Widening the bridge to Jewish Baltimore's past, future Art: Gallery exhibits opening today show the importance of the spirit and of the community's long-term connection to Israel.

March 08, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

With its reopening in expanded quarters today, the Jewish Museum of Maryland can do what was impossible before: focus on local history in depth and present major outside exhibits at the same time.

A big part of the expansion is a second gallery, with a lofty 17-foot-high ceiling and 2,000 square feet of new exhibit space. It opens today with New York contemporary artist Archie Rand's "The Eighteen," a cycle of paintings based on Jewish daily liturgy. Dramatically lighted against the gallery's deep-purple walls, Rand's heavily symbolic paintings seem to glow from within with a spiritual presence.

Across the expanded lobby, with its dark red granite floor, the center's original gallery contains "Bridges to Zion: The People of Maryland and the Land of Israel." It is a history of Marylanders' manifold involvement with Israel from the beginnings of the Zionist movement around the turn of the century to more recent developments in such areas as philanthropy, trade, travel and archaeology.

"Bridges" contains everything from historical photographs and documents to ceramics from archaeological sites to clothes made in Israel to a computer hookup with Baltimore's sister city in Israel, Karmiel Misgav.

The two galleries constitute a major component of the enlarged building to be dedicated in a public ceremony at 2 p.m. today.

After a $2.3 million expansion, the museum building has more than doubled in size from 10,000 to 22,000 square feet.

The expanded building also contains increased space for its ever-growing collection of materials related to Jewish life.

"At present, our collection contains about 1.2 million documents, 9,000 objects and 60,000 photographs," says executive director Bernard Fishman. "In any year we may get 500 objects and 20,000 documents, and we quickly outgrew our old storage space."

The collection includes paintings, sculpture and photographs; architectural fragments from synagogues, including stained-glass windows; decorative arts, including furniture, silver, ceramics; textiles, from rabbinical garments to military uniforms; rare books, periodicals, business records and signs; record albums of Jewish music; and Yiddish theater materials.

"If you can collect it and it had anything to do with Jewish Maryland, we have it," says Barry Kessler, the museum's assistant director and curator.

The expanding collection's most visible recent addition is an entire room.

Half a block away from the museum, at 1100 E. Baltimore St., stands a building that formerly housed the Hendler Creamery Co., which from just after the turn of the century until 1975 made the Hendler's Ice Cream that was much loved by generations of Baltimoreans.

The building's current owner, developer Samuel Boltansky, two years ago gave the museum the rich mahogany paneling that covered the walls of the former creamery's executive office. Part of the museum's expansion was the creation of a room to house the paneling. As a result, the museum now has a proper boardroom for the first time in its relatively short history.

Oldest synagogue

The Jewish Museum of Maryland was founded in 1960 to save the historic and architecturally important Lloyd Street Synagogue. Built in 1845 to a design by one of Baltimore's finest architects, Robert Cary Long Jr., the Greek Revival structure is the oldest synagogue in Baltimore and the third oldest in the United States. During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the synagogue's surrounding area, northeast of Little Italy and less than a mile from the Inner Harbor, was a bustling center of Baltimore's Jewish population.

In 1876, the Moorish Revival B'Nai Israel Synagogue opened across Watson Street from the older synagogue but also facing Lloyd Street.

By the mid-20th century, however, Baltimore's Jewish population had left its inner-city location for points north, and the Lloyd Street Synagogue was endangered.

Restoration

As its first project, the museum took over the building and restored it from 1962 to 1965. Since then it has maintained the building as a historic site and uses it as an auditorium.

In the 1980s the museum also acquired and restored the B'Nai Israel Synagogue, which retains an active congregation.

The museum operated out of rented offices until 1987, when it opened a permanent museum building between the two synagogues. It contained a gallery, library, offices and space for collection storage; and, together with the two synagogues, created a complex unique in the United States.

"There is no other Jewish museum in this country with two historic buildings, though there are some in Europe," says Fishman.

In 1987 the museum's endowment was $1 million and its budget $265,000, and it had a staff of six. Since then the staff has doubled, the budget has risen to $600,000 and the endowment is $5.5 million. Of that, $1.4 million was added as part of the present fund-raising campaign, which has so far also raised the $2.3 million needed for the building expansion.

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