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Renny Pritikin on CJM’s Future: An Interview

Renny Pritikin at CJM

After serving eight years as curator of UC Davis’ Nelson Gallery, Renny Pritikin, in April, was named chief curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  He spoke with Squarecylinder Editor and Publisher, David M. Roth, at his office on August 14.  

When the museum announced your appointment it felt like transitional moment, like an opening up of new possibilities.  Under your leadership what changes can we expect to see from CJM in the future?
I’m part of a new regime at the institution.  A new executive director, Lori Starr, was hired a little over a year ago, and I was her first major hire, aimed at putting together a new leadership team where I interpret her vision. One of the thing things Lori asked me to do is enliven the lobby, so before folks enter the museum and have to pay, they get a free taste of what we’re trying to do in two or three locations.  
The next thing will be more one-person or group contemporary art shows.  The bulk of the successes have been historic group shows, and in some ways I’m going to step back to that original component.  But it’s always going to be a combination of modernist 20th century and contemporary art: a combination of shows that I originate and traveling shows in some formula that hasn’t been worked out yet, but will probably be one third traveling and two thirds original, as opposed to the opposite. 
There hasn’t been a chief curator here since the first year.  So there were various improvised curatorial approaches.  It was very important to Lori to have somebody with a track record and a point of view to build a reputation.
One of your hallmarks has been bringing under-the-radar artists to the public’s attention.  Today your job is substantially larger.  It’s not just about showing contemporary artists who operate outside the mainstream; it’s about creating exhibitions that represent or recast Jewish culture.  How does that affect your thinking?  

I’ve obviously thought about this a lot. Every job I’ve had has parameters, I’ve realized, even my first job at New Langton Arts.  It was about creating a safe place for truly experimental work – performance, installation, video  – that didn’t have a home, and connecting artists directly with their audience, which was other artists in that very small institution.  So those were the parameters I came up in; they were very narrow if you step back and think about it.  I was there for a decade, and then I get this job at Yerba Buena, thinking I know it all, I’ve got all the answers, I’ve got it all figured out.  And I go into an institution where very quickly I realize I have to throw out every thing I thought I knew and learn how to look at multicultural forms and learn how to curate against my own taste sometimes or use my eyes to evaluate things I didn’t have to before.  So I really had to expand my understanding of what contemporary art was at Yerba Buena. I developed this mix of three things: fine art, popular culture and community art.  I did a lot of shows where I juxtaposed a hot New York artist and a tattoo show and work from the halfway house around the corner.  That was a deliberate provocation to the contemporary art world to say, let’s look at all this stuff equally. 

