Inside Art Curation at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Hoffberger Gallery

Marcia Bornfriend (left) and Lauren Loran at the Hoffberger Gallery (Jillian Diamond)

When walking down Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s main hallway, a visitor might notice the art that lines the walls. Every two months, a different exhibit is displayed on the walls of the congregation’s Hoffberger Gallery, highlighting pieces from specific artists or centered around specific themes or mediums.

Assembling these collections is a labor of love for the synagogue’s gallery committee, and a continuation of a tradition dating back to the early 1970s.

The gallery was first established by the late Claire Bornfriend, a congregant and artist, when she had the idea of using the building’s central hallway to display art. After doing research to make the walls more gallery-friendly and suitable for displaying paintings, the synagogue established a committee to select artists. During the 1980s, Bornfriend’s daughter, Marcia Bornfriend, joined the committee, and later took over in her mother’s stead in 1996.

“In those days, they did 10 shows a year, from September through June,” Marcia Bornfriend said of the gallery’s beginnings. “And anyone could submit, they just had to meet certain criteria. So we were supporting local artists in the mid-Atlantic district and beyond.”

Now, the gallery does five exhibits a year, each lasting two months. Bornfriend noted that this arrangement is preferable for the featured artists, who enjoy having more time to have their pieces on display.

Bornfriend is also an artist, often painting abstract pieces. She spent 30 years as an art teacher in Baltimore. Her co-chair, Lauren Loran, is a graphic designer who creates promotional material for the Hoffberger Gallery’s exhibits and does felted crafts on commission. The two of them use their prior art experience to choose themes for the gallery’s exhibits and select local artists, though art groups will sometimes approach them on their own and request to have their art featured.

“We have a specific way of looking at art, and we depend on our committee to support the gallery,” Loran said.

Bornfriend and Loran source many of the artists they feature through the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, or BOPA. During the fall, the nonprofit organization helps artists organize open gallery tours, which is often how the gallery committee meets new artists and solicits exhibits for the Hoffberger Gallery.

Art from the Hoffberger Gallery’s January and February 2024 exhibit, “Complimentary Colors,” which focuses on watercolor paintings presented by the Baltimore Watercolor Society. (Jillian Diamond)

The Hoffberger Gallery’s space can be a great boon to artists. When the gallery was renovated, the committee worked with local contractors and lighting technicians so the gallery’s lighting would be as close to daylight as possible, creating an ideal setting for viewing the art. As the gallery is in a central location in the synagogue, it also sees a lot of foot traffic.

“It’s not just Baltimore Hebrew congregants who come to use this space,” Loran noted. “We have musical events, b’nai mitzvahs, weddings. … It’s a busy space, so a lot of people have the opportunity to see the work that’s up for the two months it’s on display.”

During the summer months, the gallery committee gives congregants the chance to display their own artwork. They accept submissions from BHC members, usually based around a central theme or medium — Summer 2023’s show featured photography.

While Loran and Bornfriend noted that while the turnout for submissions is often so great that they cannot feature every artist, these summer shows are a great opportunity for beginner artists to get their work out in the community.

“We support emerging artists,” Bornfriend said. “They bring their friends to see their artwork, and other congregants. That’s a real community-builder.”

It’s also a good way for these artists to turn a profit while raising money for the congregation. When artists sell a piece from the gallery, 35% of profits go toward supporting BHC — a smaller percentage than dedicated art galleries normally take.

While the gallery often features secular artwork, the committee makes an effort to display art with Jewish themes during the High Holidays. A previous show covered by the Jewish Times in 2021, “Women from the Bible: Stories of Courage, Faith, Hope and Love,” focused on different artists’ interpretations of biblical heroines.

One of Bornfriend and Loran’s favorite art shows hosted by the Hoffberger Gallery was when they displayed sculptures and graphite drawings by David Knopp, a Baker Artist Award-winning woodworker who specializes in building dynamic plywood furniture. Knopp’s exhibit encouraged guests to touch and sit on the sculptures, a rarity for most art shows.

The gallery’s upcoming show, “Andrea Huppert: Natural Rhythms” will be debuting on Feb. 29 and will feature a meet-and-greet with the artist on March 3. The exhibit will feature Huppert’s nature-based pieces, which often incorporate 3D elements from nature like branches.

“When the walls are blank, it’s depressing,” Bornfriend said. “But when the walls are full of art, everyone smiles. Everyone has a good time. And if you can get someone to enjoy the art and walk away with a smile on their face, that makes it all worth it.”

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