Hailed by the New York Times as “a lesson on how to connect the eye to heart and mind,” the Skirball Cultural Center has established itself as one of the world’s most dynamic Jewish cultural institutions, and is among the leading cultural venues in Los Angeles.

Jspace recently had the chance to learn more about the completion of the Skirball Cultural Center’s campus and how they continue to build the community.

Why and how was your organization founded?

The Skirball Cultural Center was founded as place of meeting where people of all backgrounds can discover and celebrate the meaning of heritage. Open to the public since 1996, it was the first Jewish educational and cultural institution in the United States to define itself by its commitment to pluralism, inclusivity, and cross-cultural exchange.  For its Founding President and CEO, Uri D. Herscher, the biblical story of Abraham—whose first act as a Jew was to open the flaps of his tent and welcome the stranger—informs the Skirball’s  core mission “to welcome and inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity in American life. Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aim to build a society in which all of us can feel at home.”

Dr. Herscher began working on the institution’s conceptual blueprint three decades ago. His personal interest in the history of Jewish immigration to the United States and his strong belief that Jewish institutions need to reach out to the total community led him to propose the creation of the Skirball Cultural Center. Support came from a diverse donor base, including the late philanthropist and the institution’s namesake, Jack H. Skirball (1896-1985). In the very early 1980s, Herscher and Skirball, together with architect Moshe Safdie, stood at the base of a barren hill in Los Angeles and envisioned an “oasis in the city” that would offer a range of exhibitions, music, film, theater, dance, lectures, adult education, seminars and conferences and programs for families, schools, and teachers.

How has it evolved over time?

The Skirball has grown steadily over the years, both in terms of campus size and audience outreach. Physically it has expanded in four phases. The first phase of the Skirball, which included museum galleries, opened to the public in April 1996. Drawing from its permanent collection, the exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America has remained the cornerstone of the Skirball Museum. Consistent with its commitment to uniting Jewish values and American democratic ideals, the Skirball’s exhibitions explore themes relating to ancestral heritage, cultural history, immigration, civic engagement, creative expression, and social justice. In addition to galleries and collection storage, the first phase also included a 350-seat auditorium, an archaeology discovery center, classrooms and conference rooms, central courtyards, educational and programmatic staff offices, a café, and a store.

Following the momentum of its inaugural year—during which the Skirball welcomed 280,000 visitors, far surpassing initial expectations of 60,000—the Skirball opened Ahmanson Hall in 2001, designed to accommodate the growing interest in the Skirball’s performing and literary arts programs. In 2003, the Skirball launched its adult education program, in an expression of the Skirball’s belief in the value of lifelong learning.

A third expansion, Winnick Hall, was completed in 2004, adding new changing exhibition galleries, an art studio, a 350-seat amphitheater, an arroyo garden, and the interactive exhibition Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™, a major attraction for the hundreds of thousands of children and families who visit each year. Although the Skirball had welcomed visitors of all ages since inception, the opening of Noah’s Ark has enabled the Skirball to serve a multigenerational and diverse audience of more than 600,000 visitors annually, among them 80,000 schoolchildren.

Recently the Skirball inaugurated its fourth and final phase of construction. The adjoining new buildings, Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion, complete the Skirball’s fifteen-acre campus and will accommodate growing public demand for the institution’s dynamic public programs.

What is the main focus today?

As the Skirball celebrates the completion of its campus, it will develop new programming strategies for the new buildings, Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion, which were specifically designed to serve as a new large-scale venue for the Skirball’s educational, cultural, civic, and community functions. In particular, the Skirball plans to conceive and present public forums on themes relating to democracy and civic engagement, to be developed in partnership with leading organizations whose purposes are communal in nature.

How does this work line up with Jewish values?

The Skirball celebrates ancestral Jewish values—among them justice, equality, freedom, hospitality, and respect for human dignity—as relevant to contemporary American life. The Skirball’s programs, exhibitions, curricula, and communal initiatives seek to convey these ideals to people of all heritages and beliefs.

.ORG connection: The Skirball features an extraordinary museum; changing exhibitions; engaging music, theater, comedy, film, family, and literary programs. To discover more about the Skirball Cultural Center and stay up to date on the latest exhibitions and programs visit www.skirball.org!

Photo Credit: Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, California, 2005. Photograph by Timothy Hursley.