In 1998, the Contemporary Jewish Museum selected architect Daniel Libeskind to design its new home, which was to include an adaptive reuse of the landmark Jessie Street Power Substation, designed by Willis Polk in 1907. In his design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, his first commissioned project in North America, Libeskind responded to the Museum’s mission to be a lively center that fosters community among people of diverse backgrounds through shared experiences with the arts by focusing on the celebratory nature of the Jewish experience. Unveiled in 2005, Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new Museum combines the history of an early 20th-century San Francisco landmark building with the dynamism of contemporary architecture. The design for the new 63,000-square-foot facility marries many of the character-defining features of the original substation, including the brick southern façade, trusses, and skylights, with bold contemporary spaces. The building, with its integration of architectural styles, emanates a powerful connection between tradition and innovation and reflects the Museum’s mission to celebrate Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas within the context of 21st-century perspectives. The building embodies a number of symbolic references to Jewish concepts. Most notably, Libeskind was inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), because of its connection to the role the substation played in restoring energy to the city after the 1906 earthquake and the Museum’s mission to be a lively center for engaging audiences with Jewish culture. The architect based the extension’s conceptual organizing principles on the two symbolic Hebrew letters of “chai” (life), the “chet” and the “yud.” From the outside, the extension is most remarkable for its unique shape, as well as its skin: a vibrant blue metallic steel, which changes color depending on the time of day, weather, or one’s vantage point.
Featuring over 10,000-square-feet of exhibition space as well as a multipurpose room, the new facility greatly increases the Museum’s space for exhibitions and innovative programs in visual, performing, and media arts. At the heart of the new facility is a large education center, which allows the Museum to provide ongoing education programs in conjunction with its exhibitions for children, youth, adults, and seniors. The new facility also includes the Museum Store and Cafe on the Square with seating on Jessie Square when the weather permits.
On October 12, the new museum hosts an exhibition on Andy Warhol’s extraordinary series, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, portrays a pantheon of great Jewish thinkers, politicians, performers, musicians, and writers. Included in the series are such celebrated figures as Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, and Gertrude Stein. This exhibition is the first time Warhol’s original paintings have been shown on the West Coast as part of a major exhibition about the series and the individuals it portrays. First shown at The Jewish Museum, New York in 1980, Ten Portraits was met with both critical response and praise. While many were skeptical of the artist’s intentions, others applauded his new language of color, geometric shape, and sharp line. The series represents an important and influential body of work as well as an homage to these extraordinary figures of the twentieth century.
Currently and until January 4, 2009, highly-acclaimed musician and MacArthur Fellow John Zorn was commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum to curate a series of sound pieces for the Museum’s Special Events/ ‘yud’ gallery, a unique space featuring a 65-foot ceiling, 36 diamond-shaped skylights, and walls that converge at different angles. Featuring new work by leading musicians and composers such as Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Erik Friedlander, David Greenberger, Chris Brown, Z’EV, Terry Riley, Alvin Curran, Christina Kubisch, Marina Rosenfeld, Raz Mesinai, and Jewlia Eisenberg, the Aleph-bet Sound Project acoustically explores the Kabbalistic principle that the ancient Hebrew alphabet is a spiritual tool full of hidden meaning and harmony. The works musically link the alphabetic symbols in architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new facility with the Museum’s mission of exploring traditions within a contemporary context.