Ruth Direktor is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA).
Can you describe your Museum and its permanent collection?
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a museum of modern and contemporary art, the oldest art museum in Israel. It was founded in 1932, in the early days of Tel Aviv (which was founded in 1909), and its first premises was the private home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff. Dizengoff said every proper city should have a boulevard, a square and a museum. He was not an art expert, and had quite a naïf vision about the Tel Aviv Museum, but he was an art enthusiast and very devoted to the museum. He and his wife had no children and in his Will he wrote about the Museum as, “the child of my delight.” He asked Marc Chagall – the most famous Jewish artist of the time – to run the museum-to-be. Chagall could not accept the offer, but remained in close relationship with Dizengoff and donated the first painting for the Museum: “Jew with Torah”, from 1925. Until today it bears the registered number “1” in our collection. Later came more donations, mostly from Jewish collectors and Jewish artists. Gradually the Museum has built a comprehensive and a very impressive collection of modern art, which is on permanent display, alongside a smaller collection of old masters. The Museum acquires and receives donations of works of art by local artists, and today it has the largest collection of Israeli art.
What has happened to the Museum since Dizengoff died?
After Dizengoff died, in 1936, the building went through several phases of changes in order to adapt itself to the needs of a museum. But as the Museum kept on growing the house was unsuitable, and in 1959 it moved to another location, this time planned especially for a museum. In 1971 the development of the Museum, its collection and activities once again demanded a bigger space, and the Museum moved to its present location. In 2011 a new wing was added, so now the Museum actually has three architectural layers – each one is an iconic architectural example of its kind.
What kind of exhibitions do you organize and what kind of events?
With the recent enlargement of 2011 the Museum almost doubled its space. We have about 34 temporary exhibitions a year, alongside the permanent collections of Israeli and international art. There are several auditoriums in the Museum and they are at full capacity – lectures, conferences, concerts, film screening, dance performances and more. The Department of Education is very active so there is a dynamic program of activities for children, adults and families. The program of exhibitions is a mixture of Israeli and international art, modern and contemporary, in all mediums.
I can give you the example of a very unique exhibition that took place last year (2015) – a performative exhibition led by the Israeli performative group Public Movement. The starting point of the exhibition was the historical fact that the Declaration of the State of Israel took place in the main gallery in the Tel Aviv Museum (at Dizengoff’s home) on May 14, 1948. Public Movement’s aim was to show how a national identity is intertwined with artistic identity. Dressed in white uniforms, the members of Public Movement activated the exhibition at set hours. They were leading groups of 25 people throughout the museum, in a sort of a tour. One stop on the tour was a replica of the gallery that served as a set for the Declaration of the State, including the original paintings that were hung on the walls as silent witnesses to the historical moment. In the reconstructed gallery they staged a ceremony based on the event of the Declaration, but with a twist: the anthem they were singing was the anthem of Public Movement. The museum itself – with its history, architecture, and symbolic status – served as the raw materials with which Public Movement worked. They ran and jumped; they walked in formation and danced the hora (folk dance), declaimed together in a choir and kissed each other. Their vocabulary is based on stately aesthetics, on civil choreography and the eroticism projected by young people using their bodies. Their movements’ syntax draws from a world of military actions, youth movements, staged ceremonies and events that take place in a nationalistic-related public space: carrying a wounded person, drilling exercises and group athletics, folk dances and singing a national anthem. The 50-minutes tour they led, stirred confusion: Is this a ceremony? A parade? Who did the members of Public Movement represent? Were they being ironic? Was what they say true?
Some people from the audience felt the performance was very critical, others felt Public Movement was absorbed into the institution (be it national or artistic), and lost the critical element. I liked the ambivalence of the project, I liked the way it shook the Museum and made people think anew about the basic relationships between a museum, a work of art and the audience.
How many visitors do you have?
We have about 650,000 visitors per year. The number of visitors is usually considered a criterion of success. But, if I may come back to Public Movement, the number of visitors is not always what matters. Being a performative exhibition, with limited access to people, and with high expenses due to payment to performers, the exhibition lasted only six weeks, with 26 performances per week and 25 people in each performance. Yet, it was an outstanding project. Museums should also support projects that are bound to be exclusive.
Is contemporary art very much alive in Israel?
There is a very vivid art scene in Israel. There are several art schools, and most of them have a Master of Fine Arts program. There are private galleries in Tel Aviv, artist-run and non-profit spaces, and a very dynamic scene of exhibitions and art events. In the galleries and in the museums there are exhibitions of Israeli and international artists. It is quite common for young artists to go abroad for studies, or for residencies; some of them stay – mainly in Berlin, New York or London, some of them spend their time between Israel and other places. You can find Israeli artists in galleries, museums and group shows around the world.
Who are the major Israeli artists today?
