David J. Glasser is Executive Chairman at the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London.
B en Uri was founded in 1915, at the height of the First World War, in the midst of Whitechapel’s Jewish ghetto. It was the conception of one Lazar Berson (1882–1954), a Lithuanian-born painter and political activist, who aspired not only to found a platform for Jewish immigrant artists to come together and exhibit their works, but also to establish A National Museum of Jewish Art. Remarkably, this unique vision was funded not by the great Jewish philanthropists of the day, but instead by the new immigrants, and with pennies rather than pounds. It was named after Bezalel Ben Uri – the biblical creator of the tabernacle in the Temple in Jerusalem – to indicate kinship with the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, established nine years earlier.
The next two decades were full of ‘firsts’ for Ben Uri: including its first acquisitions, largely financed by another founder, the jewellery designer Moshe Oved (Edward Good), who secured a tranche of works by the then disgraced pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, whose reputation has now been rightly restored. In 1920 four works by David Bomberg were added – an act of crucial support for this Whitechapel modernist. In 1925 Ben Uri opened its first rented gallery, adjacent to the British Museum, where it held its first collection exhibition and printed its first catalogue detailing around 40 works.
During its crucial early years, Ben Uri’s function was to offer help and exhibition space to Jewish artists who were often neglected or ignored by the establishment. However, by the last quarter of the 20th century this need had greatly receded and in 1995 the synagogue building which housed the museum was sold and Ben Uri was without a Gallery.
In October 2000 a new Trustee Board was elected to drive through a radical new strategy to reposition into the heart of London’s and the country’ mainstream art museum sector. In 2001 the museum relaunched with a three-week exhibition in London’s Bond Street, entitled The Ben Uri Story, from Art Society to Museum, acknowledging their roots but also signposting its future direction in the heart of Britain’s mainstream museum sector. By this time, the Collection numbered some 1100 works. Upon closer analysis, it became clear that this was not, as had been previously thought, a collection of works by solely Anglo-Jewish artists, but instead a body of work by artists, two thirds immigrant, which reflected a hugely diverse range of journeys, countries and backgrounds. Women artists were also strongly represented (some 24% against a national average nearer 3-4%).
The universality of the immigrant experience was the platform that inspired new Board to make a seismic shift to the mainstream seeking to widen the museum focus accordingly. Programming through scholarly but accessible exhibitions, refocusing and qualitatively improving the collection, recognising ‘their’ artists within these contexts and to survey them alongside their peers, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, to tell the wider story of migration to Britain became the philosophy and backbone of the purpose.
In recent years, their exhibitions and art works have been toured and loaned extensively across Britain and continental Europe, as well as in other locations including Jerusalem, Miami and New York. Senior members of our team lecture and present regularly at academic conferences, write and publish extensive catalogues and monographs (over 40) that are distributed internationally. Learning programmes have attracted awards. In 2008 they launched a programme for using art differently, finding original ways to take the collection inside care homes via reproductions and art practice. In 2013 this programme was expanded and transformed by distinguished professional leadership to embrace research and measurement within a clinical context of the impact of art interventions for those living with or at risk of dementia.
Following the success of Out of Chaos, our Centenary exhibition, held at Somerset House and visited by over 30,000 people, the Trustees accepted that the London property market had outstretched our capacity and started an exhaustive Options Analysis to secure the institution and maximise distinctive public benefit. The unanimous conclusion by Trustees and senior colleagues was to reprioritise resources and investment to deliver the objective in three established but now equal core areas:
(1) The launch of BURU – The Ben Uri Research Unit for the Study of the Immigrant Contribution to British Visual Arts since 1900. This will create the first comprehensive online digital dictionary detailing this contribution including artists, teachers, scholars, critics, patrons, dealers and gallerists.
(2) BURU will, in parallel, also manage the Ben Uri Collection (BUC), governed by a new Collecting matrix, focusing on five key areas addressing the contribution of immigrant artists to the UK since 1900. This has triggered the current de-accession of works of some 50% of the century old collection. Funds generated will fund all three priority areas of focus and enable an increased annual acquisition budget to allow the acquisition of further unrepresented immigrant artists to Britain, who fall within BURU’s focus.
(3) BUAD – Ben Uri Arts and Dementia Unit - A National Centre of Excellence. For the first time in Britain, this Unit will develop accredited, researched and evaluated art interventions, principally focused upon our collection. These interventions aim to improve the cognitive ability and quality of life of those either living with dementia or at risk through living in social isolation. There is currently no best practice or recommended flexible model that can be replicated and rolled out nationally, however, BUAD is well on the way to developing these vital and exciting new programmes.
This is the Ben Uri of its second century reinvented to reflect its origins simultaneously with the social challenges of our times carefully designed to deliver distinctive public benefit at all levels. The works being presented for sale by Sotheby’s are a direct result and consequence of our new collecting and Collection disciplines and the proceeds generated will play an important part in facilitating the launch (as well as the future) of these newly formalised core divisions, designed to generate the widest possible public benefit in Ben Uri’s next significant century.