Members of the CANVAS Board, Executive Committee, and Review Committee at Lehrhaus.
You know those moments? The kind when you find yourself in a group text study of R.B. Kitaj’s Second Diasporist Manifesto, wondering about what a 21st century Jewish art could truly be? About the perils and possibilities of identifying as a contemporary Jewish artist?
Well, maybe not. But I had one of those moments recently, and it was the start of a deeply satisfying Boston retreat during which CANVAS Board members and partners thrilled to the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Jewish Cultural Renaissance through two days of meals, museum tours, and insightful conversations.
We typically use this newsletter to highlight CANVAS grantees, cultural creatives, field trends, and fellow funders investing strategically in the sector. But today I want to share scenes from our own work — a series of three small gatherings we curated to celebrate and support the Renaissance. I hope you’ll feel some of the energy we experienced, and be inspired to join this movement to elevate Jewish arts and culture.
This first discussion took place at Lehrhaus, Boston’s new “Jewish tavern and house of learning,” where we had just inhaled Haus Herring Tartine, Mac + Cheese Kugel, and Fish + Chips with s’chug aioli. Having washed it all down with Lehrhaus’s signature cocktails — Spritz Petels, Rye on Ryes, and Tribe of Dans — we set our minds to studying Kitaj’s Manifesto with Talmudic fervor. Josh Foer — author, Atlas Obscura and Sefaria founder, and now restaurateur — had the group focus on Verse Six of the Manifesto:
PAINT THE OPPOSITE OF ANTISEMITISM: Treasure Jews as Holy Fools.
What the heck was Kitaj — the legendary artist mentioned in the same breath as Hockney and Lucian Freud — talking about? We weren’t sure, but we were electrified by the idea of painting the opposite of antisemitism. What is it? Jewish joy and complexity and values and shared fever dreams?
And what about Holy Fools? Did he mean the badkhn, the fabled Ashkenazic wedding MC, religious guide, and sacred clown? Or was he simply giving us all permission to not know? To focus a little more on shared revelry and a little less on shared trauma?
I looked up from the text and down the long table of those who had traveled from Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Toronto, and New York to assemble at the radically awesome Lehrhaus. Here sat a theater artist and educator. A foundation executive (or five). A former grantmaker from the NEA. A professor of the creative economy and founder of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive. The former executive managing editor of Spin and W Magazine. A social worker and patron of the arts. The guy who commissioned Shephard Fairey to create the Obama “Hope” poster.
I turned to Shayna Triebwasser, Executive Director of Righteous Persons Foundation, CANVAS partner before Day One, and champion of the field of Jewish arts and culture. “This is my dream dinner,” I said.
A dream because we weren’t just talking about Jewish art, we were preparing to help make it happen. And in the hands of this good company, we knew the work ahead would be impactful. Once again, we were affirming that Jewish creativity itself is an act of resistance, and an act of resilience — a theme we would see reemerge at the Museum of Fine Arts the next day.
Mandel Foundation leader Jehuda Reinharz addresses CANVAS’s Executive Committee.
The group reassembled on Thursday morning at the offices of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation, where we were welcomed by Eva Heinstein, Director of Mandel’s Cultural Leadership Program and CANVAS Board Chair, and Jehuda Reinharz, Mandel’s President and CEO.
As befitting the former president of Brandeis University, Jehuda spoke with eloquence and authority on the vital importance of the humanities, and the lack of attention the field garners from the Jewish philanthropic community.
Arts and culture, he reminded us, are core to the experience of what it means to be human, and he concluded by describing this work as no less than a rescue operation and a reinvention of the field.
And with that modest charge, the CANVAS funding collaborative approved roughly $500,000 in new grants to support the Jewish arts and culture ecosystem.
Specifically, grants were made to Jewish arts and culture networks supporting artists, arts orgs, and arts professionals:
- Asylum Arts at the Neighborhood, which supports an international network of Jewish artists from its Brooklyn cultural and community space.
- Council of American Jewish Museums, an association of institutions and individuals committed to enriching American and Jewish culture through Jewish museums.
- Jewish Book Council, the longest-running organization devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature.
- LABA, an international cultural incubator which uses classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of art, culture, conversation, and community.
