The Museum has developed an art collection of over 2,500 works spanning the 20th and 21st centuries, much of which is exhibited throughout the public spaces of HUC-JIR’s New York campus and integrated into temporary thematic exhibitions.
The Petrie Synagogue, designed by architects Harrison and Abramowitz, exemplifies the founding logo of Hebrew Union College: haboker or (the morning dawns), expressing the institution’s commitment to enlightenment and modernity. The metaphor of light finds its expression in Yaacov Agam’s kinetic “12 Tribes of Israel” stained glass windows, which are the first three-dimensional stained and leaded glass installations in the world. Vivid shapes of color define the diverse identities of each of the twelve sons of Joseph, who are united by a shared color palette and geometry in the four windows measuring between 26’ and 29’ in height. Agam’s images are in a “state of becoming” – they cannot be seen in their totality at any one time or from any one position. They can only be discerned, as a revelation, through the viewer’s physical movement through the space. Amplifying the windows are the Torah Ark, designed of translucent plexiglass that projects from the wall in three triangles, revealing the rainbow colors of the Torah mantles within that echo the windows. The 7-branched menorah form of the Eternal Light casts light above and below. The Synagogue also features sculptor Jeffrey Brosk’s Reading Table, Tzedakah Box, and Elijah Chair; and Yael Lurie and Jean Pierre Larochette’s hand-woven Reading Table tapestry.
Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, Arbit Blatas (1908-1999) fled Nazi-occupied Europe for safety in New York in 1941. This is one of four casts of Blatas’s “Monument of the Holocaust,” seven bronze bas-relief sculptures depicting the destruction of European Jewry. The casts are installed as permanent public memorials in the Ghetto of Venice (1980), the Shrine of the Unknown Jewish Martyrs in Paris (1981), and at the infamous Fort Nine, in his native Kaunas, Lithuania (2003), from which his parents were deported in 1941. Blatas’s father survived Dachau; his mother perished at Stuthoff. Blatas was profoundly influenced by their fates. Prior to creating this series of bas-relief sculptures, Blatas memorialized the Holocaust in his drawings for the American television docudrama “Holocaust” in 1978 and in a series of paintings. This cast was previously installed on the facade of the former site of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), facing the United Nations in New York (1982), and transferred to HUC-JIR by ADL in 2008 on the centennial of Blatas’s birth. Italian art historian Enzo di Martini wrote of Blatas’s Monument to the Holocaust, “These bronzes are hammered and chiseled in anger and tragedy.”
Sigmund R. Balka gifted the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with an encyclopedic survey of the major European and American Jewish artists and themes in Jewish art during the 19th and 20th centuries. Assembled over a period of five decades, Balka sought out paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs by renowned and emerging artists that offer a panoramic impression of Jewish life and Jewish cultural production during a golden era of creativity.
The collection of over 200 works represents the creativity of Jewish artists including Marc Chagall, Issachar Ryback, Josef Israëls, Abel Pann, Jacques Lipchitz, Ossip Zadkine, Herman Struck, Lesser Ury, Jules Pascin, Leon Golub, Chaim Gross, William Gropper, Joseph Hirsch, Jack Levine, Saul Raskin, Louis Lozowick, Raphael and Moses Soyer, Ben Shahn, William Sharp, Jakob Steinhardt, Leonard Baskin, Louise Nevelson, Saul Steinberg, Will Barnet, Isabel Bishop, Larry Rivers, Joyce Kozloff, and Max Ferguson, among many others, as well as works by Rembrandt, Max Beckmann, Lyonel Feininger, and Robert Motherwell.
Perhaps to a greater extent than any other individual in recent years, Balka amassed a body of work that reflects and records Jewish secular and religious experiences in Europe and America. One of the great strengths of his collection, excellent individual examples aside, is that one can read it as a chronological history of those experiences and as such it provides a wonderfully informative visual record of Jewish life over the last two centuries: the Jewish street and scenes of Jewish urban life, the practice of religious life, expressions of nostalgia for the Old World and acculturation in the New World, secular politics of change in which deracinated Jewish identity was channeled into modern political (read socialist) progress during the Depression, artistic responses to the Holocaust, and the emergence of Jewish women artists.
“Although the collection includes completely secular works as well as examples from non-Ashkenazic sources, its main strength lies in recapitulating the trajectory of European-American Jewish history and the ways artists dealt with their heritage. As such, it is instructive and informative and provides a visual complement to the many written histories of the events of the past two hundred years,” writes Matthew Baigell, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Rutgers University, in his essay for the collection catalog.
