How Michael Staenberg turned our blank walls into walls of inspiration


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

Nothing says “possibility” more than a blank wall. And last summer we had a lot of them inside the office space at the Jewish Light.  Then one day as the office was humming along with daily work, there was a knock on the door. Hanukkah had come early.

“We’re here for the walls,” said Monica Vernaci.

“You’re here for the walls?” I asked Vernaci, befuddled.

“Yes, we’re here for the walls.”

Vernaci really was here for the walls. She was part of a team sent by philanthropist and real estate developer Michael Staenberg bearing a special collection of gifts.

Gifts of art.

Art Gallery of Philanthropy

For more than a decade, Staenberg, who is an avid art collector, has been seeking out empty walls and filling them with life. Whether it’s monumental sculptures at one of his developments or Jewish institutions that he supports, Staenberg enjoys donating or loaning art to brighten spaces that otherwise could be dull.

“I probably bought 5,000 pieces of art over the years and I’ve given away about 1,000 pieces to nonprofits,” said Staenberg, who contributed tens of millions of dollars to remake the Jewish Community Center’s Millstone campus. “I buy every piece myself. I call and look and travel all over to find the right pieces, and I’ve commissioned some of the pieces you see to fit certain spaces. Much of the art either reflects a Jewish theme or was created by a Jewish artist.”

To be exact, the total number of pieces Staenberg has donated is 1,231, with an estimated value of around $5 million. All told, 24 nonprofit organizations in St. Louis, Omaha, Denver, Kansas City and St. Paul, Minn. have walls adorned by pieces of Staenberg’s collection.

When the staff and board members of JewishColorado returned to their offices after nearly a year of shuttered doors during the pandemic, they came back to much more than the place they left. The newly renovated Joyce Zeff building had been decorated with dozens of works of art and gifts from Staenberg.

“When you walk into the building, art makes you feel good,” said Staenberg. “There is no second chance to make a first impression.”

“Thanks to Michael’s gift, everyone – our staff and visitors – experience a sense of delight when they step into the building,” says JewishColorado president and CEO Rabbi Jay Strear. “Michael loves to share his love of art, and we have benefited greatly from his generosity and support.”

Staenberg art in St. Louis

Of the 24 Jewish organizations to which Staenberg has donated art, 15 of them are in St. Louis. Camp Sabra is home to 30 works of art, the Jewish Light has 28. But the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the J have the bulk of the St. Louis collection with the Federation hosting 47 pieces and the J, 244.

Recently both organizations published a catalogue featuring images of all the displayed art, listed by artist. The diverse list features local artists such as Blu Alder and photographer Chuck Mannis. Israeli, Jewish and even non-Jewish artists, as well as iconic and legendary artists such as Chagall and Warhol, are all represented.

James Smith

One artist that Staenberg had a particular interest in was James M. Smith who was from St. Louis. Smith’s work more than any other artist is included in the collections donated to the 24 Jewish organizations and displayed in the five Midwest Jewish community centers that Staenberg helped to renovate.

“James Michael Smith conducted a tremendous amount of research to create these images in conjunction with the Jewish beliefs and the facilities that these works of art were created for,” said Maneta Siegel, the former director at the Gallery at The District, where an exhibit of Smith’s work was held last April.

At the opening of the exhibit, Staenberg remembered his friend and commented on how Smith, through his art, learned much about Judaism.

Back at Jewish Light offices

I moved quickly to step aside to let Vernaci.and her team into the office. They were carrying what turned out to be 26 of those 28 works of art that would take over our blank walls.

The art was put out on tables and leaned against desks. The order of the day was to pick what you liked. If it fit on the walls around your desk, that’s where it would go. Being the gentleman I am, I allowed all my co-workers to pick first.

“I love textiles and textured art, so I chose a 3-D fabric piece that lights up and changes colors,” said Betsy Schmidt, CEO of the Light. “I also chose a ceramic mosaic hamsa, a collage with the star of David, and then a dog on a skateboard because I love dogs and my dog Ziggy is here every day.”

Our office is so full of personality now. There is art everywhere, including the kitchen, the stairwell and the parlor room of the bathroom.

“This office has become sacred space through the beauty that Michael donated. Carpet, paint and especially the art lift my spirit every day and inspire me to look at things in new and creative ways. It gives us all a sense of pridefulness to work in what is now an art gallery,” said Schmidt.

Light Editor-in-Chief Ellen Futterman says the art also has helped with her creative process.

“When I get stuck, and yes, writer’s block is a real thing, pausing to look up and take in the art in my office, from a stylized portrait of Frida Kahlo to one of a cowboy with oversized lips and a 10-gallon hat strumming his guitar, the art helps get my mojo going again,” said Futterman. “It’s truly a gift.”

What’s on my wall

By the end the pickings were slim, but I really didn’t mind. I just wanted something on those blank walls.

But, Monica wasn’t having it. She started to ask me about what I liked and what I was interested in. We somehow got to music and sports and suddenly she got excited.

“I think I know just what will work perfectly in this office,” said Monica as she and team prepared to leave.

Days later, she called me asking if I would be available for her to bring and hang two more pieces of art. I said of course, and we made a date.

When she arrived, I was anxious to see what she found in Staenberg’s collection that might fit the bill. She hit two home runs.

Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean

Title: Dizzy Dean
Artist: Common Circles
Size: 36×36

Freddy Mercury

Title: Freddie
Artist: Paperboyo
Size 48×36

Now, there is just so much to look at and those empty walls are nothing but a brief memory. When I walk into the building, the art makes me feel good, just like Staenberg hoped.

“They say art is subjective, but I have always loved art in any medium. It evokes emotions in different people — whether it’s a memory or a feeling. And often, art serves as the first impression when you enter a building. My hope is that the art I choose to share brings joy or peace or, at the very least, makes people think.”