Beth Sholom Congregation has hosted lectures, concerts and a laser-light show for Chanukah, but it’s never done anything like this.
Visual artist David Hartt’s new exhibit is being billed as a first-of-its-kind display at Beth Sholom, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed National Historic Landmark in Elkins Park. Titled “David Hartt: The Histories (Le Mancenillier),” it will be on display from Sept. 11 to Dec. 19.
The multimedia installation uses video, sculpture and music to tell the histories of Jewish and black diasporas in the United States.
The exhibit’s main focus is the life and work of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The 19th-century American composer was raised by a Jewish father and Creole mother. He left his hometown of New Orleans to study music in Paris at age 13. His music is described as a blend of classical European musical training with American traditions and Afro-Caribbean song.
Hartt was unavailable for an interview, but Cole Akers, the exhibit’s curator, was able to speak on the artist’s intentions for the exhibit. Akers’ experience working in historic spaces carries over from his position as curator and special projects manager at The Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut. The exhibit gets its title from Herodotus’ history of Western culture. It’s also the name of a sweet but poisonous tropical plant and the title of an early Creole-influenced work by Gottschalk.
Akers said much of Hartt’s visual style is inspired by painters like Martin Johnson Heade, who specialized in tropical flowers and birds. Tropical plants will be set up in planters, and video monitors will aid in the aesthetic. Recordings of Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa performing Gottschalk’s work will score the exhibit and be played throughout the installation.
“David has found a really sensitive way to engage with the space. He’s drawn on the history of the congregation itself to think about broader aspects of American culture,” Akers said. “It’s not like bringing a painting or sculpture and placing it within a new context. David’s practice for this project is completely environmental in that it thoughtfully considers the dynamics of the space.”
The Montreal-born Hartt is an assistant professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Ottawa. In preparation for the exhibit, he traveled to New Orleans and Haiti to capture video and photos to better understand the impact of Caribbean culture on Gottschalk’s music.
The exhibit will be followed up with a fully illustrated catalogue that Akers is creating with art historian Solveig Nelson and cultural historian Mabel O. Wilson. The book is slated to be published in June 2020.
The exhibit will also host musicians, such as Philadelphia- based Haitian baritone Jean Bernard Cerin, on select Sundays throughout its run.
Herb Sachs, president of the Beth Sholom Synagogue Preservation Foundation, said he hoped the exhibit would draw many visitors. The synagogue first opened in 1959 and is the only synagogue designed by Wright. The exhibit was commissioned by the foundation, with support provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
“The mission of the Preservation Foundation is twofold. It’s first to conserve and preserve this National Historic Landmark and secondly it’s to tell the story of the building, to open up the building to the public as to give a perspective of the building as it relates to mid-20th-century modern architecture,” Sachs said. “We feel the more people who come to see the building and experience it, the more they learn about it, over time some of these people will come to support the conservation of that building.”
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