“For Balka, the intent in creating a collection may not be to mold history but indeed that is the result of these efforts, for without the commitment and focus of the individual collector, the juxtaposition of particular items would never occur. Therefore, a great collector creates a historical corridor for the viewer to travel, by combining artistic personalities that may never have met before, but, once placed side by side, create their own subtle connections,” states Laura Kruger, Curator Emerita of the Heller Museum.
The Balka Collection reflects Balka’s tremendous interest in the process of making art and then sharing it. “It appeals to me to see the creative play and an artist’s mental processes as he goes through the execution of a piece of art in the way of a graphic,” Balka explained. “Furthermore, art is not of value if it is not presented so that people have the opportunity to interact with it. I don’t think I am anything but a custodian during my lifetime. But the art speaks for itself. And the more public the opportunity to have it speak for itself, the better society is, in general. Collecting art, curating exhibitions, and serving on museum boards are for me as natural as breathing. In this past century of Holocaust and destruction, it is my link with man’s creative spirit, which in the end must prevail or we will extinguish ourselves.”
“By donating his collection to the Heller Museum in New York, Balka has demonstrated his strong commitment to the importance of Jewish material culture as a core component of the educational process within an academic setting. The Balka Collection at the College-Institute exemplifies the meaningful role that the private collector can have on the development of a university art museum as an essential educational resource for faculty, students, and the larger public,” said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director of the Heller Museum.
Balka was associated since 1980 with Krasdale Foods, White Plains, NY, where he served as Vice President, Public and Cultural Affairs and General Counsel. He was the Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Krasdale Galleries in White Plains and New York City, where he curated over 100 exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in all media by artists from around the world. His collector’s eye transformed the major grocery distributor into a prime alternative exhibition venue in the resurgent area of Hunts Point in the Bronx, a vibrant center for artists’ studios, art projects, and exhibit spaces, as well as at the company headquarters in White Plains.
Balka was a graduate of the Williams College class of 1956 and Harvard Law School. He served as Vice President of his class at Williams College. The exhibit “Mergers and Acquisitions: The Gift of Sigmund R. Balka, Class of 1956 and the Permanent Collection,” featuring selections from the promised gift to the college of over 200 works, was presented in 2006 at the Williams College Museum.
Balka’s distinguished professional career encompassed service in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, as well as with the New York State Power Authority and as Vice-President — General Counsel of Brown Boveri Corporation (US); positions of leadership in the Greater New York Metropolitan Food Council, American Corporate Counsel Association and Foundation, American Bar Association Committee of Corporate General Counsel, and the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel; and service on the Art Law and General Counsel Committees of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He was a Fellow of the American and New York Bar Foundations, a member of the New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania Bars, and admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
Balka’s commitment to linking art with the larger community extended to his having served as chair of the Fellows Council as well as on the Visiting Committee of the Williams College Museum of Art, chairing the Exhibitions and Acquisitions Committee of the Board of Trustees of the Queens Museum of Art, and serving on the Advisory Council for Visual Arts at Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Center for Innovative Print and Paper. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Bronx Council on the Arts, chaired the Hunts Point Sculpture Park Task Force, and served as President of the Print Connoisseurs Society of New York, Chair of the Jewish Repertory Theater, and on the Boards of The Judaica Museum, the Bronx Council on the Arts Longwood Center, and the Museum of Ceramics of New York.
For more about the Sigmund R. Balka Collection, see The Eye of the Collector: The Jewish Vision of Sigmund R. Balka.
The “Living in the Moment” Collection presents innovative and unique works of Jewish ceremonial art designed for virtually every moment of Jewish living: the life cycle, the yearly holiday and festival cycle, the familial practice of Judaism in the home, and communal and synagogue-based celebrations and commemorations. In sanctifying life and religious practice, these ceremonial objects beautify the fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah and strengthen Jewish faith, heritage, and commitment for generations to come.
This permanent collection showcases objects by contemporary artists, created within the past two decades. It illuminates the Jewish conception of time as experienced through the fulfillment of a cyclical system of daily, weekly, and lunar-calendared family and communal moments, as well as a linear, messianic conception of time. Exhibited throughout the public spaces of the campus, this collection features select works commissioned from leading artists for the exhibition “Living in the Moment,” organized in celebration of HUC-JIR’s 125th anniversary in 2000. A special feature is the presentation of objects that have been designed for many holidays, commemorations, and celebrations that have emerged within the Jewish community over the past 50 years: rituals relating to women’s lives, ranging from the naming of baby girls to the bat mitzvah and Rosh Hodesh (new moon) observance, the commemoration of the Holocaust, and celebration of Israeli statehood.
