Marvin Pinkert’s announcement in January that he would be retiring from his post as executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland set off a 10-month, national search for a new director.
Dozens of candidates applied, said Nancy Kutler, a member of Bet Chaverim Congregation, who serves as the president of JMM’s board of trustees and as chair of the search committee. The committee gradually whittled down the list of names until they had a clear finalist: Bryan Solomon “Sol” Davis.
Davis, who is currently the director of the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center in Tucson, Ariz., hopes to engage the community through the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
A Southwest Sensation
Davis, whose background is in Holocaust studies, first came to Tucson’s Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center back when it was simply the Jewish History Museum. When the museum decided to develop a Holocaust history center on its campus, Davis led a capital campaign for that goal, helping the institution add the second half of its current name.
It was around that time that Pinkert recalled meeting Davis for the first time. It was a number of years ago, at a museum convention, he believes. Pinkert was working on an expansion of JMM at the same time that Davis was working to create a new Holocaust center in Tucson. Pinkert remembered having a “very positive” first impression of Davis.
According to Davis, JMM initially reached out to him about the executive director position. Some of the qualities Davis displayed that helped him stand out from the crowd, Kutler said, included his passion for the type of work the museum did, his first-rate relationship skills and his creativity.
The last of these, Kutler explained, was demonstrated by his spearheading a type of sukkah-building competition at the museum in Tucson, which included a winning artist creating a piece that “combined the traditional parts of a sukkah with a more modern interpretation that incorporated social justice and equality.”
Just as importantly, Kutler spoke of how Davis could point to his track record of bringing new demographics into his museum in Tucson. This was particularly true of young people, Kutler said. “That really excited us as well, because if there’s one group we really hope to make inroads with, that is, I would say, the millennial population,” she said. Kutler highlighted how Davis had organized special events like jazz concerts to appeal to the 30-something demographic.
This interest in appealing to different demographics was something Davis noted as well, saying that “Jewish museums in particular have a special role to play in engaging slices of the Jewish community that are otherwise not engaged so much in Jewish communal life.” Through his work in southern Arizona, Davis said, he worked hard to engage “younger generations of Jewish people, LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, black Jews. … In southern Arizona, those are some of the communities that have really been drawn to the work of our Jewish museum here.”
Kutler said that Davis “had become sort of a Pied Piper for the young 30-somethings in the Tucson area, and that excited us a lot.”
Lastly, Kutler stated that Davis’ commitment to social justice and community engagement was a major plus. While acknowledging that one goal of a museum is to simply display objects, Kutler explained how Davis saw a museum’s greater objective as being to surpass this rather stagnant goal and serve as a place to promote the discussion of social issues.
For Davis’ part, he spoke of how Jewish museums “can play important roles in struggles for social and racial justice, and I intend to bring that specific piece of the work to Baltimore.” He hopes to adopt “inclusive and anti-racist practices across the spectrum of the organization, from staff to the board to docents and volunteers and educators.”
“We live in a nation where racism is all around us, and I think anti-racist practice is to go beyond saying ‘I’m not a racist,’ and to working with intention to dismantle racism,” Davis said.
One of the ways in which Davis hopes to attract some of the Jewish groups who are less engaged in Jewish museums or Jewish communal life is by hiring members of those communities onto the JMM staff. He explained that this would involve “making sure that when you are undertaking a hire, that you take special care to ensure that the information about that job gets out broadly and that people have equal access to the application and the opportunity.”
In the end, the search committee made a unanimous recommendation to the board to offer Davis the executive director position, Kutler said, which was afterward followed by a unanimous decision by the board to do just that.
Davis said he plans to initially live in Baltimore city and get a feel for the community before making any long-term housing plans. He also plans “to do some shul shopping” after his arrival.
Some of what appealed to Davis about JMM included its status as “an incubator for a tremendous amount of museum talent,” he said, adding he knows “many people who’ve worked there for many years, and they made quite a mark on the field of Jewish museum work.” Davis made particular mention of the work of Melissa Yaverbaum, formerly a JMM curator who now serves as the executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums.
Davis voiced his excitement at being part of that legacy, and for the chance to work with what he called the “holder of one of the most important collections of Jewish material culture.”
Upon starting his new position, Davis expects he will spend the first few months introducing himself to the community and doing a lot of “listening and learning,” which he hopes will inform any ideas for future JMM exhibits.
In time, he hopes “to really animate a historic temple building with Jewish values, use it as a place to imagine and create vibrant Jewish futures, to engage both the Jewish community and the broader community in Jewish life and Jewish history.”