The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational: Tzedakah Box at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

by Admin on 04/22/2015

For the next month The Contemporary Jewish Museum will present the tenth iteration of The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, a recurring exhibition unique to the Museum that is a significant part of its rich history, and an important example of its mission as a forum for contemporary interpretations and representations of Jewish material culture, art, and history. The Invitational, named in honor of The CJM board of trustees member for nearly twenty years and exhibition endowment patron, Dorothy Saxe, has been on view every two to three years since the year of the Museum’s founding in 1984, well preceding their Daniel Libeskind-designed museum on Mission Street. It brings together a dynamic group of craft artists and artisans, who are each asked to design a Jewish ceremonial object within the context of their own practice and interpretation of the object’s intrinsic meaning.

For this year’s Invitational artists were invited to create works of art that reinterpret the tzedakah box, a container traditionally found in synagogues, Jewish homes, and institutions into which charitable donations are deposited. Hebrew for “righteousness,” tzedakah is the act of charity in Jewish culture and faith, and the box is a tangible reminder of this commitment. Curatorial Associate Claire Frost, who organized two Invitational exhibitions including this year’s expounds upon this idea: “I like the idea that we are required to support each other with the understanding that we may one day also require assistance, and we are bound to each other and the broader community in this way.” She thoughtfully relates it to the Museum’s similar mission. “As The CJM attempts to make the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a twenty-first century audience, it is important to acknowledge the ways that we both create and define community.”

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The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational: Tzedakah Box at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

In past years the Invitational has been displayed in one of the Museum’s galleries, but in this spirit of community it has been installed in the Koret Taube Grand Lobby — which means the exhibit is free to view for the public. “This is also the first year that we have invited only West Coast artists to participate,” Frost adds. “The Invitational is an exciting opportunity as a curator to bring so many artists into the museum at one time, and to provide an opportunity for the creation of new work… The Invitational allows us to introduce and involve many new artists in The CJM and our community.” With this opportunity, she agrees there are challenges. “It takes quite a bit of work to coordinate the creation of 38 original works of art, each by a different artist and then get them all to the museum and on display. Kathryn Wade, curatorial intern, managed this part of the project and did a beautiful job of it.”

It is fascinating to see how these 38 participating artists interpret the object from various contemporary aesthetic and individual perspectives, while they explore its continued relevance and develop its universal themes in a multitude of ways. For Oakland artist Randy Colosky one of the major themes with which he engages and reveals to the audience is the box’s complementary and conflicting roles of practical object and visual symbol (particularly for a Museum exhibition). And for Colosky the concept is an important one: “I liked that the tzedakah box is about giving back and donating anonymously to your community. I think it’s important to remember that people are positively affected when people donate and share with others, especially in a time of such economic disparity.” Although not functional, Colosky’s tzedakah box in many ways reconciled concept and object through the top slot, and aligning material and form with other ideals surrounding the object. “When I make things, I think a lot about the economy of form and content, or in other words just saying enough to make a solid piece but not too much as to be obvious to the viewer what’s happening,” he explains. “The material I used to make the piece has some inherent visual properties that communicated the spirit of being altruistic and how those gesture physically radiates out into the community.”

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The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational: Tzedakah Box at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Although unfamiliar with tzedakah box before participating in the Invitational, Joe Ferriso and Jon Anzalone of workshop Anzfer Farms located in San Francisco, applied their conceptual craft ideals to their functional object. “The history of this object is humble and forces self-consideration, which is central to our practice,” says Ferriso. As well as a personal touch, Ferriso and Anzalone chose materials and design that reveal the traditions, histories, and use of the object. “The tzedakah box symbolized an ancient kinship to fellow people and thus spoke of vast time,” Ferriso explains. “A box by nature is an enclosure and ours speaks of time beyond one lifetime because it is made from wood that supersedes the life of a person.” Crafted from locally sourced old-growth redwood, Anzfer Farms’ outer box proudly highlights the tree’s rings, which become symbols of time of growth and maturity: from the money inside to the ongoing effects of charitable giving. The artisan team also activated the symbolic act of charity with their materials. Set inside the outer wooden box rests a colored, semi-transparent deposit box, which when the intention of the box is fulfilled, becomes a space that will “exhibit abstract configurations of funds into framed art,” Ferriso says. “Without the donation the sculptural tzedakah box is hollow and unrealized — through donation it becomes a visual spectacle.”

San Jose-based artist Yvonne Escalante was as equally enthused as Colosky, Ferriso and Anzalone to delve deeper into the Jewish faith, and specifically the history of the tzedakah box. “I felt that this invitational was an extraordinary opportunity to participate in an open dialogue dealing with universal themes of social justice, tradition, and charity,” says Escalante. Her vending machine, entitled Your Turn, brings together secular and faith-based concepts of transaction. “I hope that the familiar, nostalgic form of a grocery store toy machine will establish an immediate familiarity that draws the viewer in and encourages them to explore the work while questioning its meaning,” she says. Escalante manipulates the object in a few important ways that both aligns with and perhaps challenges the object with the ideas of the tzedakah box. Instead of trinkets and toys, Escalante’s machine dispenses symbols of charity, making the rewards of giving very palpable: “Some represent basic alms – food, shelter, or money – while others speak to less tangible gifts, such as wisdom, health, or self-sufficiency.” In addition Escalante’s device only accepts credit card so that only the machine will control the amount of the gift. “The giver must trust the amount will be fair,” she says. Although still divided into the traditional roles of benefactor and receiver by the machine, the recipient and the donor are each placed in similar roles of faith-based giving and receiving.

The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational: Tzedakah Box will be on view at The Contemporary Jewish Museum through May 17, 2015. All tzedakah boxes in the exhibition will be available for purchase in an ongoing silent auction, culminating during The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational event May 12. Previews of all the tzedakah boxes are available online at the event’s auction site. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the artists and The Contemporary Jewish Museum. A catalog with full color plates of each work in the exhibition and related essays is available in the Museum store.

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The 2015 Dorothy Saxe Invitational: Tzedakah Box at The Contemporary Jewish Museum