The artists who are the most successful today are Michal Rovner, Yael Bartana, Sigalit Landau, Guy Ben Ner, Omer Fast, Mika Rutenberg, Keren Zitter, Ilit Azoulay, Nevet Itzhak, and others. It is not surprising that most of them are video artists or, at least, artists who work mainly with video. Unlike in the fields of painting and sculpture, where Israeli artists felt the disadvantage of being deprived of artistic tradition, it’s different when it comes to video. The lack of a long history of art, and the situation of being “orphans” and outside the great Family of Art, was not relevant anymore when it comes to new mediums like video or performance. Of course there are artists who are important in the local scene but not necessarily known outside. During its 100-and-so years of history, from the beginning of the 20th century, Israeli art has established its own myths, protagonists, narratives and inner conflicts.
The sense of isolation was very acute in the art scene until the 1970s. The feeling of being a periphery to the art world was always an issue in the discourse of Israeli art, and is still today, but in a different way: Are the terms “center” and “periphery” still relevant? How can the ex-peripheral art scene be a source of power and innovation?
By the way, I think it is not by accident that among the most successful Israeli artists today many are women. It is from the same reason video became so popular and effective: everything that was new in the art world, be it technical, conceptual, or socio-political, was absorbed more easily in an art scene that was quite new in itself.
Does the difficult political situation of your country have a great influence on its artists?
Indeed, the political situation is a main influence. It is present in the overt content of works of art, and also in covert ways. A very important Israeli artist, Moshe Gershuni, wrote in 1977, as part of an experimental work with students, in Jerusalem: “The problem of painting is the Palestinian problem.” Although it was written almost 50 years ago, it is still shocking and mind-boggling: Is the problem of art really the political conflict? And if so, what sort of art should be done here? In a way, this extreme statement hovers upon Israeli art. Artists can’t escape the political situation; they are even expected to be politically engaged, and at the same time they refrain from being political agents and producing what is expected of them.
Tel Aviv is mostly known for new start-ups and for being a very lively city for tourism and fun. Do you also have an interesting cultural life?
Well, it’s almost a cliché, but everyone who comes to Tel Aviv falls in love with the city… Part of its charm is the very vivid atmosphere that is felt all around, and it applies not only to night life, but also to the intense cultural activity. The term “creative class”, coined by Richard Florida, definitely describes a significant component of the Tel Aviv population well: young and creative people, in the fields of music, dance, theatre, writing, art. And yet it is a heterogenic city, like any big city in the world. Dance is a major field; there are excellent choreographers and dancers. Perhaps because Israel is quite a small country, artists tend to center in one place. And indeed, the majority of cultural activity is focused in Tel Aviv. There are so many cultural events throughout the year.
What relationships does your Museum have with other museums around the world?
Collaborating with other museums is deeply important to us. For example, last year there was a large-scale exhibition from our collection at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. At the moment we have a show at the Museum by Elmgreen & Dragset, the fantastic Scandinavian duo-artists. The show is part of a trilogy whose first stop was at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo and its second stop was at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. It was not the same show in each of the venues, but together the three museums published a two-volume catalogue. This is also the case with an exhibition of Fiona Tan, a well-known artist from the Netherlands, which will be opened in the beginning of 2017. It is a joint project with three other museums – The National Museum in Oslo, MUDAM in Luxembourg, and the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. Collaborations with other art institutions are part of a dialogue we wish to promote between Israeli and international art.
What do you think is happening today in the world of contemporary art?
An interesting phenomenon is the way performance is being absorbed into the mainstream: it is fascinating to think about the implications of a medium that only two decades ago was considered fringe entering the core of the artistic establishment. From a similar point of view I am interested in all sorts of margins of the art world, or what used to be margins: outsiders’ art, art from Africa. And at the same time, there is the disturbing issue of the dominance of the art market in the world of contemporary art.
Does the government support your museum?
Our Museum is a municipal museum, and our main support comes from the Municipality of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has been the center of culture in Israel since the 1920s. Most artists live and work here, and TAMA is very much identified with the city.
Ultimately how would you describe the city of Tel Aviv?
I was born in Tel Aviv, and lived here most of my life, so I am prejudiced… It is a lively and hectic city, not too big, it has a human scale. It is flat, and everything is within a walking distance, or a bicycle distance. It is not a beautiful city in the good-old-European-cities sense of the word; it is rather eclectic and chaotic in the Mediterranean way. And of course, there is the beach, spreading all along the city. It is going through a major process of gentrification, like many cities around the world, and everywhere you go you can see houses being renovated, re-built. In the center of the city there is a tension between the infrastructure of the 1930s and 1940s, which gave the city its uniqueness of “The White City”, thanks to the International style in architecture and the forces of capital. It affects the art scene as well: the galleries are moving to the south part of city, where the real estate is cheaper; artists are moving all the time in search of cheaper places.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.
In Conversation 2
This video shows a selection of works by Israeli and international artists, from the Museum collection and from private collections, in a visual and contextual conversation. The display includes, among others, gifts and new acquisitions of works by Mirosław Bałka, Keren Benbenisty, Matthew Day Jackson, Jim Dine, Michal Helfman, Alex Israel, Shai Kremer, Haim Steinbach, Aviram Valdman and Shay Zilberman.