Maxine Gaiber doesn’t hesitate when asked what she wants the Gershman Y to look like in a year’s time. “You know the 92nd St Y?” — the New York City cultural landmark on the Upper East Side — “I want that kind of intellectual energy and dynamism.”
Beginning July 1, Gaiber, 65, will get the opportunity to try to transform the Gershman Y when she assumes the role of its executive director.
Gaiber comes to the Center City cultural institution after an eight-year run as leader of the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts in Wilmington, where many of the qualities that made her attractive to the Gershman board were on display, including establishing the institution’s first endowment and scholarship fund, growing attendance by 50 percent annually and expanding the scope of educational programs and exhibitions there.
When asked why she decided to leave the organization she had spent the past eight years building up, Gaiber replied that it was simply time. She said that the average tenure for someone in a leadership position at an arts institution like the DCCA is four to five years.
“I love contemporary art and the contemporary art scene,” she added, but she wanted to be able to work in an environment where she could expose people to art in context — “not only what’s happening now, but also the roots of where it came from.”
According to Anne Lazarus, the Pennsylvania Superior Court judge who co-chairs the Gershman board, it was Gaiber’s ability to do outreach as much as her cultural bona fides that convinced the institution’s all-volunteer board that she was the right choice.
“The ability and willingness to fundraise is a large part of the executive director’s role at the Gershman. That did not happen with either of the previous two directors,” Lazarus said, referring to Linda Steinberg and Sherry Rubin. “After having two executive directors in the past five years, we tried to refine the process to get a result more suited to what we needed. And we still need the rest of the package — we are an arts and cultural center, although I don’t know if we are an arts center first or a cultural center first.”
That kind of uncertainty about its identity has plagued the Gershman for some time now — in a sense, ever since it was spun off as an independent entity in 2009, following the breakup of the Jewish Community Centers of Philadelphia. Despite being headquartered in the original 1924 YM-YWHA building at the heart of the Avenue of the Arts in Center City, it no longer owns the building, having sold it in 2000 to its landlord, the University of the Arts.
And the Gershman has continued to struggle to find its audience. This is in no small part due to budget cuts and lack of leadership: The Gershman’s programming schedule for the 2013-2014 season was a fraction of what it was in previous years. While perennial favorites like Latkepalooza and the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival continue to be big draws, exhibits in the building’s two galleries have been infrequent at best.
Everything from programming to website maintenance has been sporadically attended to by the current skeleton crew of three full-time employees — roughly half the number at the same time two years ago. And the main benefactor of the Gershman, Phil Lindy, died last year, creating even more strain and urgency for the future.
Gaiber said she is acutely aware of the need to not only connect with the remaining staffers, but to add to their ranks. She said the board has assured her that she will be able to hire new people as the need arises, a claim confirmed by Lazarus. She singled out the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival as an example of the kind of successful programming that she would like to continue.
As for how she plans to interpret the institution’s mission to be the region’s home for secular Jewish arts and culture, Gaiber emphasized that it is too early for specifics.
“I have a lot to learn,” she said. “I’m not from the Philadelphia community. I need to listen to the community, see what is important to them and what they would like to see go on in the future” at the Gershman.
She uses her own secular Jewish background to illustrate her commitment to making the organization as open and appealing to as wide a constituency as possible.
“I think I am the demographic the Gershman is after — unaffiliated Jews.”
Her goal, she said, is to attract everyone else.
“I want it to be buzzing with all ages and backgrounds — all walks of Judaism and people who don’t come from a Jewish background who just want to meet and mingle.”