Mixing high and low.  Opening the floodgates to everybody who’s been previously excluded, and then deciding who gets in and who doesn’t.  
Yes.  And still trying to have standards and rigor.  Then I go to Davis and it’s a tightening or closing again.  The wilder stuff I couldn’t really do there; I didn’t have the budget for one thing.  And I had to learn how to work with professors and curricula and students.   So, the point being: OK here I am, Renny Pritikin, cutting-edge art, whatever.  But in every situation there are have been boundaries, institutional requirements.  So this one is challenging, but particularly apt: I’m a Jewish guy and I never had to think about what that means.  At my interview, somebody said ‘What does your Jewish heritage mean to you?’  I really had to think about that.  
That was my next question.  What kind of Jewish family did you grow up in? 
Not religious.  My dad went to the high holy days — sometimes.  My mother was an atheist. 
Where are your ancestors from? 
Half of the family came from Odessa.  The other half came from Bialystok, Poland.  My grandfather was a travelling salesman in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and he would buy cheap wholesale furs in New York City and come home and try to sell them door-to-door to coal miners.  
And the neighborhood in Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay, where you grew up, what was that like? 
It was probably 95 percent Jewish. Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay — Southern Brooklyn.  It’s still mostly Jewish, although there are a lot of Hassidim now. 
Did you have a bar mitzvah?
I was bar mitzvahed. 
No, my bar mitzvah was at a conservative synagogue.  Religiously, I am an atheist; I am not a believer. But I do believe in the importance of culture, obviously.  And my heritage and culture, I love it.  I love Jewish humor.  I love the Jewish commitment to scholarship and justice.  All those kind of things totally resonate.  
But getting back to your earlier question: What I’m intending to do is, project-by- project, teach myself how it can work and what it can mean. So I’ve inherited two years worth of shows.  Not solid, but there are shows booked into late 2016 and things upcoming like Arnold Newman, a mid-century American Jewish photographer who did celebrity portraiture, all the way up to another photographer named Roman Vishniak, who was a 20th century photographer.  He’s noted for documenting European Jews in between the wars.  This exhibition is making the argument that he should be in the first rank of 20th century photographers, that his work is bigger than just documenting Jewish life. So there’s those kinds of projects where I’m learning about Modernism and Judaism.   And the current show, the architecture and design show, is certainly an eye opener. 
So you’re able to go back and learn about all the things we were supposed to learn in Sunday school but, for whatever reason, didn’t.
The best jobs are those where you learn, so I’m learning about Jews and modernist art.  But to tie it full circle, that’s the skeleton of traveling shows we’re taking, but then I get to fill in with my own projects.  For example, I’m doing a show by guy in his 30s, a local Jewish guy named Josh Greene. This is actually my first one-person show in the gallery.  He’s a social practice artist and a humorist.  The first time I saw his work was at his MFA show at CCA.  He wrote to all his living relatives and said “I don’t know what to do for my MFA show.  What do you think I should do?”  Their responses he framed and put on the wall, and that was his show.  And he’s continued to doing things like that.  But the thing that put him on the map was he supported himself for many years as a waiter in high-end San Francisco restaurants. And he started this thing where he took one night of tips a month — it could be $300 to $500 on a good night — and he put it aside, and he announced, through the Internet and appropriate channels, that a grant was available for that amount and solicited proposals.  He would pick a winner and do an event with a check in hand for them do their projects. 
How many did projects did he do?
There were at least a dozen.
Where they in gallery spaces?
No, they didn’t have to be art. They could be anything. 
Give us an example. 
His latest project is called Read by Famous.  He’s solicited books from celebrities where they sign an affidavit saying they have personally read a book and contributed it to his archive.  He’s got this website that looks like Amazon, very slick and beautiful, and the books are for sale and the sales go to literacy campaigns.  So he’s an artist who’s had a commitment to a socially engaged non-object making practice.  We’re going to show the books.  We’re going to have a stage in the gallery for the book contributors and the book authors to meet, and we’re going to get celebrities to loan us their libraries, six or eight of them. 
Will there be readings?
Yes, that’s the intention. 
So tell me: what’s Jewish about that?  
The artist is Jewish. And contextualizing his work in a Jewish Museum, for a 35-year old guy, has been important to him.  He has, for the first time in his life, thought about what his heritage means, the same as I have as a curator. But stepping back: Jews are the people of the book.  What I keep stumbling on is how my ideas and instincts for supporting good art keep bumping into Jewish tradition.  It’s kind of fascinating. 
It’s interesting how you can go through life without thinking too much about your Jewishness, and then, all the sudden, it hits you: I’m Jewish from my head down to my shoes.  In your case, your instincts have led you to make curatorial decisions that line up with a lot of traits we associate with Jewishness: literacy, the idea of giving back to the community.  
And there are Hebrew words for all of this stuff, like Havruta
Which is the name of the upcoming series in the lobby.  Tell us what that means. 
