UC Berkeley

Magnes collections get new downtown Berkeley home

Design of new Magnes building on Allston Way

Construction on a new facility to hold the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library will start in a week.

UC Berkeley held a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday night for the collection, which will be housed in a building at 2121 Allston Way, near Oxford Street. UC President Mark Yudof, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and members of the Jewish community who supported the collection’s predecessor organization, the Judah L. Magnes Museum, were at the celebration.

Many of the speakers compared UC Berkeley’s acquisition of the Magnes Museum to a marriage.

Warren Hellman, a San Francisco businessman, who along with Tad Taube and the Koret Foundation, financed the university’s acquisition of the museum, sang a song about the merger. The tune’s lyrics were based on Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory,” and the chorus refrain was “The Magnes is Bound for Glory at Last.” Hellman played the banjo. Other members of the band included Ron Hendel, the chair of Berkeley’s Jewish Studies Program, Francesco Spagnolo, the Magnes Curator of Collections, Sharon Bernstein, the cantor at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, and Colleen Browne, a member of The Wronglers, Hellman’s band.

Hendel of the Jewish Studies program crafted a humorous limerick about the Magnes’s wanderings, which he recited Tuesday night. (Hint: shiddich means Jewish marriage.)

There was a museum named Magnes

That decided to seek a new address.

It tried out the city,

The result wasn’t pretty,

But the shiddich with Cal is a success.

The move to a downtown location has been a long time coming.

The Magnes Museum purchased the property on Allston Way about 15 years ago. At that time, it was located on Russell, a quiet residential street in Berkeley, and had low foot traffic. The museum wanted to increase its visibility by moving downtown, but the plans never came to fruition. The Magnes leased the building to the Berkeley Main Library while it was renovating its structure and then to the Bancroft Library while it was retrofitting its building.

After a merger with the Jewish Museum of San Francisco failed, the Magnes purchased the old Armstrong College building on Harold Way. The museum had planned to renovate the 35,000 square foot building into a state-of-the-art museum, but the recession made those plans infeasible.

In June, the Bancroft Library and UC Berkeley announced it had acquired the Magnes’ collections, including its archive on western Jewish history, its music holdings, its Judaica collection, and its prints and painting. Some of the assets of the museum were rolled into a new Magnes Museum Foundation, and funds from Magnes supporters will pay for the renovations on Allston Way. The San Francisco architectural firm Pfau Long is designing the new building, which should be completed within a year.

The Magnes has just sold its Russell Street property to a family. The Mangalam Centers purchased the Harold Way building earlier this year.

The Bancroft Library will exhibit a selection from the holdings of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in the spring

Jessica Broitman and Gibor Basri sign welcome card

(Full disclosure: I am the past president of the Magnes Museum and I spoke at Tuesday’s ceremony.)

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