Polish Connection: How UC Berkeley Landed a Big Arts Collection From a Reliable Funder

Giving Pledge signatory Tad Taube is profiled on our Jewish Funders guide, and runs a robust philanthropic operation that supports Jewish causes in the United States, Israel and Poland. The Polish-born real estate mogul has always kept his homeland on his radar, and last year, we reported on Taube Philanthropies' $15 million gift to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Israel, which also placed emphasis on the Jewish community in Poland.

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The relationship between the Bay Area-based Taube Philanthropies and the University of California, Berkeley is also notable. This spring, Taube made a $10.1 million gift to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the university. The gift will provide access to the most significant collection of works by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist and political caricaturist who weighed in on a range of subjects, including Judaism, the founding of the State of Israel, World War II and the Holocaust.

I recently connected with Tad Taube and Magnes Collection Curator Francesco Spagnolo to get a better sense of how this gift unfolded. 

Earlier in the decade, Taube supported the merger of the Bancroft Library, the Magnes, and the University of California-Berkeley while the newly minted Magnes Collection was still getting its legs. The Judah L. Magnes Museum, by the way, was founded in Berkeley, California, all the way back in 1962, and was one of the first Jewish museums in the United States.

Taube's latest gift continues to bolster the Magnes Collection, and once again, Taube's strong commitment to the Jewish diaspora in Poland looms large. While Taube fled the country in 1931 and arrived in the United States in the summer of 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of World War II, Szyk eventually settled in the United States in 1940. Taube's parents met Szyk around that time in New York and came into possession of his art.

Taube notes that Szyk hasn't really been discovered by the public yet, and his hope is that this gift will put some legs under the collection and expose it to new venues. Indeed, the mandate of Taube Philanthropy's Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland is to "nurture the revival of Jewish life in Poland, further awareness of this resurgence among Jews and non-Jews, and foster positive interest in Poland and Polish Jews among Jews worldwide." 

Magnes Collection Curator Francesco Spagnolo describes the unfolding of the gift as perfect synergy. Spagnolo notes that one of the specialities of the Magnes is to "document Jewish cultures with a 360-degree approach." The Syzk collection itself has many components, including 450 paintings, drawings and sketches covering the entirety of the artist's professional life, as well as a selection of books, newspapers and magazines that featured his work.

Spagnolo also emphasized that artist-activist Arthur Szyk not only lived, worked and operated across many platforms, but also in many places and cultures. He spoke French, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish and was a refugee for much of his life: "The Magnes is committed to exploring and documenting the cultures of Jews in the global diaspora, and this collection furthers that goal. Our curatorial task — and the academic task of the larger Berkeley community — is to thoroughly examine every aspect of Szyk's work and place it in proper context," Spagnolo says

It's also worth noting that Syzk was a miniaturist, and so the modern digital tools at the Magnes can be applied to better understand Syzk's world back then. 

Away from the Bay Area, there's an exhibition planned for the fall at New York Historical Society that will rely heavily on the collection. Spagnolo also tells me that there's a conversation underway to provide access to the collection at institutions in Europe (including in Poland) and the Middle East to ensure international circulation.