri in Google and you get 11 million results.

    After 15 years building our reputation within the national and international museum sector, we have been honoured with a six-month exhibition, Out of Chaos, at the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House alongside the Courtauld Institute. This exhibition of 70 recognised world-class works and archive revelations is the forerunner for our future as a Museum of Art, Identity and Migration, sharing our space with other minority communities, in the heart of Central London.

    Every picture, sculpture and selections of our rich archive displayed is your heritage, your birthright - your priceless legacy.

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