May 2009, ARTnews

Israel’s Museums: The Next Generation

Israel is boosting its cultural infrastructure by expanding arts institutions and planning new ones

When Marc Chagall came from Paris to Tel Aviv to help open the city’s first art museum in 1931, he compared art to a golden thread running through society’s fabric and stressed that if it were not woven in from the beginning, it could not be added later.

Even before the establishment of the Jewish state, in 1948, Zionist leaders took pains to foster the growth of museums and other cultural institutions. The first modern institution was the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Founded in Jerusalem in 1906, it was named after the biblical artisan Bezalel, who, according to the book of Exodus, constructed the Ark of the Covenant. In the early 1930s kibbutz museums began springing up in communal agricultural settlements, most notably the Ein Harod Museum, which was housed in a wooden hut until it moved in 1948 to a modernist structure designed by Samuel Bickels, whose sophisticated use of natural light influenced Renzo Piano’s design for the Menil Collection in Houston.

“Art was always here,” says video and installation artist Michal Rovner. “It’s totally necessary for the survival of this place.” Today there’s a new generation of museum projects, reflecting in part the wealth that has accumulated in some sectors of Israeli society as the economy, driven largely by high-tech industries, has boomed over the past decade. The cost of Israeli museum construction currently under way or planned to start soon will end up totaling half a billion dollars, a phenomenal figure for such a small nation, especially one with pressing budgetary demands for military defense and an annual state arts budget of merely $13.4 million. “Government support for culture is shrinking, but awareness and activity in the private sector is rising,” says Yoram Morad, Israel’s culture attaché in New York.

Despite the global economic downturn, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is expanding and refurbishing its premises; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is building a major addition; Bezalel is planning an architecturally distinctive new campus in the heart of Jerusalem; Ron Arad’s landmark project for the new Holon Design Museum is nearing completion just outside Tel Aviv; and plans are afoot to create the first museum of contemporary art in Israel’s Umm el-Fahem, a city with a mostly Arab population.

The endeavors represent a boost to the country’s cultural infrastructure, and they coincide with a huge wave of creativity by Israeli artists and designers who are increasingly gaining recognition at home and abroad. In New York alone some of the artists have included Sigalit Landau and Barry Frydlender, who exhibits at the Andrea Meislin Gallery; both have had shows at the Museum of Modern Art, and Yael Bartana had a solo exhibition of her videos at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.

In addition to these developments, the Israeli Supreme Court has given the go-ahead for the controversial construction of Frank Gehry’s titanium, glass, and stone design for a Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which is to be built atop a Muslim cemetery. Many smaller Israeli towns like Herzliya, Bat Yam, Ramat Gan, and Ashdod have also created new municipal art museums in recent years, and art schools across the country are flourishing.

“All these activities together mark a dramatic change,” says Michael Levin, an architectural historian at the Israel Institute of Technology. “There is so much more to see, and the existing buildings were outdated, so this is kind of natural,” says Rivka Saker, who heads Sotheby’s in Israel. But others in the Israeli art world view the developments more skeptically. Smadar Sheffi, art critic for Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz, wonders whether some of the new projects are “building for building’s sake, a phenomenon where the building is more important than what’s going to happen in it.” Art historian and curator Gideon Ofrat downplays the new museums’ ultimate impact and termed some of them “Herodian” in reference to the colossal schemes of King Herod, who built the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Construction work at the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Holon Design Museum is well under way, so these projects are unlikely to be affected by the economic downturn. However, several donors and fundraisers acknowledge off the record that financial problems could delay ground breaking for the Bezalel campus, the Umm el-Fahem museum, and the Museum of Tolerance.

The new wealth that has helped fuel this round of museum projects has also changed patterns of philanthropy. Previously, Israeli cultural institutions relied almost exclusively on Jewish donors from abroad; Baron Edmond de Rothschild was an early benefactor of the Israel Museum, and its archeology wing is named after Samuel Bronfman. Today Israeli museums can tap homegrown support as well. Among top backers of the latest incarnation of the Israel Museum are the Federmann family, which owns the Dan Hotel chain; high-tech venture capitalist Erel Margalit; and biomedical mogul Israel Yovel.

Far more prosperous and better traveled than in the initial period of their nation’s statehood, many Israelis today have higher expectations for all cultural institutions–the national theater, Habima, in Tel Aviv, is being totally rebuilt, and there are plans to refurbish the nearby Mann Auditorium, home to the Israel Philharmonic. There has also been significant growth in the number of major private collections of contemporary art. “We have wonderful collectors, which we didn’t have ten or twenty years ago,” says Tel Aviv Museum of Art director Mordechai Omer.

Since many of these collectors serve on the Tel Aviv museum’s board–including diamond distributor Beny Steinmetz, entrepreneur Doron Sebbag, communications specialist Ran Rahav, and attorney Hanina Brandes’ some of their holdings may well end up inside the addition, which features a curved façade of cast- concrete panels designed by Preston Scott Cohen, chair of the Harvard architecture department. The city of Tel Aviv will pay $18 million of the new wing’s $50 million price tag. In 2006 board members rejected a plan to name it after shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, prompting Ofer to withdraw a $20 million donation that was contingent on the building bearing his and his wife’s names.

