A New Gallery for the Museum at Eldridge Street – Interview with Archivist Nancy Johnson

 

This Fall 2016, the Museum at Eldridge introduced The Michael Weinstein Art Gallery. This space provides an exhibition area for rotating collections of art and historical artifacts. In an interview with Museum at Eldridge Street Archivist Nancy Johnson intern Gwendolyn Underwood discovers the goals and future plans for the gallery.

GU: What prompted the Museum to create a new exhibition space?

NJ: For many years we’ve talked about the possibility of being able to show art and historical artifacts that relate to the story of Eldridge Street that aren’t already a part of our existing collection. Last spring, artist Mark Podwal reached out to us with the catalogs for an exhibit of postcards of Jewish synagogues from a collector in Prague who was interested in showing his work in New York. Mark thought that Eldridge Street would be the perfect place to show this collection, but at the time we were lacking the proper exhibition space. So, the potentiality of this exhibit really prompted us to begin the process of construction.

We decided that the most logical place for the gallery would be downstairs adjacent to our permanent exhibit. The final product is an intimate space of about fifty linear feet, which now houses rotating exhibits of art and culture that complement the traditional features of the museum.

GU: What do you think this space will add to the overall experience of the museum?

NJ: Well first, it gives us the opportunity to partner with other organizations. Our next show is a partnership with the Blavatnik Archive, which allows us to show work from their amazing collection of early 20th century postcards. The particular pieces that we will be working with are mostly images of the Lower East Side and areas of Eastern Europe, which is where many Jewish immigrants came from around the turn of the century.

It is our hope that this new exhibition space will expand the way we share our story with our new visitors and that it will prompt those who are already familiar with Eldridge Street to come back. The installation of new collections will also give our educators something new and fresh to share with the kids. In addition, the gallery will provide us with a fluid and dynamic space to organize programs around and expand upon what we already have to offer.

GU:  What contributed to the final selection of the exhibitions scheduled for this season?

NJ: Prior to making the decision about the new gallery space, we were already in touch with our first featured artist, Mark Podwal, about the postcards from Prague series. It just so happened that he had recently traveled to Dąbrowa Białostocka, Poland, where his mother was born. There, he explored the current community and the remnants of its Jewish roots. Upon his return, Podwal completed a vibrant series of eighteen drawings which memorialized the once thriving Jewish culture of the area. We thought, what better way to inaugurate the gallery than to display this collection for the very first time?

GU: What about this specific collection of Podwal’s work contributes to a more thorough understanding of the Jewish immigrant experience? 

NJ: Everything we choose to present should relate directly to the Museum’s mission. This collection does so in a colorful and contemporary manner. Mark Podwal’s personal story is one of a greater collective experience shared by many Jewish immigrants who left Europe for similar reasons. There are a lot of people of his generation and beyond who are coming to the Lower East Side to uncover the roots of their own family histories and the various cultures and geographic areas that they originated from. In that way, this particular series of his directly relates to the historical themes that Eldridge Street aims to preserve and perpetuate.

GU: The Jewish Ghetto In Postcards series also appears to be a wonderful illustration of the time period in which the museum is largely focused on presenting. Tell me a bit about the process of curating this project.

NJ: The text for this exhibit and the selection of images to include is taking place now. Together with the Blavatnik Archive, we are sifting through wonderful images of Lower East Side and Eastern European street and market scenes. These postcards recall places that no longer exist – the shtetls of Eastern Europe tragically destroyed during World War II, and the old Jewish Lower East Side.

Lower East Side Blavatnik Postcard

Lower East Side Postcard from the Blavatnik Archive

We have the good fortune of working with Dr. Annie Polland, Vice President of Education and Programs at the Tenement Museum and Eldridge Street’s former Education Director. She wrote Landmark of The Spirit, which details the history of the congregation and the Eldridge Street Synagogue itself. Her incredible knowledge not only of Eldridge Street, but the entire Lower East side has been immensely beneficial in the process of creating this project.

The Blavatnik postcards provide very specific images of the Lower East Side and Jewish immigrant culture that no longer exists here—streets are no longer lined with pushcarts, and they no longer look the way people’s grandparents remembered them. So, it is our hope that these postcards and correspondences will highlight both the mundane experiences and the extraordinary spirit of early 20th century life on the Lower East Side.

 

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