5 Star Stories: the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art

Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 11:04 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art in Downtown Memphis is a 3-in-1 gallery that houses one of the most extensive art collections in the country.

The hidden gem sits just steps from the corner of Main and Gayoso.

“We are considered, you know, a surprise to people who come to see us.”

Director and Education Coordinator Belinda Fish says the museum began as the private collection of real estate developer Jack Belz and his wife Marilyn, who started collecting Asian art in 1968.

“And in 1998, some people who knew his interests asked him to make a small display at the Wonders Series,” Fish said.

The collection was so well-received during the Imperial Tombs of Wonders exhibition, the Belz couple decided to make it permanent by donating pieces to the foundation that now runs the museum, once unofficially called the Jade Museum.

“We started off as three small rooms, and over the years--lots of years now--we have expanded to 29,000 square feet and over 1,400 pieces on display,” Fish said.

The museum’s Asian art collection, mostly meticulously sculpted jade and other semi-precious stone, features pieces from Chinese imperial dynasties that ruled that country from 1644 through 1911.

“We have sculpture, we have textiles and calligraphy, we have furniture--some of it’s functional even, you get to sit on it in the lobby and enjoy how beautiful it is and how comfortable it is.”

Fish says the pieces range from one ounce to one ton in weight.

“Temple lions are used to provide protection for rooms and buildings and we have a couple of pair that belonged in the Imperial City in China,” she said.

There are also elaborately detailed imperial wedding sculptures made of ivory.

“The Ching style was to place a piece of material, whatever piece, and as much as possible, leave it in its original form.”

Other standouts in the collection include intricate marriage tapestries and carved woolly mammoth tusks from Serbia, ivory that is at least 10,000 years old.

The Judaic art gallery across the hall, which opened in 2004, contains more than 200 works from three different contemporary Jewish Israeli artists.

We also have a large selection of Judaic art which is much more modern, within the last 150 years,” Fish said. “Those are bronzes and paintings and photographs.”

Many of the works are also commissioned by the Belz couple. Adjacent to that is the third-most emotionally charged gallery, the Holocaust Memorial, which opened in 2014.

“And we’ve chosen to focus on Shelby County survivors. We have their portraits and their stories telling where they were born, where they were held during the Holocaust and parts of their Holocaust testimony,” Fish said. “It’s a powerful exhibit and it’s one that I am very proud that we have here. It’s not something people think of when you think of Memphis, but we have a thriving Jewish community and we’re losing our survivors. So this is a way for us to keep their stories alive and hopefully keep us from repeating the horrible things that happened during World War II.”

The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art also has an event space called the Dynasty Room that’s available for rental.

The museum also offers educational programs throughout the year for students at every level of study. Click here to find out more.

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