Date: May 23, 2022
Mark Gunnery of the Jewish Museum of Maryland: “We’re trying to take existing content and give it new life –taking things that are in our archives or collections or in [an] exhibit and finding different ways to present them using technology.” (Provided)
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed public and private institutions in 2020, museum professionals were challenged to find new ways to engage homebound audiences.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland was no exception. JMM Executive Director Sol Davis and his staff made significant changes to the way the East Baltimore museum conducted business.
As the JMM’s director of communications and content, Mark Gunnery has played an important role in “shifting some of [the museum’s] practices to be more accessible” to those uncomfortable with in-person visits to the campus at 15 Lloyd St.
“A lot of museums have used COVID as a way to kind of transition into new ways of presenting what we’ve got,” says Gunnery. “We’re trying to take existing content and give it new life –taking things that are in our archives or collections or in [an] exhibit and finding different ways to present them using technology.”
One way is the JMM’s new weekly podcast “Disloyal,” which first aired in late April.
“’Disloyal’ is a podcast about art, culture and history from the JMM, and uses our exhibits, programs and collections as launchpads for talking about the political, cultural and spiritual trends that are shaping the world today through a distinctively Jewish lens,” Gunnery says.
“Disloyal” gets its name from “an antisemitic trope that Jews are disloyal, especially to the state,” he says. “There’s also a way that within Jewish communities, social, religious and political issues get understood through the lens of loyalty or disloyalty.”
The title is also a nod to one of the art works in the JMM’s last exhibition, “A Fence Around the Torah: Safety and Unsafety in Jewish Life,” called “We are the Disloyal Ones” by Ami Weintraub of the RAYJ (Rebellious Anarchist Young Jews) collective. The title references a poem of the same name written by RAYJ members.
Gunnery says “A Fence Around the Torah,” which was on display from last December to February, was one of the inspirations for the podcast. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition was available exclusively online for most of its run. (You can still view the online exhibition here.)
“A Fence Around the Torah” comprised the work of approximately 12 artists and included video, sculpture, painting, textile and poetry. According to the curatorial statement by JMM Curator-in-Residence Liora Ostroff, it explored themes of safety and unsafety as experienced by “marginalized community members and neighbors in and around Jewish spaces and institutions.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, the JMM offered a series of virtual conversations last fall. But after the series ended, museum staff felt there was more to discuss.
“There was such a great group of artists and a curatorial panel that helped make that [exhibit] happen, and we really wanted to have interviews that could put the artists and the curator in conversation with one another,” Gunnery says.
Since Gunnery has professional radio credentials, a podcast seemed the perfect vehicle for doing this.
So far, Gunnery, the podcast’s host, and Naomi Weintraub, the museum’s community artist-in- residence, have produced seven episodes. Each episode is approximately 36 minutes and released on Fridays.
That’s no accident, notes Gunnery, who says he chose to “shoot” for 36 minutes because the number signifies “double-chai” and since Fridays usher in Shabbat.
“We’re trying to infuse some Jewish elements into some of that nitty-gritty stuff,” he says. “We really had some fun with the music, too. I produced the music and it’s kind of our interpretation of an old klezmer song that we wanted to revamp.”
To date, episodes include conversations with Davis and Ostroff about “A Fence Around the Torah;” artist Katz Tepper and Maia Ipp, co-director of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, discussing Tepper’s piece “Roasted Cockroach for Scale”; transgender poet Joy Ladin speaking about her poem “Ready and Changing the Subject”; and mixed media artist Daniel Toretsky, creator of “We Would Come Home But You’ve Locked The Door,” talking with Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council for Jewish Museums and a former JMM curator.
Gunnery says he expects about five more episodes will focus on “A Fence Around the Torah,” and then the podcast will examine the JMM exhibition “Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare,” which is on display through Oct. 31.
On tour from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the exhibition “deals with the Cold War and how it played out in Hollywood and the Jewish experiences on both sides of the communist/ anti-communist divide,” says Gunnery. “We’re going to be talking about some of the history there, including about the history of Baltimore Jews in the communist party.”
Adds Gunnery: “At our [hybrid] annual meeting on May 25 at 7 p.m., people can get a sense of the podcast because I’m going to sit down with [local radio personality] Mark Steiner and do a live interview with him about some of that history.”
Attendees will also see members of the JMM’s almost entirely new staff perform the podcast’s theme music.
“We’ve got a bunch of talented people on staff,” Gunnery says, “and we’re trying to make space for our staff’s creativity to shine, to create opportunities for really interesting cultural experiences.”
To access “Disloyal, visit afencearoundthetorah.com/disloyal. For tickets to the JMM’s annual meeting, visit jewishmuseummd.org/events/jewish-museum-of-marylands-annual-meeting/.