Asylum Arts: A Shelter for Jewish Artists

Lonnie Firestone

Bonny Nahmias, Maayan Sol, 2021. Archival pigment print, 19 ¾” x 27 ½”. Photo: Jorge Buchmann.

The name “Asylum Arts” draws inspiration from safe, nurturing spaces. In its creation, founder and director Rebecca Guber envisioned “a shelter for artists,” a welcoming environment at the cross-section of creativity and Jewish community. 
 
Guber founded Asylum Arts in 2014. At its heart, it’s a network, bringing together nearly 700 artists from around the world. It also facilitates gatherings and retreats, supports new work with small grants, and engages audiences with Jewish ideas.
 
Its meeting places have spanned the globe: retreats across the U.S. and in London, Berlin, Warsaw, Mexico City, Stockholm, and Tel Aviv; a residency in Berkeley, California. What links them is an inclusive milieu that supports artists in realizing their potential.
 
The experience for Jewish artists has been profound. 
 
Agustin Jais, an Argentinian-born multimedia artist and curator who now lives in Jerusalem, says, “Being part of Asylum Arts has been life-changing for me, from re-discovering meaning as a Jewish man and as a Jewish artist, to joining an inspiring international community, to developing a large number of projects and collaborations as an artist and curator.”
 
Artist retreats are at the center of Asylum Arts’s programming, bringing creative individuals together to meet and build relationships. In fact, it was a retreat that brought Asylum Arts into existence. Guber had been at the helm of the (since-closed) Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. As she recalls, “We had about 30 artists whom we supported, but we had 400 applications. There was nowhere to send those other artists. It made me realize that there are artists all around the world that want to engage with the overlap between their artistic identity and their Jewish identity. We held a retreat at the tail end of the Six Points Fellowship to see what would happen if we took those tools and spun them out for more artists all over the world. That retreat was so impactful that I was able to raise money to turn it into a new organization.” 
 
In the years since, Asylum Arts retreats have become fertile ground for artists to brainstorm, present work, and share ideas. 
 
“I had the fortune of participating in two Asylum Arts retreats, which led to making close friendships and meaningful collaborations,” says Bonny Nahmias, an Israeli-born visual and performance artist who now lives in the U.S. “Through these retreats, I enriched my knowledge and understanding on Jewish arts, culture, and artists’ responsibility. I was supported by the organization financially, professionally, and emotionally, which allowed me to continue developing concepts and making artwork. I see Asylum Arts as a family I can reach out to and revisit.” 
 
Participants in the retreats are encouraged to be more than attendees: some teach sessions about facets of their work; others discuss tools for navigating the business side of their careers. Their offerings are as diverse as the artists themselves. Some examples: Push/Pull: Planning Strategies with Leora Fridman, Online Storytelling and Digital Marketing with Katie Wong, How to Draw a New Yorker Cartoon with Jake Goldwasser, Collaborative Ceramics with Matt Goldberg, and Living As Jews on Ohlone and Miwok Land with Ariel Lucky and Sophia Sobko.
 
Nick Cassenbaum, a British theatre artist, says that he became increasingly involved as a participant and increasingly connected to the Jewish arts community with each retreat he attended: 
 
“My relationship to Asylum Arts began at my first retreat in London. It was fantastic meeting new people in my city and here I was just starting my career as a theatremaker. The next retreat I went on was in Garrison, NY; this is where I really felt part of Asylum, meeting people from all over the world and making connections. I ran a workshop on clowning and had a blast. Years after that I went on the retreat to Poland. It was this trip that really forced me to interrogate my identity as a Jewish artist even further, and from this one I have made the most friends which I am in regular contact.” 
 
Cassenbaum also notes Rebecca Guber’s intuitive ability to adapt to the needs of artists. “I always felt that as theatre people we need a space of our own as we have quite a different relationship with audiences than other artists,” he says. “Rebecca created a retreat in the UK for Jewish theatre people. I helped run the weekend and it was fantastic.”

Agustin Jais, George W. Bush Square, Jerusalem, 2021. 18k gold, Jerusalem stone, mirror.

Another key program within Asylum Arts is the Peleh Residency in Berkeley, CA, which invites artists and their families to stay at a guest house with a separate studio for 3- to 6-month periods. The residency includes a stipend, childcare, and ample opportunities for artists to share their work. 

“It is as far as I know the most robust family residency that exists in the United States,” Guber says. “I feel really proud of that. Consistently, female artists in their thirties and forties are not able to do residencies because the residencies do not accommodate families.” 

But with the Peleh Residency, artists can focus on their work while their partners and children are cared for and close by. “I’m proud to be part of this growing movement,” Guber says. “It has been transformative for artists.” 

Guber’s sensitivity arises from having spent her career around artists. She recalls her first job as an artist’s assistant: “I was really good at organizing the artist’s professional life. He said, ‘Great, here are my receipts, here’s the project management.’ And I realized, ‘Oh, this is where my talents lie. I’m good at helping artists make their visions happen.’”

This work involves caring for artists at vulnerable times. “Artists are economically fragile. In the pandemic, we turned into a social service organization because our community lost their income overnight,” she says. “We received funding from CANVAS in an emergency grant and we asked artists what they needed. Many told us they were experiencing economic crisis, as well as mental and physical health emergencies. More specifically, the needs included support to cover rent and loss of income, or expenses they had incurred for cancelled exhibitions and shows, and travel to return to their home countries from residencies and studies abroad.” 

Asylum Arts also stepped up during the pandemic with its support for Made in Contact, which featured artwork created and exchanged by 30 global artists navigating social distancing and lockdowns. Made in Contact was co-produced by Gabriella Willenz and Bonny Nahmias, whose piece is depicted above.

Helping Jewish artists discover and embrace their religious and cultural identities is central to Guber’s work. Agustin Jais says, “Being part of Asylum Arts helped me understand the different ways in which artists engage with their Jewish identities in their work. If there was always a Jewish ethos in my practice, the retreats encouraged me to make this aspect come to the surface. I’m now a resident artist at ArtCube Artist Studios in Jerusalem, an institution that is connected to Asylum Arts and the reason I got to know it in the first place.”

Whether programming locally or abroad, Guber’s aim is to foster artists’ self-reliance, sense of community, and professional growth. Since July 2021, Guber has been working as the Founding Director of The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, which was established in 2019. The Neighborhood will be a physical home and cultural hub for Jewish art in Brooklyn, New York while Asylum Arts, incorporated into The Neighborhood’s framework, continues its work with local artists and those around the world.

The greatest reward, Guber says, is seeing artists who have met through Asylum Arts programs develop long-lasting creative relationships. “To me, that’s a win. The end goal is that they’re building Jewish and creative culture. There’s a robust network that will continue indefinitely. It’s really about the ripples that happen in the world.”

The global reach of Asylum Arts. Its website has a searchable database of alumni by location and discipline.

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