Contemporary Havens

The eras covered in Israeli museums are largely analogous with Zionism’s image of Jewish history: roughly speaking, there is a distant, mythological past that ended some 2,000 years ago, a 100 year old present, and a big, Diasporic divide in between. Ethnography, archeology and history museums (along with science museums) make up a large part of the country’s listed museums. Art museums are a feature of the bigger cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa – and save a few examples, elsewhere they are annexed to cultural centers or to preexisting museums.

In recent years, a new breed of art institutions has sprouted in cities in the Tel Aviv periphery. Modeled on the German Kunsthalle template, these institutions focus on temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, both local and foreign, and pride themselves on their theory-oriented curatorial work. The three examples I wish to discuss here are the Museums of Herzliya, Petach Tikva and Bat Yam. They share similar itineraries, wherein an existing, outdated municipal institution was remolded according to contemporary art-exhibiting agendas and discourse.

It should be pointed out that these transformations, beginning in the mid-nineties with the Herzliya Museum under the direction of Dalia Levin, do not in themselves mark the awakening of contemporary art sensibilities in Israel. Such vanguard sensibilities did exist earlier, sometimes even in the institutionalized art museums. The novelty that the current phenomenon represents has more to do with the peripheral context, in other words, with the fact that the Israeli ‘Kunsthallen’ operate under the auspices of their local municipality, rather than that of a national body. This is important in two ways: first, while affecting a considerable expansion of exhibition spaces for the Israeli art scene, these institutions also work to expose new crowds to it, such that hitherto were denied it; second, their step has thrown a challenge to the more established museums – namely those in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – that seem to be losing beat.[1]

In the absence of a national network of regional contemporary art centers[2] (like France’s FRAC for example) the interesting question to ask would be: how do you convince an average mayor of an average-sized city in Israel to commit to the yearly budget of a contemporary art center? In other words, how did contemporary art that potentially carries controversial messages (and that its very existence is, at times, controversial), become a welcome figure outside savvy downtown Tel Aviv? The answer is complex. To be sure, in each of the examples listed above, it is a matter of personal efforts and achievements on the part these institutions’ directors – all of them women, who are also the chief curators. But treated as a whole, the welcoming of contemporary art into peripheral cities indicates a process of learning on the part of city officials, for whom the cachet of contemporary art now translates as urban renewal. More interestingly, the efforts of both art professionals and city administrations ultimately converge in giving contemporary art a renewed image – one adapted, as it were, for the needs of the periphery, and in which (naturally) ‘periphery’, ‘openness’, ‘community’ ‘participation’ and sometimes ‘interactivity’ are key words. And while each of our ‘kunsthallen’ tries to maintain and promote its own uniqueness and identity, it is fair to say that the specific type of cohabitation they achieved will have a bearing on future attempts at introducing contemporary art centers to other cities in Israel.

But beginnings were not so smooth. Those who follow the course of contemporary art in Israel in the past two decades will have remembered the overwhelming effect of the transformation of the Herzliya Museum around 2000, which paved the way to the similar structural changes in the museums of Petach Tikva and Bat Yam. This success story was probably enough to overshadow the resounding failure, several years before and now nearly forgotten, in realizing the radical plans devised for the Ramat Gan Museum in 1995 by Ariela Azoulay, then its newly appointed chief curator. Azoulay, a noted theorist and political thinker rooted in post-structuralist thought, came up with cutting edge programs for what was to become the antithesis to a museum – an open-ended laboratory for digitally produced and continually changing images. Unfortunately, Azoulay was hastily fired by a museum board acting on behalf of the mayor, in an action reeking of official misconduct. It is unclear whether the radicalism of Azoulay’s plans (from both the political and aesthetic viewpoints) specifically triggered her layoff, since both her predecessors were just as hurriedly fired. However, putting wrongful intervention aside (which was obviously the case) the Ramat Gan example can also be interpreted as a case of too much happening too soon.

