Contemporary Jewish Museum Announces Inaugural Artists in Residence

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Jose Arias and Leah King will be artists in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for five months this spring and summer. (L: Courtesy of Don Ross; R: Courtesy of the artist)

When Bay Area museums get the go-ahead to reopen (hopefully, this time for good), it won’t be business as usual. Too much has changed—and still needs to change—both within these institutions and in the society they seek to reflect. At San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, the pandemic has led to the creation of a new residency program for emerging Bay Area artists, an attempt to tangibly support, in a small-scale but meaningful way, the local arts community.

Artists Jose Arias and Leah King will begin their five-month-long residencies as soon as the museum reopens to the public. Arias, a photographer, will work in the Ronald and Anita Wornick Board Room and King, a multidisciplinary artist, in the Sala Webb Education Center Classroom. Both will receive $1,000 honorariums and a $350 local travel stipend.

Senior Curator Heidi Rabben says conversations about the museum’s smaller spaces and the economic struggles of the local arts community started almost immediately after the museum first shut down in mid-March 2020. “It became really clear that there was an interesting way to rethink our commitment to artists as a museum in this time,” Rabben says. “We can do more than just present exhibitions.”

This will be the first time the CJM has hosted a residency program. Rabben hopes it’s something that could outlast the need for social distancing. The museum connects the Artist Studios program with the Jewish principle of tzedek, described as “to share what we have and to strive for equity and justice.”

Jose Arias, 'American (2),' 2018; inkjet photo print, 24 x 36 inches. (Courtesy the artist)

For Arias and King, who are at very different points in their respective bodies of work, the process-based nature of the program serves them equally well. Demands on the artists are minimal: The residency requires they each participate in one virtual public talk with CJM curators and one educational program.

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Arias in particular is excited to talk to new people about his work—a long-term portraiture project in which he collaborates with his family members to depict their particular understanding of being “an American family.” “I am trying to create my own vernacular as to what that means,” he says. “I’m archiving who we are and what spaces we occupy.” While at the CJM, he plans to work on writing about the project, and to assemble the photographs into a book.

Prior to the pandemic, Arias was a regular at San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Photo Center, where he enjoyed not just the equipment but being part of an active community of photographers and having conversations about the images he was making. “That’s why this residency is stepping in in so many ways,” Arias says of the CJM opportunity, “to fill the gaps of a physical resource, a community resource and an intellectual resource that at this point my practice is in need of.”

Similarly, King has felt the loss of social and artistic connections over the past year. “I really hope that opportunities like this can help to provide more healing and more space for people to find community,” she says of the CJM residency. “The pandemic has been exceptionally isolating for people.” Especially, she notes, for those in already marginalized populations.

Leah King, 'If my blood is in the soil (am i still free),' 2020; mixed media on paper, 8 x 10 inches. (Courtesy the artist)

For her own time at the CJM, King says, “I have a multitude of projects, it’ll be hard for me to decide because I’m just so excited to have a large, clean, heated and rodent-free space to create.” (Her current studio is in a drafty Oakland warehouse.) She’s looking forward to focusing on two projects, one that juxtaposes images of impressive cityscapes with the human labor and forced migration that allowed them to be built, the other a series of interviews with Black Jewish women about their relationship to the phrase “on my mother’s side,” which King ties to misogynoir and anti-Semitism.

King, who grew up in the Bay Area and moved back here two years ago, has enduring memories of visiting the CJM as a child, and is excited to work there surrounded by the city’s cultural institutions—especially the Museum of the African Diaspora, the African American Art and Culture Complex and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Rabben says the museum received close to 30 applications for the studios, and that the CJM curatorial staff was unfamiliar with the vast majority of applicants. “My favorite part of this whole process is that I learned about all these artists I didn’t know before,” Rabben says. While the CJM has long curated local artists into shows, Rabben says this residency is part of reinvesting in that community at a stage in the art-making process the museum doesn’t ordinarily engage.

“We have an obligation and a passion for really trying to be creative around how we can continue to support artists as all these different atmospheres are shifting,” Rabben says, gesturing to the pandemic, and calls for racial equity and the end of institutional ‘neutrality.’ “Especially knowing that the arts field is going to be really challenged, financially and resource-wise for next couple of years.”