After filing for Chapter 11 in March 2020, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia came out of bankruptcy on September 17.
NMAJH’s exit from bankruptcy largely stems from a $ 10 million pledge from longtime former administrator Mitchell Morgan, who bought the museum building and loaned it to the museum for $ 1,000 a month.
Individual bondholders, many of whom are on the museum’s board of trustees, like President Phil Darivoff, have also agreed to collectively write off $ 14 million in the museum’s debt.
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“Our family believes there is a responsibility – both locally and globally – for the community to mobilize for vital institutions like the National Museum of American Jewish History,” Morgan wrote in a statement.
NMAJH filed for bankruptcy on March 1, 2020 because it was unable to repay the $ 30 million in debt remaining from the $ 150 million construction of its building on Independence Mall.
Darivoff saw the need to reorganize as a surgical operation: something the board was reluctant to do but was necessary for the health and future of the museum. Yet this presented challenges.
“There were two main forces that this debt burden placed on us,” Darivoff said. “It made us unattractive to donors and made it very difficult for us to operate because we had to find a million and a half dollars in cash every year to service the debt. “
This amount represented 20% of the museum’s annual budget.
The pandemic has exacerbated the museum’s financial difficulties. Two weeks after its reorganization, the museum closed all in-person operations. He was unable to apply for federal paycheck protection program loans for his employees after filing for bankruptcy and, as a result, reduced his full-time staff from 34 to 12.
Despite the museum’s closure and shrinking staff, NMAJH’s online programming has remained strong during the pandemic, drawing 4 million people to online programs and fundraising. The museum has also expanded its partnerships, working with 20 different organizations to develop online programming.
The programs included online exhibits about Jewish soldiers in World War II and the prevalence of tuberculosis in American Jewish communities, as well as a klezmer concert.
Due to the lingering pandemic restrictions, the museum is still closed to the public, but is looking to expand its audience and try a few different business models.
“Now that we have no more debt, we are in a very different scenario,” said NMAJH CEO Misha Galperin. “I hope that with the pandemic under control in the near future it will be a whole different story.”
NMAJH is working on a 3D digitization of its permanent exhibitions thanks to the financial support of George Blumenthal, who has already supported some of its online exhibitions.
Galperin believes the technology will help make the museum more accessible, working towards NMAJH’s goal of expanding its audience. It will be a much more interactive experience than previous online exhibitions.
“It’s hard to truly feel in the museum when you can’t interact with the objects the way you want to,” said Hannah Deoliveira, a summer intern at the University of Pennsylvania. “You can’t zoom in or you can’t look at the different description lines and credit lines.”
Even with the cutting edge technology of digitized exhibits, Darivoff believes the online experience is second to none in person.
“We can read about the Kotel, but until you stand at the Kotel you don’t understand His Majesty,” Darivoff said. “Museums provide that physical presence with artifacts from history that I think are deeply meaningful to people.”
Because of this belief, NMAJH wishes to transform its large virtual audience into a large in-person audience by merging with the Smithsonian Institution.
The inclusion of NMAJH in the Smithsonian system would provide the necessary branding for NMAJH to attract a national audience.
“We have an extraordinary and huge collection of over 30,000 objects from Jewish Americana, so by being part of the national system we will be able to tell the story of American Jews in this country to Jews and people of different origins. Said Galperin.
The NMAJH is already a museum affiliated with the Smithsonian, which allows the museum and the Smithsonian to share artifacts and research, but a merger with the Smithsonian would allow the museum to be free with support from federal dollars.
The museum experimented with free admission in the summer of 2019, sponsored by a group of donors. NMAJH attendance has quadrupled.
There is already broad bipartisan support for the inclusion of NMAJH in the Smithsonian, with 38 members of the House of Representatives and 23 Senators supporting merger legislation.
Over the next few months, Smithsonian and NMAJH board members, as well as members of Congress, will meet to discuss the details of including NMAJH in the institution.
“If we are to fulfill our dual mission of inspiring American Jews and educating and inspiring non-Jewish Americans, the Smithsonian is essential to fulfill that mission,” Darivoff said. PJC
Sasha Rogelberg writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliate publication.