New York’s Jewish Museum announced Monday that its next director would be James S. Snyder, a veteran leader in the art world and Jewish community with more than four decades spent between the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since 2019, Snyder, 71, has been executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, promoting the city as a symbol of cross-cultural coexistence.
Snyder succeeds Claudia Gould, who stepped down as the Jewish Museum’s director in June after 12 years at the helm. Gould, who previously led Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery in New York, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, helped raise the profile of the Jewish Museum with a dynamic program of crossover exhibitions framing art, architecture, design and fashion with a Jewish angle and Judaica through a contemporary lens.
The museum’s chief curator, Darsie Alexander, serves as acting director until Snyder begins his new post in November.
As many institutions are making generational changes at the top, the Jewish Museum — founded in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1904 and the first culturally-specific institution of its kind in the U.S. — opted for someone with a proven track-record of museum leadership and deep ties to the Jewish philanthropic world in New York and globally.
“Running a museum today is harder than it’s ever been and James’s experience is a huge asset for us at this time,” said Robert A. Pruzan, the museum’s board chairman, who initially approached Snyder to get ideas for potential candidates during the museum’s international search and ended up asking if he would consider the position himself. “James has a very expansive vision of the opportunity for the museum, aligned with the board.”
Over the last 20 years, Pruzan has gotten to know Snyder as he popped up at just about every event in the Jewish community, with his affable, gregarious personality. “He has the energy of a very young man,” Pruzan said, dismissing any concerns about Snyder’s age.
For Snyder, who recently wrote about the role and responsibility of museums in the virtual age post-Covid for Sapir Journal, the Jewish Museum holds amazing potential.
“Diversity and inclusiveness is looking at how your culture has resonated over time with other cultures and in your own contemporaneous moment,” Snyder said in a phone interview. “Claudia’s years elevated the visibility and presence of the Jewish Museum and they’re really poised to lead the way as a model.” (Some of the broadly appealing shows of Gould’s era included “New York 1962-1964,” about the making of the culture capital; “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” based on the saga of the Ephrussi family, celebrated in the best-selling memoir by Edmund de Waal; and “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter.”)
Raised in a small town south of Pittsburgh, Snyder started at MoMA as an intern in 1974 fresh out of Harvard, having studied literature and art history. He worked in multiple departments over the years, eventually assigned with the oversight of MoMA’s 1984 expansion designed by Cesar Pelli, after which Snyder was promoted to deputy director.
In 1997, Snyder moved to Jerusalem as director of the Israel Museum, founded in 1965 atop the Hill of Tranquillity as a universal institution with collections of visual art and archaeology spanning epochal times. “Being at the Israel Museum took the modernist that I was and made me realize that there’s a narrative that starts a million and a half years ago, comes to the present and teaches you how periods and cultures connect globally,” Snyder said.
During his two decades as director, Snyder stewarded a $100 million expansion and upgrade of the museum’s 20-acre campus, more than doubling annual attendance to nearly one million visitors and increasing its endowment to $200 million.
Snyder continued to serve as the museum’s international president through 2018, when he returned to New York. In 2019, he was appointed executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, where he has been refreshing the donor base and strategies for social, cultural and economic development in the complex city that he “grew to know and love in a very big way.”
For the Jewish Museum, Snyder’s wealth of credentials was a perfect fit. Pruzan said the board isn’t looking for a turnaround.
“We’re really happy with where we are today on the curatorial side,” Pruzan said. “The opportunity is to explore how we can play a leadership role around societal issues like antisemitism and demonstrate the importance of culturally specific institutions in advancing the dialogue on these topics through our exhibitions and education programming.”
The Jewish Museum is in good financial shape, with an annual operating budget of $24 million and an endowment of $114 million. Its annual attendance has grown steadily since the pandemic and is now at 110,000, still down from a prepandemic number of 175,000. The museum relies less on revenue from visitors than many other institutions do, according to Pruzan, noting the importance of Snyder’s prodigious fund-raising skills.
Snyder has long been interested in how site, setting and architecture are key ingredients to a museum’s success, something he learned from his experiences at the Israel Museum. The 1908 mansion on 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, once home to Felix and Frieda Warburg, where the Jewish Museum moved in 1947, “speaks powerfully to the museum’s history in New York City,” Snyder said.
“Its location on Museum Mile paves the way to reaching out uptown to sister museums like El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Hispanic Society Museum & Library,” Snyder added, “all of which are also culturally specific museums with whom collaboration can be an important part of the Jewish Museum’s future.”