Jewish Museum uses windows for socially distant art, education


Employees hung sculptures by renowned artist Mel Katz on Wednesday

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — “Now that I’m seeing the work up, installed, it’s even better than what I thought it would be,” artist Mel Katz said as he looked at his work on display in the windows of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE).

Workers hung the anodized aluminum sculptures on Wednesday. They provide pops of bright red, blue and yellow for anyone walking past the museum while its doors remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been incredibly difficult not to have people come into the museum,” OJMCHE director Judy Margles said. “I always say we’re social by nature, that’s what museums do, and this sort of oxymoron of social distancing is antithetical to our mission.”

That was part of the inspiration for the new window displays. Margles said it lets the museum bring art out to the community without people having to come inside the building.

Katz was the perfect choice for the first window exhibit.

“His work is bright and colorful,” Margles said. “It’s very rigorous, but it just makes you smile. And that’s really what we wanted to offer our community.”

Katz grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He moved to Portland in the ’60s, taught at Portland State University for three decades, and has shown his work all over the Pacific Northwest. While he started his art career as a painter, Katz soon became fascinated by sculpting. He has hopped from one medium to the next, finding experts to learn from until he masters each new material.

“It’s all about change,” Katz said. “Life is about change.”

A sentiment that couldn’t be truer during the time of COVID. While Katz said his time in the studio has been unaffected, the absence of public gallery shows has been difficult.

Artist Mel Katz stands in front of his work on July 15, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

The Wall Sculptures exhibit was funded by the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, a grant program created to help arts and culture institutions that have been hurt by the COVID-19 response.

OJMCHE is also taking advantage of the windows on the west side of their building. The museum reprinted panels from one of its core exhibitions, “Discrimination and Resistance,” and placed them on the windows facing the parks. The panels document Oregon’s history of discrimination from its territorial days through the twentieth century, as well as the ways people resisted and overcame prejudice.

Margles said COVID has also forced the museum to become “virtually vibrant,” offering a wide selection of online programming including panel discussions on topics like racism, policing, immigration, and more.

Arts and culture organizations are slowly reopening. Margles said OJMCHE is eyeing a partial reopening in early August, but only if they deem it safe.

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