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Artists withdrew works from Jewish Museum in protest. It’s displaying blank walls instead

A person with curly hair, dressed in a sleeveless top, stands in front of a beige wall reading two small text panels.
In response to artists withdrawing their work from the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curators left white space where the art would have been. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

For years, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco discussed the idea of an open-call exhibition, a major show in which any California-residing, Jewish-identifying artist could submit their work. 

The idea finally came together a year ago, and last summer the CJM landed on a theme: Jewish joy. Then came Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, followed by the eight-month-long war on Gaza that has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths and untold misery for millions in Israel’s occupied territories.

Jewish joy suddenly seemed beside the point. “Clearly that wasn’t going to work,” said Heidi Rabben, senior curator at Contemporary Jewish Museum. “We started talking internally about, what is CJM’s role at a time like this?” 

Not wanting to give up on the dream of the California Jewish Open, which opens this Thursday, the curatorial staff landed on a new theme—connection. They believed that was the thing most needed, and most scarce, during a time of violence. “Connection is hard work and it’s fragile and fraught,” said Elissa Strauss, a guest curator. 

A woman with glasses and a handbag closely observes two small framed paintings in a gallery, with description placards on the wall beside them.
The California Jewish Open does not shy away from addressing political subjects. Here, a viewer takes in paintings by Stela Mandel titled, “Bring Them Home” and “Save Israeli Democracy.” | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

However, two days before the March deadline for the Jewish Open, the CJM received word from seven of the 54 accepted artists that they were planning to withdraw their works from the exhibition unless the museum met a series of demands. These included divesting from Israel, disclosing all funding with full transparency—and later demanding the museum join the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. When the museum did not meet these demands, the artists withdrew their works.  

Rather than simply removing the works and moving on, the museum did something unplanned and unprecedented: It left open spaces on the walls. 

“It felt like any other option would be upending the vision of the exhibition,” Rabben said. “We had to be honest about what had transpired and not cover that up.” 

The museum had never been put in such a situation, yet it proved to Strauss the importance of the CJM—and the art that hangs in it. “Art spaces and culture spaces are where we can get together and hear these opinions,” she said. “I think art allows us to tap into the psyche in a different way than a political lecture or a protest would.” 

A person is observing a textured, deep blue rectangular artwork mounted on a white wall. A description plaque is also mounted on the wall next to the artwork.
The piece “Jewish Rock Stars” in the California Jewish Open has the names of rock stars rendered in abstract paint. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

While some of the withdrawn pieces had overt political messages—including phrases like “Free Palestine”—others were more vague. There are no indications of the size or scale of the withdrawn works, nor are the artists’ names included. None of the six artists who withdrew their work responded to interview requests from The Standard. 

But while they’ve silenced their own voices, their presence is still felt in the exhibition. A large empty zone of the gallery reflects the amount of space the withdrawn pieces would have taken up had they been included. Identical explanatory notes hang on the wall for each of the six missing pieces “to honor the perspectives that would have been shared through these artworks,” as the text reads. 

Finding connection at a time of war

Strauss first went through the more than 500 pieces submitted to the open call in Februrary. In reviewing the works, she tried to keep an objective eye, and resist any political agenda. “There was no sense that anything was forbidden,” she said. When artists were notified of their acceptance to the California Jewish Open, they had to acknowledge with a checkbox that their pieces could be in proximity with works having a different political perspective. 

“I thought it was really important to let all the accepted artists in the exhibition know there would be pretty directly political works in the show,” Rabben said. Artists had five days to register their approval, and were offered a line of communication if they had questions or wanted to have deeper conversations on the subject—an offer that around 20 artists took her up on. 

Strauss’s final selection had both works grieving the Hamas attack and ones criticizing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Yet the vast majority, Strauss said, were not directly about the war. The guest curator eventually arrived at four guideposts for the exhibition: Earth, Human, Past/Future and Divine, which organize the work in the exhibition. Including a range of mediums—sculpture, installation, film, photography and more—and the most engaging pieces are the interactive ones, artworks that demand connection in a literal way. 

The image shows a well-set dining table with white plates, bottles, and cups, while a group of people stand and walk in the background in a spacious room.
Artist Anna Landa’s “A Seat at the Table” reflects on all the lost dinner parties due to the pandemic. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

At Anna Landa’s “A Seat at the Table,” a dinner table is spread with objects painted white, table settings that echo the ghost bikes that regularly mark places on urban streets where a cyclist has been killed. To experience the piece, the viewer must sit down and place their hands over their ears, which prompts hearing a heartbeat—just as an adjacent screen counts down the average number of heartbeats we have in a lifetime. 

Another interactive piece replicates the grief stones traditionally placed on Jewish graves, but in the shape of the palm of a hand. Viewers are instructed to pick one stone up, hold it, squeeze it, imagine holding hands with a child in Gaza, and release love to this child. Participants can then add their stone to the circle or carry its weight home with them. 

The curators made a point not to ignore the inherent friction of the political moment with serious issues butting up against the mundane. At one point, you’re imagining a child’s fate in Gaza; then in the adjoining room, you’re jumping with a partner onto an inflatable mattress. 

A man in a black T-shirt and jeans lies on a colorful, patterned carpet with his head resting against a vibrant blue wall adorned with abstract designs.
Etai Shemy lays down in artist Laurie Shapiro’s piece “Introspection” at the California Jewish Open. Museumgoers can enter the tent-like structure for their own introspection regarding the exhibition and the larger political crisis. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

The white walls stretching the length of the galleries serve as a stark reminder of the difficulty the museum faces with this exhibit: the blank walls speak to a moment when connection may also feel insufficient or impossible, reads the gallery note. And that difficulty will soon expand to the museum’s opening night: As hundreds of guests are expected at the opening of the California Jewish Open on Thursday, others are planning protests in front of the museum. 

“For many people, including me, it’s the most difficult moment,” Strauss said. “Everyone’s feeling like they have to navigate in a way that feels honest and true for them.” 

“It’s heavy, and you’re not going to please everyone,” she said.