Prior to the 19th century, Jewish ritual art was created by non-Jewish artists, since Jews were banned from craft guilds. With emancipation, Jews were empowered to become artists and crafts persons. In the early 20th century, the focus of Jewish craftsmanship was centered on Palestine and Europe. With the destruction of the Holocaust, the creation of contemporary ceremonial art was sustained in Israel and North America through the work of a limited number of artists and a handful of workshops. Within the past decades, the number of artists creating contemporary ritual art internationally has grown tremendously. The most celebrated of these artists and crafts persons, represented in leading museum and private collections, are represented in this collection.
The creation of Jewish ritual art is mandated in the biblical injunction of hiddur mitzvah [the beautification of the fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah]. The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 113b explains: “Beautify yourself Before God in mitzvot [commandments]. Make before God a beautiful sukkah [temporary dwelling for the holiday of Sukkot], a beautiful tzitzit [prayer shawl fringes], a beautiful Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] , and write it for God’s sake with beautiful ink, a beautiful pen, by a skilled scribe and wrap it in a beautiful wrapper.”
Laura Kruger, Curator Emerita, noted: “Diversity, insight, scholarship, and technique combine to invest contemporary Judaic ritual objects with vitality and beauty. Paralleling the development of the contemporary craft movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, ritual objects for the enhancement of the sanctuary and of domestic celebration in the Jewish community are much in evidence. Artisans eagerly explore the symbolism of their heritage and extend themselves to the highest levels of craftsmanship. New inclusive ceremonies celebrating the role of women, as well as a deep interpretation of text have given rise to the creation of ritual treasures. Working with the oldest of materials as well as some never before considered appropriate, the artists and craftspersons have enriched our lives with objects of aesthetic value.”
Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director, added, “This collection reflects HUC-JIR’s mission: to apply to contemporary life the sustaining values of our Jewish tradition. Through this exhibition, we are highlighting the vitality of the visual arts as part of the renaissance in Jewish cultural, religious, and educational life taking place in Jewish communities throughout North America. HUC-JIR seeks to engage the larger community and visitors of all faiths in a dialogue on contemporary expressions of time, art, and ritual, and their meaning for our time.”
The Museum is based at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary of the Reform movement, in a building designed by the architectural firm of Harrison and Abramovitz (1979). Throughout the six stories of this educational institution, visitors encounter diverse permanent installations of ritual and ceremonial objects, fine arts, and biblical archaeological artifacts.
Amongst the master works on public view are the unique and soaring stained-glass sanctuary windows. Torah Ark and Eternal Light, created by Yaacov Agam as a commission in 1980-81; contemporary sculpture by noted Israeli sculptors Igal Tumarkin, Maty Grunberg, and Oded Halahmy, and American sculptors Tobi Kahn, Hana Gerber, and Leon Bible; contemporary mixed media works, paintings, and drawings by Carol Hamoy, Barbara Rose Haum, Ayana Friedman, Judy Chicago, Moshe Castel, Edith Isaac-Rose, Irene Rice Pereira, Avner Moriah, Jan Aronson, Natan Nuchi, and Mikhael Turovsky; photography by Arthur Mones and Lloyd Wolf, and Jewish ceremonial art by Jeffery Brosk, Jay Milder, David Palumbo, and Grace Bakst Wapner. Arbit Blatas’s “Memorial to the Holocaust” was donated to HUC-JIR by the Anti-Defamation League. This permanent installation of seven bas relief sculptures is also to be found at the Venice Ghetto, Paris Holocaust Memorial, and Kaunas Holocaust Memorial in Lithuania.
Interspersed with 20th and 21st century art are installations of ancient pottery from the College-Institute’s archaeological digs at Tel Gezer, Tel Dan, and Aroer, a southern Kingdom of Judah, dating from the Bronze period, 3100 B.C.E. and the Iron Age, 1200 B.C.E. Featured historical documents include the 1859 lithograph, “Origins of the Rites and Worship of the Hebrews,” originally produced as an engraving by D. Rosenberg, Paris, 1851.