It was quite a night for the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum.
First, the sold-out audience of museum members enjoyed an intimate evening with Barry Manilow, Bruce Sussman and Tony Speciale, the creative team for “Harmony: A New Musical,” the show that opens September 6 at the Alliance Theatre, and a preview was performed by the cast.
Then museum Director Aaron Berger took the stage to announce the establishment of the Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series, celebrating Jewish composers’ contribution to music. Presented in collaboration with the Atlanta Opera, the three concerts will be conducted by the opera’s Arthur Fagen. Fagen also selected the programs: music of the Holocaust, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht; composers of the 19th and 20th centuries; and a celebration of Broadway composers. The series is a pilot project funded by the Blank Foundation. (For more information, click here.)
And there is more to come. Best known for its Weinberg Holocaust Museum, the 17-year-old Breman plans to give the same prominence to the “heritage” in its name. Berger envisions an institution that is a dynamic cultural center, offering exhibitions that explore the impact of Jews in politics, commerce, civil rights and the arts.
Berger plans to expand its programming, too. Coming up: Dr. Guy Stern, one of the last “Ritchie Boys,” Jewish German immigrants who fought for the United States in World War II, will speak at the Breman in conjunction with the screening of a documentary about them hosted by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. And Dr. Perry Brickman and a representative from Emory University will discuss the anti-Semitism he experienced as a student and what has happened since it became public.
“This is an evolution, not a revolution,” says Jerry Rosenberg, new museum board chairman and the son of Elinor Breman, who founded the museum with her late husband. “The Holocaust museum is fundamental to our mission and [attracts] our largest audience, school groups. I’ve seen non-Jewish children come through who had never even heard of the Holocaust. It’s very important.
“But the museum can be so much more. We want to take better advantage of our rich archives, and we want to make it an exciting place that will speak to the whole spectrum of the Jewish community.”
“Return to Rich’s: The Story Behind the Store,” which opens November 17, is a case in point. The exhibition will chronicle Atlanta’s commercial, political, cultural and architectural development through the story of the Rich family and its famous and now defunct department store.
After that show closes on May 27, 2014, the galleries will undergo renovation to accommodate several simultaneous exhibitions from the museum’s archives, thematic shows on such subjects as Jews active in the civil rights movement and Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of war and secretary of state for the Confederacy.
The museum will also mount art exhibitions. “The Breman has done some some wonderful ones,” says the director, who joined the staff in January 2012. “ ‘Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures’ and ‘ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950’ are still touring. But the program in general was unfocused. We plan to concentrate Jewish artists, Jewish collectors and exhibitions of Jews as subjects.”
Berger says the core of his programming will grow out of collaborations with other Atlanta institutions. Many local arts organizations, forced by the economic climate to engage in partnerships, have reaped financial benefits and cross-bred audiences. In fact, it was organizations such as the Alliance Theatre that first reached out to the Breman. So did the Cyclorama, which asked the Breman to co-host “The Jewish Experience of the Civil War,” which debuted with the documentary film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray.”
Moving forward has required some back-of-the-house changes. Berger, who has an art museum background, will be bringing the galleries up to American Association of Museums standards. Some 70 percent of the staff is new, including Timothy Frilingos, former director of the State Capitol Museum.
The museum director knows he’s moving into uncharted territory. “The concert series is an experiment,” he says. “We’ll see if the community wants it.”
Rosenberg understands that this will be a trial-and-error process, but he and Berger believe that change is necessary. The museum’s membership is small and aging. If the institution, now housed in the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s Selig Center, is ever to acquire its own building — a long-term goal — it will have to make itself valuable to a larger audience.
And that, Berger hopes, will extend beyond the Jewish community. “I don’t want the Breman to just be by Jews, for Jews,” he says.
Certainly Rich’s, long beloved by so many Atlantans, was a community institution. As if to signal the exhibition’s ecumenical spirit, Berger says with a twinkle in his eye, “We are going to have the Pink Pig and lighting of the Big Tree.”