Abby Schwartz & Sheri Besso To Leave Skirball In June

Sheri Besso, the collections manager and preparator at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum, and Abby Schwartz, the museum’s former director and now part-time curatorial consultant, will be leaving the Skirball in June.

The departures were announced in an emailed statement to the community from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which operates the Skirball and hosts the museum on its Cincinnati campus.

“We offer [Besso and Schwartz] our most heartfelt gratitude for years of remarkable contributions to the growth of the HUC-JIR Skirball Museum and its presence in the Cincinnati community and beyond,” said Joshua Holo, HUC-JIR’s vice president for academic resources, and Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, dean of the Cincinnati campus, in the statement.

Besso’s departure will leave the museum without any full-time employees. The statement said that the Skirball remains open with the same hours as before: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-3 pm, and Sunday from 1-4 pm.

HUC-JIR’s statement celebrated both Besso and Schwartz for their many years at the museum. Besso joined in 2015, and worked on over 25 exhibits at the Skirball, including last year’s showcase of Frank Stella’s prints about Had Gadya, the absurdist song often included in the Passover seder.

Besso also cataloged and prepared the Skirballs various collections, both for internal use and for loans across the country.

“Under Sheri’s supervision and treatment, our collections have been in the best of hands, guaranteeing their safe and beautiful installation and preparation for exhibition, in addition to all the vital aspects of art management that go on behind the scenes, such as handling for storage and travel,” the HUC-JIR statement said.

Schwartz came on as director of the Skirball in 2013, helping to revitalize the museum after HUC-JIR’s contraction and financial difficulties during the Great Recession. She led the transfer of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection to Cincinnati, making the Skirball one of the premiere Jewish museums in the middle of the country.

Schwartz markedly expanded the Skirball’s impact and outreach in Cincinnati, and collaborated with artists from across the country and world to bring exhibits here and find new ways to celebrate Cincinnati’s Jewish community. In 2023, Schwartz transitioned to a consultant role for the museum.

“Throughout her career, Abby has long been a thought leader in the Jewish cultural scene in Cincinnati and beyond…at both the Taft and the Skirball Museums, she earned numerous awards from the Ohio Museums Association,” the statement said. “Abby breathed new life into the Skirball Museum.”

Besso, who leaves June 7, has taken a job at the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, while Schwartz, leaving June 27, will continue her consulting work with other organizations.

The departures come as HUC-JIR struggles with poor fundraising and crushing deficits, a contentious relationship with Cincinnati, and a tenuous effort to build a research center out of the Skirball Museum and other institutions based on the Cincinnati campus.

The museum is doing well, with an influx of funding from community members renewing their membership at higher levels, and shifting donations from HUC-JIR specifically to the Skirball. But it was clear for some time that the museum couldn’t continue to operate with just one full-time employee and no plans to hire additional staff. HUC-JIR’s statement about Besso and Schwartz did not mention plans for hiring staff.

HUC-JIR is hiring an executive director for the research center in Cincinnati. Dean Hecht will also be leaving HUC-JIR this year, joining an exodus of staff and faculty from the college.