The idea came from Lily Siegel who’s on my staff, a brilliant young curator.  My first day there was a proposal on my desk; it had probably been there for months, waiting for a new curator to arrive, and she had this idea to invite an artist to do a small project in the lobby where there are display cases, usually with traditional things like the history of kibbutzim. Lily’s idea was: commission an artist and tell them to pick a non-artist to collaborate with – a writer, a thinker or whatever — and we will put the results of that conversation in the display case, and there will be public talk at the opening, and we’ll do an annual catalog.  The idea is to do three a year, four months each.  So Lily and I are talking about doing this, and we mention it our head of education, Fraidy Aber, and she said, “Well, that’s havruta.”  I said, “What’s havurta?” and she said, “It’s the ancient tradition of two scholars simultaneously researching the Talmud on one topic.”  The idea is that two heads are better than one. 
Which, if you think about it, it could be two Jews anywhere – doing what we do, which is argue! 
 (Laughter.) No Talmudic scholar agrees with any other Talmudic scholar! 
Must the artist be Jewish and choose a Jewish collaborator and a Jewish theme?  
There’s no requirement that the artist pick a Jewish partner or pursue a Jewish theme, even though I’ve encouraged them to do so. Lindsey White (Oct. 23) is the first one.  She picked a magician from LA, and we’re going to have Nathaniel Deutsch, head of Jewish studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, give the keynote talk.  So I’m keeping that Jewish context of havruta.  Ironically, the second person I talked to, Helena Keefe (Jan 22), it turns out her mother was Jewish even though she has this Irish name.  And the third person is Tony Discenza (April 30). I tell him the whole story, and I say, “If you want to pick a Jewish partner or a Jewish theme, that would be great.  But you don’t have to.”  And he looks at me cross-eyed and says, “Renny, you don’t know – my mother was Jewish!”  
Then, the first person I talk to about the lobby is Dave Lane.  He’s going to do a major ceiling installation in the lobby. 
Don’t tell me he’s Jewish, too. 
He’s not; he’s a serious Christian as a matter of fact.  First thing out of his mouth is, “Renny I’m really interested in Judaism.”  He’s clearly thought about the Talmud, the Kabala and Jewish mysticism, because he’s is a bit of a mystic himself.  He’s going to do one of his chandelier pieces and he’s calling it Lamp of the Covenant.  And as our director of education pointed out in a meeting we had yesterday, this is straight out of the Talmud! 
What will it look like?  
It will be 90 feet long and weigh 12,000 pounds; it will be suspended from the ceiling, an oval-shaped track with lights and planets and all kinds of stuff hanging off it.  
Wow!  My jaw still drops at the memory of the Dave Lane show you did of his at UC Davis. 
I read that you are bringing in Trimpin in 2015.  What can you tell us about that?  
Being asked to enliven the lobby, the second person I approached was Trimpin.  I thought, oh this is kind of crazy, a German artist for my first project!  But he’s somebody I love very dearly, a MacArthur Fellow who’ve I’ve done four or five shows with him and I have total respect.  I sent off an email and then didn’t hear for a month, and then he called me and said, “Renny you won’t believe this but I have this project for 2015; it’s a memorial to the 1,500 Jews in my hometown who were deported in 1940 and killed at Auschwitz.”  It’s a water tank 14 feet in the air and another tank on the ground, and he’s figured out a way to shape falling water to make the letters of the alphabet so that the letters of each person’s name are formed in the waterfall.  So that was just another kind of fortuitous event. 
When you look for comparable museums, museums that mix contemporary art and tradition, the Jewish Museum in New York is the one that comes to mind. There, you can find any number of shows that have no obvious connection to Judaism.  For example, the current show, Primary Structures, which is a remake of the show they originally mounted in 1966, that appears to have no relationship to Judaism, and yet there it is.  Would you consider doing a show that appeals to you that has no obvious connection to Jewish tradition? 
I don’t think I would be interested in doing that.  I think it would be disrespectful to this institution.   There’s Yerba Buena across the street and plenty of other places that do contemporary art.  
On the flip side, you could argue that if you choose something, based on the sensibilities you’ve just outlined, that it would necessarily have some kinship to Jewish tradition. 
We’ll see.  I’ll feel my way.  Every project will be a new decision.  Right now my mindset after four months on the job is, I can think of years of projects that have some Jewish context.  Lori, the director, has said there are Jews for whom Judaism is a very small part of their identity.  And there are people for whom it is the essence of what they are, and we want to appeal to both groups and to people between. 
I read that 50 percent of the people who walk through these doors are Jewish.  How does that influence your thinking?  
Coming in, I didn’t know what that number would be.  I didn’t know if it was going to be 80 percent or 20 percent.  So 50 percent means half the people that come in here just want to look at art, they don’t want to necessarily look at Jewish art.  Although sometimes we talk internally and ask: are those 50 percent looking for a Jewish experience?  Or do they just want to see us put up shows?  It’s hard to know. 
A lot of the programming that’s happened here hasn’t been about art; it’s been about Jewish culture. And as you’ve indicated, that will, to some extent, continue.  What non-art ideas are taking shape now?  
At Yerba Buena what I became known for was bringing popular culture into the art museum and making the argument that it belongs side by side with contemporary art.  So they can duke it out.  The irony is that I had to fight to do it across the street at Yerba Buena.  Here it’s easy; I have to fight for contemporary fine art.  
