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  • A New Jewish Elite: Curators, Directors, and Benefactors of American Art Museums
  • George M. Goodwin (bio)


A century ago, only two Jews were prominent among American museum curators and directors. During the early years of his professorship at Columbia University, Franz Boas, the renowned anthropologist, was a curator of ethnology at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Cyrus Adler, initially an honorary curator of oriental antiquities, later served as librarian and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His influence as a builder of American Jewish institutions was so profound, however, that this transitional position in Washington—as productive as it was—pales by comparison.

Presently, there are several Jews in the highest ranks of American museum professionals. 1 I. Michael Heyman is the Smithsonian’s secretary (or chief administrator). Elsewhere in Washington, Alan Shestack is deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, Neil Benezra is chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (where Stephen Weil recently retired as deputy director), and Stephen Ostrow is curator of prints and drawings at the Library of Congress. Beyond the federal domain, David Levy is director of the Corcoran Gallery.

In Manhattan, Ellen Futter is president of the American Museum of Natural History, Betsy Gotbaum is director of the New-York Historical Society, and Susan Soros is director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. David Ross is director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Mark Rosenthal is a senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum. Until his retirement, Cornell Capa directed the International Center of Photography there.

Jews occupy many other important positions in the world of art museum. Allen Rosenbaum is director of Princeton University’s art museum, and in Philadelphia, Daniel Rosenfeld directs the museum of the [End Page 47] Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The directorship of the prestigious Cleveland Museum of Art is held by Robert Bergman. Until his retirement in January 1997, Harold Williams was president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. He was instrumental in the conception, design, and construction of the new Getty Center, which houses the most heavily endowed art museum in the world and several related research institutes.

Despite such amazing progress, the acceptance of Jews as museum professionals is somewhat illusory. Many of today’s leaders—Heyman at the Smithsonian, Levy at the Corcoran, Futter at the American, Gotbaum at the Historical Society, Williams at Getty—leapfrogged to their top management positions from other careers. None was previously employed by a museum. Instead, all achieved distinction in university administration, politics, business, or a combination of these fields. Weil, employed as an administrator, was trained as an attorney. Soros, a philanthropist, is the founder of the Bard Center. Capa, a prominent photographer, created the Center of Photography. Only Shestack at the National Gallery, Ross at the Whitney, Rosenbaum at Princeton, and Bergman at Cleveland have pursued careers as museum administrators or art historians as a lifelong goal.

The acceptance of Jews in the small and clubby world of the art museums may seem incomplete because they still have not held some of the most prized directorships. No Jew has yet led the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, it still seems highly unlikely that a Jew would be chosen to direct Boston’s Gardner Museum, New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library, or San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens.

Compared to other minority groups, however, Jews have been well integrated into museum hierarchies. To contrast, the most visible African American in the art museum world is Richard Glanton, president of the board of trustees of the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. 2 This unusual appointment is largely due to the terms of Dr. Barnes’s bequest, which entrusted great authority to nearby Lincoln University, a traditionally black institution. Generally, African-American art historians have led such institutions as the Studio Museum in Harlem or other community-based art centers, rather than holding national positions. Many Jews, on the other hand, have been prominent curators of African, Islamic, and Asian art...

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