It took some seven years for Dalia Levin, who was appointed in 1993, to complete the transformation of the Herzliya Museum from a dormant and dusty spot to a must-see venue. Two main obstacles had to be faced (outside the perennial budget issue): what the municipality had in mind was a showcase for local Herzliyan artists, or otherwise for impressionist collections (or rather ersatz-impressionist), and secondly, what comprises the Herzliya museum is also a Beit Yad Labanim – a memorial site for Israeli soldiers, the kind of which can be found in many an Israeli city.[3] Luckily, Levin was backed by two consecutive mayors in her plans to build a new wing (which sent the museum entrance as far away as possible from the Beit Yad Labanim entrance). If prior to its reopening in 2000 the museum was noted mainly for its outstanding video program – then curated by Moshe Ninio, who brought in works by the likes of Johan Grimonprez and Stan Douglas fresh from Documentas and biennials – then later, while still bent on video projections and projects by young artists, it gradually acquired the respectability associated with more established museums.

No doubt, the positive outcome in well-to-do Herzliya served to inspire a comparable, if more modest, makeover in Petach Tikva – an Israeli town as average as it gets in terms of image and income[4]. Drorit Gur Arie, who was brought in to run the Petach Tikva Art Museum in 2000, initiated the necessary refurbishments for a program of contemporary art exhibitions, which tends to become more ambitious over the years. As in Hezliya, here too the museum is dogged by a Beit Yad Labanim, as well as a historical display. It seems to me that Gur Arie’s strategy for dealing with such high doses of Zionism is a wholehearted embrace of tasteful bourgeois aesthetics, adorned with plenty of post-modern lingo. Some of the highlights since the museum’s re-inauguration in 2004 include the dramatic one man show of Israeli video artist Joseph Dadoune and survey exhibitions on such themes as perceptions of space and politico-theoretical formulations of blindness.

While talking to the various curators about their work in their respective museums, nowhere have I heard the word ‘periphery’ uttered more often than when talking with Milana Gitzin-Adiram, director and chief curator at the Bat Yam Museum – the latest addition to the list of museal no man’s land cum hip contemporary art center. Bat Yam is a pleasant seaside borough with a large population of Soviet Union origin, a city that until recently had not the best of images – and this is perhaps why Gitzin-Adiram feels she cannot stress the issue of peripherality enough. The idea of hospitality, that characterizes a certain tendency in contemporary art, is also brought in, yet here it alludes to the need to approach crowds that are not the habitual museum goers. Still, as it is part of a more comprehensive program aiming to improve the city’s image and attract cultural tourism, the recent rejuvenation of the Bat Yam Museum also targets the hip Tel Avivi crowd. Thus metaphors of Hosting – the title of one of the museum’s shows – are blended with expressions derived from the eternally hip Warhol, like Factory – the title of another.

After years of neglect and disregard, or worse – after being mistaken for means of adornment or entertainment – it appears that contemporary art has finally lodged itself safely outside the usual bastions. Furthermore, with nascent biennials in Herzliya and Bat Yam – for contemporary art and landscape urbanism respectively – at times it may seem as though mayors compete each other over who will promote contemporary culture more. Not many years ago, the combination of ‘Bat Yam’ and ‘Biennial’ would have sounded like an aberration. Nowadays, we may permit ourselves to think that the presence of potentially cutting edge culture in cities around Israel will no longer depend on sheer hospitality.

The essay was written for the first issue of Programma Magazine.

Special thanks to Keren Tova R.

[1] Both the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum (in Jerusalem) (opened in 1932 and 1965 respectively, the former in its current location since 1971), are now undergoing extensive expansion and renovation. A new wing is being added to the Tel Aviv Museum, which will double in space, and the Israel Museum is being completely overhauled. These multi-million projects are perceived, if only somewhat, as a response to the critics voiced at them for becoming ‘fossilized’ institutions.

[2] The Plastic Arts Department in Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport is handing out prizes to artists and giving localized support to specific projects and venues throughout the country, but is not involved in developing and establishing art institutions. However, institutions that meet certain criteria are partially funded by the ministry, as is the case for some of the museums I am discussing here.

[3] The hybrid of art museum/library/community center and a Beit Yad Labanim is common in Israel, indicating that the former is sometimes not pretext enough for erecting a public building, while the latter is.

[4] However, Petach Tikva boasts a very long history in Israeli standards. It was founded in 1878.

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