Pew Grants Support New Endeavors for Jewish Artists and Musicians

Susan Lankin-Watts | Photo by Alan Lankin

The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage announced its 2017 grants last week, giving $10.3 million in funding to Philadelphia artists and cultural organizations.

Among the grantees are the Philadelphia Folklore Project and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for projects that will entice both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

The Philadelphia Folklore Project received a $160,000 grant for its Women of New Klezmer initiative that will bring together female klezmer musicians from across North America for a week in Philadelphia to hold master classes and a performance.

These musicians have been composing klezmer works and will compose new music and rehearse in the months leading up to the April 2018 concert.

The Folklore Project is “thrilled” to have been awarded the grant, said Toni Shapiro-Phim, director of programs.

They have had a longstanding relationship with Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Lankin-Watts, household names in the Philadelphia klezmer scene. Lankin-Watts serves as artistic director of the Women of New Klezmer initiative.

“Women of New Klezmer features klezmer composed and performed by women as they create contemporary meaning through the practice of a traditional art,” Shapiro-Phim noted.

The “new” of Women of New Klezmer calls to the infusion of influences from surrounding musical cultures, which Shapiro-Phim said is a continuation of klezmer’s “historical ease in fluid adoption and adaptations over the centuries” from its roots in Eastern European Jewish communities.

“Women klezmer musicians all over the world are composing and performing instrumental and vocal tunes that articulate a vision of present-day Yiddish culture in Diaspora,” Shapiro-Phim said, “and with the Folklore Project’s concern for contemporary relevance and iterations of arts passed down through generations, we believe that these practitioners of new klezmer enhance the quality of life for their and our communities by infusing klezmer with women’s voices.”

In playing klezmer, Lankin-Watts is continuing a family tradition that began with her grandfather, who played in the Kandel Orchestra. Her mother, Elaine Hoffman Watts, was the first woman to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music for percussion performance.

When she began working with the Folklore Project on this, she thought, “What could I do with women?”

The show will be all-new compositions she and the 12 to 15 other musicians have written, she said, rather than works from the 1800s or even the ’50s.

“I just wanted to give klezmer a woman’s voice because traditionally, you go back to where we all kind of get our music from and get our samples of what we are playing from, it’s all men,” she said.

Shapiro-Phim hopes that the initiative will allow a new voice to shine through and help students and audiences examine their own heritage and communities.

“We are looking forward to having supported an initiative that contributes to richer, more complex understandings of klezmer and its possibilities and contributing to a moment in klezmer history that celebrates how the genre is being pushed forward in innovative and artistically brilliant ways,” she said.

Jewish influence also will be presented through Israeli filmmaker and installation artist Yael Bartana, whose first U.S. site-specific public performance will take place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in fall 2018.

The museum received a $300,000 grant for the newly-acquired installation And Europe Will Be Stunned.

The commission of a new performance is still being developed by Bartana along with arts organization Creative Time and the museum, according to Press Officer Joy Deibert.  

And Europe Will Be Stunned is a film trilogy exploring the complexity of Jewish-Polish identity that debuted at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Deibert explained. The films present the “vision” of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), a fictional political party created by Bartana and Polish activist Sławomir Sierakowski that calls for the return of over 3 million Jews to their forgotten homeland of Poland.

Per the Pew website, Bartana “will use the exhibition themes — nationhood, belonging and displacement — as a point of departure for her new commission, Living Monuments, centered on the intersecting histories of Jewish Americans and African Americans in Philadelphia.”

The trilogy will be presented as “an immersive experience featuring light, ephemera and the films” in the museum’s Perelman Building, according to Deibert.

Individual viewing spaces for the films will be set up in a way that the sounds from each film bleed into another. JRMiP manifestos, outlining the fictional party’s pleas, will be available for visitors to take away.  

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