Which is a battle everyone wants enjoined. 
But it hasn’t been a battle, because we have things like the Mah Jongg show up – that’s quintessential Renny at Yerba Buena visual culture.  And we’re in final negotiations to bring a show about Stanley Kubrick who happens to be…Jewish.  
It’s been said that all of America is Jewish whether they know it or not, based on Hollywood. Ditto with music in the way that jazz, blues and rock ‘n roll have made everyone African-American.  So it’s interesting to see how these things work.  
Stanley Crouch is the guy who said that; he argues that American culture is black culture, and a parallel argument can be made that much of American culture is Jewish culture.  
And in fact CJM had a show, Black Sabbath, that brought out those connections, between Jewish music and African-American musicians.  
Speaking of music: we have coming up Warren Hellman, the philanthropist, pro-labor venture capitalist who created the greatest free music festival in San Francisco history.  I can’t wait to see and hear these archives.  Tell us about them. 
We’ll do the show for two years.  Both audio and video are by special arrangement with the artists so that they will never be used commercially.  We have an hour and a half from 11 or twelve of those seasons going all the way back to the beginning. We’re having an app made so you can pick by artist or genre or song title.  
A digital jukebox for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. 
You went to Israel.  How did that affect you? 
Everyone told me when I went that it would change my view of the world because it for the first time in your life, they said, you won’t in the minority; you’ll in the majority.  I have to admit I didn’t have that experience.  (Laughter.)  My identity is more complex than that.  But it was an amazing experience because the depth of history is staggering, but also to learn the reality of the situation there.  It’s harrowing.  This was a relatively good time.  It was in 1995.  What the Israelis have accomplished in that society is amazing. It’s such an amazing, beautiful, wealthy country.  But the problems are enormous.  This program that took me there, the Koret Israel Fellowship, its intention is to take you everywhere and familiarize you with the problems and issues of Israel. We went to the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Knesset – we really saw everything firsthand. 
Do you think that in this museum we could have a show where there is a discussion about Israel?
The short answer is, of course.  Lori is visionary about this.  This is what she calls a safe place to deal with the complexities of contemporary life and the complexities of identity and with an openness to grappling with those ideas. 
It’s a hard in this country to have an open discussion about Israel. 
It is an 800-pound guerilla.  It’s very, very hard from all sides.  But primarily this is an art institution; it’s not a political institution.  I insist on that differentiation.  It’s about Judaism; it’s not about Israel.  In some ways that’s too subtle a distinction for a lot of people; they equate the two.  We’re not an extension of Israel.  In many ways it’s an American institution about the American-Jewish experience.  It would be disingenuous to divorce that from Israel, but we are not a political organization.  But I am thinking about ways I could approach that in a way that is respectful of all parties: an art project that is humanistic and positive and doesn’t require people to take sides, but just to learn.
Any examples of what that might look like?
In the new Art in America there’s a show coming up in the next year about Middle Eastern photography by women that includes Israel.  Not that I’m going to take that show, but that is an example of something that is inclusive, where the nature of the dilemmas in the Middle East is reflected, and it is positive and inclusive, and is not about the conflict as much as it is…
About all that surrounds the conflict…
Yes.  And that is not in everyone’s face.  Plus, it raises the issue of women in the Middle East which is really interesting.  
One criticism that’s been leveled – and one I agree with — is that the museum, in its wall texts, tends to proselytize. For about a year, it seemed as if every show began with citations from Genesis. Beyond Belief is the strongest example, but there were others.  Granted, education is part of the mission.  But imposing a biblical read on so many different Modernist works felt more than didactic; it felt heavy-handed.  What’s your view?  
I didn’t actually see the collaboration with MOMA. 
But you’ve heard this criticism, I’m sure.  
I actually never have, but I believe it.  (Laughter.)  I can only be responsible for what’s going to happen next.  I’m going to write all the wall text and it’s going to appropriate and centered around art.  Again, this is one reason I agreed to take the job because Lori encouraged me to build an art institution; it is not a history museum.  That’s what I’m working toward — making this an art-centered institution. But there may be times when Genesis or the Bible are invoked.  But I hope it won’t be obnoxious. 
You were talking earlier about boundaries.  Do you have a sense how much freedom you’ll have, how far you can push things?
I have not heard the word “no” yet.  I am being respectful of the context and enjoying learning.  I get a lot of respect.  So far, so good.  
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Upcoming at CJM: Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman: September 18 – ongoing; Arnold Newman: Masterclass: October 23 – February 1, 2015;  In that Case: Havruta: October 23 – ongoing

One Response to “Renny Pritikin on CJM’s Future: An Interview”

  1. Satri Pencak says:

    Renny is an amazing and inspiring curator, for whom I now have even more respect. Thanks David, for publishing this.


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