When the Skirball Cultural Center opened in April 1996, its founding president and CEO, Rabbi Uri D. Herscher, didn't buy the philosophy "If you build it, they will come."
"My theory was, 'If they come, then you build,'" the rabbi said. "Prophesy is for fools."
Not long before the Skirball's fifth anniversary, Herscher acknowledged that the community response has exceeded his wildest dreams. Fifty thousand visitors were anticipated in 1996; some 300,000 showed up. Half of the adult visitors have been non-Jewish, far more than expected.
Herscher has since taken his own advice: People came, so the center built. At the fifth-anniversary celebration April 21 and 22, Skirball leaders will dedicate Ahmanson Hall, phase two of a massive expansion program.
Located on the north end of the 15-acre campus, the building features an airy, 20,000-square-foot domed hall, Cotsen Auditorium, reminiscent of New York's Lincoln Center. The auditorium can be transformed from a banquet and conference center to a tiered theater seating up to 515. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows opens onto a courtyard of pale gray stone and an informal outdoor stage. The $45 million structure, designed by renowned Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, includes a three-floor, subterranean parking garage with 600 spaces.
The hall will allow the Skirball to expand its programs to include "every aspect of literature and the performing arts," Herscher said. It will also help further the center's mission to explore "the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of democratic ideals" and to "offer hospitality ... to every ethnic and cultural identity in American life."
"Our goal as an institution is to use the instrument of discovery called culture to bring diverse people together in a safe home," Herscher told The Journal.
The mission has earned high marks among leaders in the multicultural megalopolis of Los Angeles.
"The Skirball has established itself as a thriving cultural organization within the community," said Stephanie Barron, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art vice president and chief curator of modern and contemporary art.
"In an amazingly short time, the Skirball has proven to be crucial to the cultural life and health of L.A.," noted Barry Munitz, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Skirball's neighbor in Sepulveda Pass. "Its broad range of programs serves as an adhesive in a city that is physically spread out and ethnically diverse. The Skirball helps to bring people together when the natural momentum of the city is to spread apart."
When the Skirball quietly opened its doors five years ago, the goal was to host community and arts activities and to provide a new home for the Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) -- a collection of 25,000 pieces of Jewish art and Judaica previously hidden away in HUC-JIR's basement. Herscher, HUC-JIR's former executive vice president, intended the opening to be without fanfare. "I was never quite secure that we would finish it, so I didn't want to disappoint anyone," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995.
But in record time, the institution flourished, drawing national attention for exhibits of prominent Jewish artists such as George Segal and Larry Rivers and a controversial show on Sigmund Freud, among other exhibitions. Angelenos of all types crowded Magnin Auditorium in the main building for lectures, movie screenings, readings, dance recitals and live performances of the L.A. Theatre Works radio series. "Conversations" sold out with famous personalities such as TV giant Norman Lear and playwright Neil Simon.
A concert series inside the center's Zeidler's Café grew so popular that it was forced to move outdoors to the Taper Courtyard adjacent to the main building in 1998. Today, the world music, jazz and classical concerts draw some 2,000 people per show.
With the advent of Ahmanson Hall, the large performance events will no longer be seasonally limited to summertime concerts on the courtyard. Dance programs are in the works, and a classical concert series by the L.A. Philharmonic Chamber Players is slated to begin this fall.
But don't expect art for art's sake. "The Hebrew word for rabbi is rav, which means teacher," Herscher said. "So every single event must offer an educational experience." Herscher envisions youth and family concerts like the ones the late conductor Leonard Bernstein used to host.
Indeed, children have become a crucial target audience for the Skirball, which pays to bus in L.A. Unified School District students weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. "The field of psychology has taught us that if you want to infuse ideals, you've got to start as young as possible," Herscher explained.
The 30,000 youngsters who visit the Skirball each year learn about Jewish and American values, for example, in two unique gallery "classrooms," built during the center's extensive redesign and renovation last year. One of the classrooms depicts a cheder, a Jewish classroom from Eastern Europe; the other suggests a turn-of-the-century American public school.
When the Skirball dedicates its $34 million Winnick Heritage Hall in 2003 -- phase three of its building program -- the primary focus again will be upon young people. There will be an outdoor amphitheater for the performance of children's programming. And two 3,500-square-foot children's galleries will feature a core collection relating the biblical story of Noah's Ark to multiculturalism today. "It's the loveliest way to teach children about the immigrant experience," said Herscher, who hopes the new building will help to bring 20,000 more children to the Skirball each year. "Because every pair of animals is different, it's perfect to show how we can all get along. It's a great message for a city like L.A., where people have settled from a variety of cultures around the world."
While the Skirball is generally lauded as a cultural center, its art exhibits have generated mixed reviews from at least two prominent Los Angeles art critics. "The Skirball has made a big contribution to the total cultural picture of this city, but I don't think visual art is their strongest suit," said Suzanne Muchnic, art writer for the Los Angeles Times. "I have yet to be bowled over by an exhibition there."
"The Skirball has fulfilled its role in [enhancing] the pride and morale of Jewish constituents, but if we're talking specifically about art-related exhibitions, it hasn't hit its stride yet," concurred Edward Goldman, the art critic for National Public Radio. "It seems like they are narrowing their scope to Jewish themes and subjects.... Now that the Skirball has such visibility, and they've built up such a prominent space for themselves, I'd like to see them launch a much more ambitious program embracing a much wider range of subjects and themes. That's what this city needs. I'd like to see something to slightly rock the boat and upset a bit the status quo."
Herscher said he appreciates the constructive criticism. He noted that the Winnick building will feature an 8,000-square-foot gallery that will provide the necessary space for more ambitious changing exhibitions. It's hoped that the inaugural show, tentatively scheduled to originate at New York's prestigious Museum of Natural History, will focus on the life and work of Albert Einstein.
Nevertheless, Herscher insisted, the Skirball's mandate is to be a cultural center first. "We have an important museum component, but we're not a museum in the classical sense -- we never have been and we never will be," he said. "When we display art, we have a message about how we can enrich communal life."
Herscher clearly knows how to enrich communal life, both on a public and personal level. On the second night of Passover, he hosted a seder that read like a Who's Who of cultural leaders: "He invited me, as well as the presidents of CalTech, USC and the Huntington Library," Munitz told The Journal. "Some of us are Jewish, some not. It [was] intercultural and interinstitutional work at its absolute best."
Why does Herscher believe a Jewish institution should further civic life in Los Angeles? "No one people can live in health unless the total community is healthy," he said. "That is what [the patriarch] Abraham taught us when his first act as Jew was to welcome three strangers to his tent and to give them shelter."
For information about the Skirball, call (310) 440-4500.