The five-story building will double the existing exhibition space, which is now housed in a Brutalist concrete complex that opened in 1971. The new building will feature the country’s first permanent display devoted to the historical development of Israeli art from the creation of Bezalel a century ago through the present day.

Bezalel’s own museum and art collection were incorporated into the Israel Museum, a Modernist complex dedicated in 1965. A New York-based firm, James Carpenter Design Associates, is working with Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Israel to expand and renovate the Israel Museum-s array of low-rise structures nestled on the Judean Hills near the national parliament building. The renovation project aims to provide a clearer and more accessible path into and through the hilltop museum.

“We believe in the original architecture,” says museum director James Snyder, who adds that exhibition spaces and encyclopedic collections will be rearranged and circulation throughout the complex reworked. Snyder, who was formerly deputy director of MoMA and who has headed the Israel Museum since 1996, points out that the country’s cultural life matured greatly over the first 60 years of Israeli history and reached a point that was “stimulating institutions to think about development and redevelopment.”

Rather than make a new architectural statement–the museum had earlier adopted a more monumental addition by James Ingo Freed but then discarded it in favor of the Carpenter plan–the renovation pays homage to the original design by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad. The 20-acre Israel Museum campus also includes the recently restored Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a sprawling outdoor sculpture garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi, which contains works by Noguchi, Rodin, Moore, Picasso, and Maillol. Both the revitalized Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv addition will open next year.

Although the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art have design departments, design has not been central to their mission, as it will be at the Holon Design Museum, for which the Israeli-born, London-based Arad has created a building encased in five undulating ribbons of Corten steel. The curvilinear museum, due to be completed this month, is just south of Tel Aviv. It is the first freestanding public structure by Arad, best known for his inventive furniture designs that fetch record auction prices.

The first show inside Arad’s new rust-colored sculptural form will be an international design triennial, curated by Barbara Bloemink, former curatorial director of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York. The museum will have a global perspective on top of its focus on the vibrant world of Israeli industrial, product, fashion, and graphic design. “We are looking at design from every part of the world,” Bloemink says.

In Umm el-Fahem, Amnon Bar Or Architects of Tel Aviv has designed a museum set in the dry, rugged landscape, its façade clad in a series of concrete lattices derived from Islamic architecture. The lattices will be composed of Arabic letters, providing both shade and transparency for the building in Israel’s largest Arab town. Leading the drive to create the museum is Said Abu Shakra, an Israeli Arab who has operated a noncommercial exhibition space in Umm el-Fahm for the past decade, providing art-education programs for the town’s children and organizing art shows aimed at attracting both Jews and Arabs. In recent years, many of the curators have been Israeli Jews, but four Israeli Arabs are completing a curatorial studies program at Tel Aviv University to help staff the new museum. “It’s wonderful that they’re studying to be curators,” says Omer, who runs the curatorial program.

At Bezalel in Jerusalem–considered the best of the four main art academies in Israel– some 2,000 students are currently studying art, architecture, industrial design, fashion, and film. “We’re bursting,” says Bezalel director of development David Bernstein. “We’re turning away six out of every seven applicants for our departments.” To accommodate more students in a central location, Bezalel plans to move downtown, near Jerusalem’s Old City, where a team of Istanbul- and Cologne-based Turkish designers, known as STUDYO, has drawn up plans for a campus just behind the city hall.

The academy had moved from its historic base in central Jerusalem to Mount Scopus some 25 years ago, and its return to the country’s core will help rejuvenate a decaying urban area and inject a dose of secular creativity into a place where religious orthodoxy has become dominant. The STUDYO team won a 2007 international competition for its Modernist scheme to accommodate 3,000 students inside cubic forms clad in typical Jerusalem stone and arrayed around a central plaza and sunken courtyards.

Bezalel’s selection of a non-Israeli architectural team to design its new campus reflects a more open attitude for an academy founded by Zionists and intent on imbuing art and culture with a biblical vision. “As for national Jewish-Zionist art, the generation of MTV, CNN, and the Internet–not to mention “post-Zionism–will have none of that,” says Ofrat.

Ofrat and many other Israelis remain opposed to the Gehry project proposed for the Museum of Tolerance. The $250 million structure is to be located on land that partially covers an ancient Muslim cemetery. Jerusalem’s former deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti has denounced the project as being “so hallucinatory, so irrelevant, so foreign, so megalomaniac.”

The complex will contain what the center’s Web site calls “two multimedia experiential museums, one for adults and another for children, addressing the themes of tolerance and social responsibility,” as well as a conference hall and a theater. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, defends the use of the graveyard, pointing out that had been covered over by a parking lot half a century ago. But this has done little to assuage opponents. “We don’t need a tolerance museum in Jerusalem,” says Haaretz art critic Sheffi, “on that site of all places.”

Despite such controversies, culture seems to play a more crucial role than ever in Israel today. Galia Bar-Or, director of the pioneering Ein Harod museum, perceives a burgeoning interest among the general public. “I’ve never seen such large audiences of people coming to the museum,” she says of the response to a recent show devoted to art from the decade after Israeli independence. “It isn’t just nostalgia. People are coming to understand through art, emotions, and conflicts, changing values, and collective identity.”

“The museum has become a forum,” Bar-Or explains. “We don’t have so many places like that. These people are usually not visiting synagogues. They go to malls and that’s it. The museum has become a place where you meet, where you discuss the things that people would like to deal with.”