CGN Interview Series: Ionit Behar, Spertus Institute

Each week CGN interviews a local art industry professional to discuss the ins and outs of running a gallery in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with Ionit Behar, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.


Age: 31

Current Position: Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Spertus Institute; PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Director of Exhibitions at Fieldwork Collaborative Projects; and freelance writer for several publications.

Hometown: Montevideo, Uruguay.

Previous Occupations: Research Assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago; Curatorial Assistant at Gallery 400; Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Curatorial Assistant at Sullivan Galleries; curatorial intern in several art non-for-profits in Israel, New York and Chicago; waitress in a beach bar and ice cream shop in Tel Aviv; and various jobs at a kibbutz.


5 favorites from the past week

Restaurant: Duck Duck Goat, the vegetarian fried rice is delicious!

Shop: Penelope’s (boutique on Division Street)

Read: I read many books at the same time. Some of them are: Rodrigo Fresán’s La parte inventada (The Invented Part); Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 (exhibition catalogue); Chris Kraus’ After Kathy Acker; Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Neighborhood: Andersonville

Music: A-Wa, a band of 3 sisters who combine Yemenite folk songs with electronic dance music. I went to see them live in New York with my sister and we had the best time.


CGN: Tell us about your background and the journey that has led you to become Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Spertus Institute?

IB: My grandmother Lisa has always been an important influence. She is a professor of Linguistics and researcher in Literary Theory, Comparative Literature and Communication media. In Montevideo, we lived just a few blocks away from my grandparents, and I absolutely loved going to spend time with them, sitting in Lisa’s office (that we called “the library”), and having conversations about anything that she was working on, what she had seen and experienced. I was lucky to frequently travel with my grandparents to Europe. It was especially important, since Uruguay has very few museums and cultural spaces. I fell in love with the feeling of being in museums, surrounded by images and history.

My dad is a photographer; I see him as a collector of moments and situations––he photographs everything and anything. Early on, I knew I wanted to work with artists. I think I was 17 or 18 when I found out that there is such a thing of being a curator. I studied in Tel Aviv University in a multi-disciplinary program in art, and in my last semester I took a Contemporary Art seminar, and I knew that was it. After graduating in 2010, I moved to New York where my other grandmother Polly, a pianist, lives. There I interned for the non-profit No Longer Empty where we organized site-specific installations in empty spaces in the city. In 2011 I was accepted to the Master’s program in Art History at the School of the Art Institute. While studying, I was always involved in curatorial projects.

It has been very important to pair academia with the more practical aspects of curating. Right after I graduated from SAIC, I started the art history PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I am in the process of writing my dissertation and I am fascinated by the research; I think I was a detective in a prior life.


CGN: Give us a day in the life!

IB: Multitasking all day, every day. But yoga and meditation are a necessary part of my daily routine.


CGN: How would you sum up your experience during your time with Spertus Institute? 

IB: Spertus’ collection is truly remarkable. Every week I discover something new and surprising. There are 15,000 objects in the collection and it has been exciting and challenging to think about how they can be displayed today. Context is everything and I look forward to working with artists and continue uncovering some of these objects that have been in storage for some time, to re-contextualize them, and to think about today’s world. During my time at Spertus, I’ve grown to take my role as a leader more seriously. I don’t just mean the managerial sense, but rather in advocating for social justice. Care and integrity are essential to my position as a curator.


CGN: Most exciting collection, you have ever worked with?

IB: I’ve worked mostly on temporary contemporary art exhibitions so the collection work is fairly new. I do remember very well my grandfather Isaac and his love for collections. He collected rocks and fossils and taught me to look carefully at the world. I was amazed by his fascination of nature. As a child, I collected stamps from all around the world and meticulously organized them in albums. On Sundays, we went with my grandfather to Tristán Narvaja, the largest flea market in Montevideo, and like detectives, we looked for stamps. 


CGN: Share some successes as well as challenges this year.

IB: 2017 was a year full of exciting new projects. Working with Ellen Rothenberg for her new site-specific exhibition has been an amazing experience. Initiating the Chicago Jewish Artists Fellowship with Ruslana Lichtzier has been very inspiring.

I have been working with Fieldwork Collaborative Projects on a mini-documentary entitled “Park” focusing on Humboldt Park, a site where we’ve been engaged in various projects like the Jensen Garden Sculpture Exhibition. We see Humboldt Park as a specific site but also as part of a larger network––the enormous system of public parks that makes Chicago so unique. After Puerto Rico's hurricane, many families arrived in Chicago as evacuees. One of the first places they went to is the Field House in Humboldt Park. There they received medical assistance, coats and winter gear, CPS information, translation services, and safe housing assistance. During the month of November, the Field House assisted a large number of evacuees. We received generous support from the Chicago Architecture Biennale and plan to release the mini documentary very soon.  On a personal level, it has been challenging to balance my different commitments and give my best to each.


CGN: What do you want to tell a young person considering this career path?

IB: One of the most important things is to find great mentors; curators that you respect, that answer your questions, and that believe in you. I still turn to them with questions. I would say to someone considering the curatorial path to speak to artists, go to their studios, get involved in as many art projects as possible, and to do internships in large and small organizations.


CGN: What do you look for in an artwork? When searching for yourself, what speaks to you?

IB: I’m particularly drawn to artworks that speak––in one way or another–– to our current times. Installation and sculpture, works that deal with space and time, are the ones I’m mostly attracted to.


CGN: Favorite cultural pursuit outside of the art world?

IB: I love going to the movie theater to see any kind of film or documentary, and binge-watch TV shows at home. I studied film as an undergraduate in Tel Aviv University and I considered being a director or screenwriter.


CGN: What should we expect to see next from Spertus Institute?

IB: Currently on view is Ellen Rothenberg’s ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant, a commissioned installation on past and contemporary issues of migration. The project is inspired by objects and documents Ellen uncovered in the Spertus collection, as well as research she pursued in Berlin at Tempelhof Airport, Germany’s largest refugee camp. This exhibition refers to a current crisis that cannot be ignored. The history of the Jewish people––from the exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust––is also one of migration.

In the summer, we’ll have an exhibition by the participants of the 2017-2018 Chicago Jewish Artists Fellowship that I co-direct with Ruslana Lichtzier. The fellowship is awarded to exceptional contemporary artists wishing to conduct individual and collective research about Jewish identities and Jewish cultural practices. It is structured around monthly meetings, with a final group exhibition, accompanying publication and public programming. The first cohort of nine artists includes Nelly Agassi, Leslie Baum, Iris Bernblum, Dianna Frid, Matthew Girson, Jesse Malmed, Geof Oppenheimer, Roni Packer and Rana Siegel.

In the fall, we’ll have Todros Geller: Strange Worlds that I’m co-curating with Susan Weininger as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Art Design Chicago, a citywide partnership of cultural organizations exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy. Geller, born in Ukraine in 1889, was an influential Chicago artist who was central to the history of modern American Jewish art. The exhibition draws primarily from Spertus Institute’s collection including his paintings, prints, and works on paper as well as letters, books, postcards, articles, photographs, posters, and more.


Ionit Behar is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. For more information about the space please visit: Spertus Institute.