- Reboot, an arts and culture network reimagining and reinforcing Jewish thought and traditions with art, film, podcasts, events, and more.
Grants were also made to media outlets for increased coverage of contemporary Jewish creativity:
- The Forward, which delivers incisive coverage of the issues, ideas and institutions that matter to American Jews.
- 70 Faces Media, a not-for-profit digital media company connecting readers to all sides of the unfolding Jewish story.
These new grants bring CANVAS’s total grantmaking since 2020 to $3 million. It’s a small start for a long-neglected sector, but it’s big step forward for the philanthropic community, which has dedicated less than 1% of its charitable dollars to Jewish arts and culture in recent years.
We took a moment to celebrate the milestone before moving on to consider a new leadership pilot for current and past grant partners, and new investments in 2024 for distribution channels — the places where audiences come into direct contact with the work of artists (such as festivals, digital downloads, and touring circuits). The opinions and solutions differed, but all around the table shared the same goal: elevating the ecosystem of Jewish arts and culture.
Dancer Mindy Phung in Rachel Linsky’s Hidden, a work inspired by story of a Holocaust survivor. At Matters of the Art, Linsky shared her research into developing a movement language with influences of Yiddish and Klezmer. Photo: Nicole Volpe
The Guy Mendilow Ensemble. Mendilow’s Radio Play(s) series is like a performed podcast with a score that draws on classical, contemporary and Ottoman Jewish influences. Photo courtesy Guy Mendilow.
From there, we set off to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) — one of the more stunning “distribution channels” of global art and culture — for our first-ever in-person CANVAS Matters of the Art event, our regular gathering on Jewish arts topics for funders.
We chose Boston due to the unique collaborative efforts of JArts Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the MFA. Their work includes an annual Hanukkah: Festival of Lights program at the MFA; a federation-sponsored arts and culture initiative that includes a fellowship program and a grant fund; Be The Change, a multi-city public art project reimagining the tzedakah box; and Kolture, JArts’s new digital hub connecting audiences to contemporary Jewish artists and works.
Any of these efforts should make the Boston Jewish community proud. Taken together, they constitute a model we feel should be replicated in cities all over North America.
Community Creative Fellows Guy Mendilow and Rachel Linsky shared moving performances, each in their own way a vivid meditation on the previous evening’s themes of resistance and resilience. then Simona Di Nepi, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, provided intimate, behind-the-scenes tours of the MFA’s unique collection.
As our time together came to a close, I wondered aloud to our guests:
When was the last time you walked the galleries of a world-class museum and saw that the Judaica wasn’t off on its own but exhibited alongside European decorative arts, American antiquities, and contemporary crafts?
When was the last time you saw virtuoso musicians and poets perform a radio play that juxtaposes a Black teen’s aspirations in 1980s Chicago with those of young Hungarian Jews serving the resistance and escaping from a WWII Arrow Cross work camp — with animated sand art?
When was the last time you heard a Federation President and CEO speak with unmistakable urgency about the role of arts in every aspect of our communal lives, from education to battling hate to meeting our spiritual needs? And to commit to it in his budget?
When was the last time you learned the history of Yiddish dancing and saw its reinvention by a 20-something modern dance choreographer in a tribute to those lost in the Holocaust? And truly understood yet another dimension of the Shoah, the loss of artistic antecedents and the responsibility of new generations — of producers, designers, authors, and composers — to continue the cultural creation and celebrations that those missing artists could not?
The answer, of course, is “never.” But I am here to report that these individual moments are not rarefied. They are happening all the time, part of the diverse, dynamic, and soul-lifting reality that is the 21st century Jewish Cultural Renaissance.
At CANVAS, our mission is to ensure that new creativity thrives through the work of our grantees, and to hold up other stellar examples like Lehrhaus, JArts, CJP, and the MFA. We will not rest until this long-neglected sector is properly elevated, and we will continue to share as many of the vibrant and diverse examples of this Renaissance as we can.
I hope that, in so doing, you will also be inspired to help lift the field of Jewish arts and culture. There are so many moments ahead for us to share. But it will take all of us to commit to the work ahead.
A hartsikn dank — with heartfelt thanks,
Founder + President, CANVAS
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