Author: Hirsch, Deborah
Date published: November 17, 2011
A year ago, the National Museum of American Jewish History rolled out the red carpet for politicians, entertainers and mega-donors to fete the highly publicized grand opening of its sleek, four-story glass building overlooking Independence Mall.
Last weekend, some of those same donors gathered again for the museum's annual fundraising gala. This time, there was no comedy routine from Jerry Seinfeld under a massive tent spanning an entire block of Fifth Street, no dinner entertainment from Bette Midler or cameo appearance by Barbra Streisand.
Though the hype over the new institution has receded, museum officials say they have no intention of fading into the background.
In just under 12 months of operation, the museum is already well on its way to becoming "the address for education" when it comes to the people, episodes, ideas and experiences that shaped more than 350 years of Jewish life in America, said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum's chief executive officer and president. Locally, the building has become the go-to place for community events and Jewish nonprofit banquets.
That's not to say there aren't still challenges to surmount, sustainability and visibility chief among them, Rosenzweig said. He anticipates that the museum will need to raise roughly $5 million from donors to cover half of its operating budget for the current fiscal year. Meanwhile, a marketing team is embarking on a strategic messaging mission with the aim of expanding the museum's appeal to wider - namely non-Jewish - audiences.
"This is a no-brainer for Jews," Rosenzweig said. "Jews come here. We're the only museum telling this story."
But, he continued, "our mission is to educate all Americans and when we say all Americans, we mean non- Jews."
From Rosenzweig's perspective, the public reception of the $142 million gallery - filled with everything from passports stamped at Ellis Island to an interactive exhibit on Jewish summer camps - has exceeded expectations, even though attendance figures fell far short of the original projection of 250,000 visits a year.
As of the end of September, there had been 98,000 visitors. Rosenzweig said he anticipated reaching 125,000 by the end of December, adding that he knew early on that the initial attendance "guesstimate" was way too high.
The original figure, he said, was based on attendance figures at other nearby museums and the 4 million people who visit the Mall each year. The nearby National Constitution Center, for example, draws about 450,000 visitors a year, not counting those who come just for special programs. The longstanding Jewish Museum in Manhattan counts between 175,000 and 200,000 visitors per year, about half of them from the New York City metro area.
More heartening, Rosenzweig said, is how quickly the museum attracted members, exploding from 200 in June 2009 to now more than 19,000 in all 50 states. They pay anywhere from $54 for an individual membership to $3,600.
"That's remarkable recognition of national support when you consider that a lot of these members are going to support the cause and not get the benefits of membership," Rosenzweig said.
Despite criticisms about the cost of building such a large museum, the very fact that it exists on the Mall is amazing, especially when compared to its much smaller previous incarnation housed at Congregation Mikveh Israel, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University who serves as the museum's chief historian.
"Just being there is a certain statement and I think many people get it when they actually see it," he said. "This is suddenly one of the largest and most important Jewish museums in the world."
"There are certainly warts and challenges; it's not, 'rah-rah, yea us' all the time," Sarna continued, but how many other museums "occupy that kind of square footage, have that kind of valuable material? Even experts go to the museum and tell me how much they learned that they didn't expect."
Joanne Marks Kauvar, executive director of the Denver-based Council of American Jewish Museums, said the Philadelphia institution was a "flagship" among her 80 members, one of the five largest Jewish history museums in the country.
"Its site is so unique and so significant on Independence Mall," said Kauvar, noting that her agency had its annual conference at the museum in late February. "This is a museum whose impact is going to go far beyond the Jewish community."
That's the goal, anyway. So far, Rosenzweig estimates that the vast majority of the visitors have been Jewish, based on anecdotal interactions and the affiliations of the groups that have come through. Starting in the summer, group sales staff began reaching out to camps and schools in hopes of reaching more diverse audiences.
Altogether since last November, officials said, 650 groups have toured the collection, including 140 from public schools, day schools and universities. More than half of them were affiliated with a Jewish organization; two-thirds were from out of state, including New Jersey.
Along with public events, the National Museum of American Jewish History has hosted 63 private affairs to date, about half organized for nonprofit organizations such as HJAS and Federation Early Learning Services. Corporations, including major investment banks, accounted for another 18. The rest were private events like weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Another 50 events have already been booked for the future.
Rosenzweig declined to say how much revenue these events had contributed to the budget, saying it would be "burdensome" to break down.
Likewise, he would not provide the actual expenses and revenue from the museum's first, partial fiscal year, which ended June 30, saying only that the projected budget for the current year was $10 million. Of that, he said he expects $5 million to come from "earned revenue," which includes ticket sales, facility rentals, gift shop sales, event admission and memberships.
He's relying on philanthropy to make up the remaining 50 percent of the budget - a higher margin than many other museums, which on average rely on donations for 37 percent of their budgets, according to an American Association of Museums survey.
The museum lost one of its principal supporters in July with the death of George Ross. The former investment banker and his wife, Lyn, flew across the country to meet with potential museum donors and are credited as the driving forces behind the building's existence.
But Rosenzweig said he's not worried about making ends meet. A relatively small number of donors came up with the bulk of the cash for the building's construction, plus an extra $10 million that's expected to jump start an endowment campaign.
Ivy Barsky, the museum's director and chief operating officer, said that looking ahead, the museum will be ambitious but realistic in its expectations.
"Do I wish we had 10 years under our belt and a significant endowment?" asked Barsky, who joined the museum over the summer after nearly 15 years at the helm of the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan. "Of course. But we know what the reality is and we're fortunate to have a group of donors who are passionate about our place."
For the time being, the core exhibit won't change other than a few tweaks, at least not until 2013. Special exhibits are already in the works, Barsky said, but it takes months, sometimes years, to put those things together.
She's also investigating an audio guide app for mobile phones that could be tailored to trace specific themes, such as immigration or women's history or Jewish ritual. These kinds of guides would help those who don't have five hours to look at every object, and give them reasons to come back to see the collection again from a different angle, Barsky said.
So far, museum leaders said the collection seems to be resonating with visitors. Not only are they staying in the building longer than expected, people are also spending significant amounts of time browsing the community stories and exhibits on the website.
Rosenzweig said he considered the most profound achievement to be the impact he heard from talking to non-Jewish visitors, who cite "this feeling that we have a lot in common."
What they haven't quite figured out, Barsky said, is "how to spread the word about that."
To address this point, the staff is hunkering down to work on a strategic vision for the future.
That will be informed by examining who's coming to the museum and what they think about it. Barsky said she was in the process of contracting with a team of professional social scientists to conduct those evaluations, a project that's expected to cost upwards of $50,000.
In addition to "exit interviews" about what worked and what didn't, the surveyors will follow up by phone three to six months later to see what visitors remember, Barsky said.
"We spent the first year kind of feeling the building out, getting a sense of how things work, fixing little mistakes," Barsky said. This is the time to "really look deeply at how people are using the exhibit."
While that's going on, the two-person marketing department will work with a committee from the 40-member board to come up with messaging that would better appeal to non- Jewish audiences.
Getting that population to take notice, said Sarna, "will change, but it takes time."
Jewish Exponent Staff
Contact the writer at: dhirsch @jewishexponent.com (215-8320737).