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Art of the state
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Art of the state

Collection depicts an Israel beyond the conflict

When Donald Rothfeld decided to donate his substantial collection of contemporary Israeli art, the recipient was not what some might consider a likely choice. But he was determined that the works go to a non-Jewish institution.

“We have been in enough ghettos,” he said. “It’s time for Israeli artists to get out into the real world, not just Jewish museums, synagogues, and JCCs.”

So the Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Israeli Art will be going to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington.

Until three years ago, Rothfµeld, a native of Newark, was a lifelong New Jerseyan. A cardiologist, now retired, he was on staff at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He was a longtime resident of Millburn and a strong supporter of area Jewish causes, among them Unµited Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — where he headed the UJA Physicians Division — Daughters of Israel, and JCC MetroWest, where his late wife, Harriet, served on the board.

Harriet was an active advocate for services for the developmentally disabled. Both were, and he still is, donors to JESPY House in South Orange, where their son, Stephen — the longtime mail clerk for NJJN and UJC MetroWest — is a client.

Rothfeld, who now lives in New York City with his wife, Susan Merker, began collecting art in the 1970s, when he left the military and returned to the metropolitan area. In the mid-’80s, he walked into the New York gallery of legendary Israeli art dealer Bertha Urdang. At that point, he said, he was a knowledgeable collector of American art, but the only Israeli art he knew was “synagogue art: dancing rabbis, bar mitzva boys.”

Urdang — with, he said, her monumental knowledge and larger-than-life chutzpa — sold him on the outstanding Israeli artists of the day. The work she introduced him to, he said, was “unbelievable — and nobody knew about it.”

By the late ’80s, Rothfeld had committed to reserving 15 percent of his collection for Israeli artists.

By the time he and Merker were preparing to leave Millburn and move to New York, they had given away most of their non-Israeli art — some 200 pieces — to galleries and museums all over the country. His works by Israeli artists — his concentration over the last four or five years — amounted to more than 150 pieces.

As he surveyed the field of potential institutions to receive the collection, Rothfeld told NJJN, he made a conscious decision to focus on universities. Most Mideast studies programs on campuses are “pro-Palestinian,” he said, but after reading the 2010 “Searching for the Study of Israel” — a report prepared for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation examining Israel studies programs on hundreds of American college campuses — Rothfeld said, he found the perfect match in American University.

When he paid a visit to the campus, Rothfeld said, he found a “very strong” Israel studies program whose “mantra is to present Israel in ways other than conflict.”

The museum, a three-story public museum and sculpture garden in AU’s Katzen Arts Center, is, he said, “gorgeous.”

In response to his offer, said Rothfeld, university officials were “ecstatic.” Laura Katz Cutler, acting director of the university’s Center for Israel Studies, was “very supportive.”

“In its first six years, the American University Museum has focused on international art, and particularly on contemporary art from the Middle East, presenting major exhibitions from Syria, Lebanon, and Israel,” said Jack Rasmussen, the museum’s director and curator. “The Rothfeld gift helps us build a collection that will encourage this free, continuing discussion of ideas, beliefs, and values in the region — exactly what is needed today.”

Rothfeld wants to get the Israeli artists’ work “‘out there’ — to be seen, discussed, and compared with that of their peers across the globe.”

The collection includes 151 pieces of contemporary, mixed-media Israeli art — including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and videos. The collection comes with the Rothfeld Fund, a $50,000 endowed gift to support maintenance and exhibition costs.

A chronicle of Israel’s history, the collection includes the work of notable and emerging Israeli artists, including one of Israel’s most prominent painters, the late Moshe Kupferman. Kupferman is a Holocaust survivor and a founder of the Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, which commemorates Jews who fought back against the Nazis. Also represented are Elad Lassry, Sigalit Landau, and Yael Bartana, artists whose works are showing at the 2011 Venice Biennale in Italy. Lassry’s work was also recently shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The gift also honors Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, whom Rothfeld knows personally and who shares his roots in New Jersey.

Works from the Rothfeld collection will be shown in exhibitions and will coincide with events cosponsored by the museum and the Center for Israeli Studies.

Rothfeld said his gift is not a closed affair. “The collection is on-going,” he said. “My wife and I visit Israel at least once a year to view the gallery scene, museum shows, etc. We are particularly interested in new artists and make many studio visits with the artists.”

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