FROM ACROPOLIS TO AGORA. Tania Coen-Uzzielli is Director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA).  She was previously Head of Curatorial Services at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem where she curated exhibitions on Jewish art and the “Synagogue Route” exhibition, one of the highlights of the renovated galleries of the Israel Museum inaugurated in 2010.  In 2015 she curated the exhibition “A Brief History of Humankind” which later travelled to the Bonn Bundeskunsthalle.  In 2018 she was co-curator of the Israeli Pavilion at the 16th International Venice Biennale for Architecture.

What is the “Synagogue Route” exhibition?

This was a part of the bigger renovation that the Israel Museum in Jerusalem underwent before it was reopened in 2010.  I was in charge as a curator of the creation of the “Synagogue Route”.  There are four synagogues from three different continents, from Europe from Asia and from the Americas, and the creation of this path enables the visitor to understand better the culture and dialogue that the Jewish community is doing with the surrounding culture.

Do visitors walking through the “Synagogue Route” have a journey through a variety of traditions and influences?

Yes.  The Jewish community is in a continuous struggle to maintain its own identity and on the other side are absorbing elements, the style, the way of thinking, and the culture of the surrounding place where the community itself is living.  This is very evident and very well defined in the architecture and in the style of each synagogue.

How was working at the Israel Museum?

In the last seven years at the Israel Museum I had the chance to work side by side with the general director James Snyder, and I was in charge of their exhibition programs and collateral affairs in general.  I had the opportunity to learn and to understand that a museum is a big platform for a vast cultural experience which starts much before the visitor arrives at the museum.

How come you recently became General Director of TAMA, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art?

I was approached by one of the members of the board of directors of the Tel Aviv Museum.  Probably they knew me and my experience in managing people and knowing museology.  On the personal level I felt that this could be an opportunity for me, to look at a different museum in the state of Israel and to understand better its function, its potential, and its definition as a cultural institution.

“Last year the Tel Aviv Museum reached the unprecedented number of 1 million visitors.”

Exterior of the Herta and Paul Amir Building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Photograph © Amit Geron/Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

What kind of museums are these two?

When I speak about these two museums, the Israel museum in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv art museum in Tel Aviv, I like to use the Greek polis as a metaphor.  In the Greek polis you have two important centres: the acropolis, the religious centre, and the agora, where public life is taking place.  You have to go up to the acropolis, and as you go up you are freed of mundane sentiment and thinking and secular attitudes.  Physically you are going up, and in a way this is how the Israel Museum is  functioning.  You have there the most ancient evidence of the Bible for example, the archaeology of the Holy Land, Jewish art and life, so everything is a little bit holy and sacred.  Instead the agora is the place where there is the market, where there is theatre, music, the library.  It is the place where the public is coming, it’s busy and the people are vibrant, and everything is happening there.  It is a vital place, and this is what the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is about for me.

Why do you say this?

Because the location is on the road near the opera house, near the theatre, near the library, near the law courts, and not far away from the market and shopping centres.  So it is a crucial focus of the city of Tel Aviv, and as such is really functioning as an agora, a vital place like it was in the ancient city.

What kind of museum is TAMA?

A very ancient one.  People don’t know that it was founded in 1932 as an initiative of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of the city.  This man didn’t know anything about art, but he understood the important value of having a museum of art in the new city.  In 1948 the declaration of the State of Israel actually took place in the new founded museum.

How was the collection made?

During the years from the 1930s until the 1950s the main collection of modern art was put together from donations from Jews around the world who understood the importance of having a museum of art in the new state.

What kind of art?

Modern art at the beginning, and today the museum has an important and valuable collection of modern art. With the coming years we became the house of Israeli art.

Can you give me some names?

From Chagall to the impressionists like Monet, Pissarro, Manet, through van Gogh, Cezanne, and a good collection of German expressionism.  The museum was fortunate that Peggy Guggenheim donated a group of works like Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock and Rene Magritte.  Besides these international artists TAMA continues to collect and be active in the Israeli art scene, showing in a permanent and historical exhibition the important phases of Israeli art which are intertwined with the story of the State of Israel and are the testimony of the political tensions, wars, and social affairs.

“Spirituality in art is a theme that is very relevant and actual today.”

What is your ambition since you started here in January?

More than ambition I have several challenges, and the main one is to be relevant to different publics as an art institution.  The first public is the art connoisseurs, artists, collectors, but not less to the general public like family, students, soldiers, teenagers.  How we can be relevant to so many different people can be accomplished through the creation of a rich mix of programs which address different parts of the population.

How many visitors do you have?

Last year the Tel Aviv Museum reached the unprecedented number of 1 million visitors.  Very few were tourists, less than 15 percent, but this is an important target that I don’t want to go below.  This museum functions not only as an art museum, but as a cultural institution where theatre, movies and music programs occur every day.

Who finances the museum?

The museum budget is divided in three.  One third is financed by the municipality, one third is income from ticket and other activities, and one third is fundraising and monetary donation.  We have the donation of collections but we need monetary largesse as well in order to survive and to maintain our program.  Sometimes we need to create new projects, as for example there was the need to renovate a pavilion, which is today open, for Israeli and international contemporary art.  In this we have been supported by Eyal Ofer, who gave the sum of five million dollars.  Eyal is a famous collector of modern and contemporary art and we are happy to have him on board.

Do you make many new acquisitions?

We are active only in making acquisitions of Israeli art, and very few in contemporary, because of lack of funds.  Of course modern art is prohibitive for us, but we are happy to receive gifts or long term loans.

What events are happening here this year?

This summer we will open an exhibition on spirituality in art, which is a group exhibition of different artists active from the 20th century as well as the 21st century and presents the fact that spirituality in art is a theme that is very relevant and actual today.

And after that?

In the next year we have international artists like Annette Messager, which is contemporary, and an exhibition of Alexander Calder that is more modern art.  Collaboration with sister institutions around the world is very important for us, and we are now in dialogue with the Hermitage Museum on exchanging exhibitions.

The sculpture garden at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Photograph by Elad Sarig.

Interior of the Tel Aviv Musuem of Art and the Mizne-Blumental Collection. Photograph by Elad Sarig.

Interior of the Tel Aviv Musuem of Art and the Mizne-Blumental Collection. Photograph by Elad Sarig.

Interior of the Tel Aviv Musuem of Art and the Mizne-Blumental Collection. Photograph by Elad Sarig.

The sculpture garden at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Photograph by Elad Sarig.

Exterior of the Herta and Paul Amir Building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA). Photograph © Amit Geron/Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

“I hope that some of the Tel Aviv cultural messages could go through all the country.”

Are young Israelis very much interested in art?

It is difficult for me to address young Israelis as a general group, but I must say that I don’t see enough young adults coming to the museum. On the other side there are many very active schools of art in Israel, and those students are often coming to our museum.

What kind of city is Tel Aviv in the cultural sense?

Tel Aviv is today, more than Jerusalem, the capital of the culture in Israel.  In the visual arts there are many galleries and studios of artists, and there are experimental initiatives which are an opportunity for local and international artist to come and to be exposed to a dialogue.  Regarding dance, performing arts, and music, Tel Aviv city is a platform where these arts are very rich and active.

Do you feel there is an instability in Israel?

There is an instability which is expressed in the political and social situation of the country.  But as we know instability sometimes is a driver to the arts and is a kind of a fertile field for the arts to develop.

Is Tel Aviv growing?

It is considered a bubble, and it is a small bubble.  The cultural elite lives here, and I do hope that some of the Tel Aviv messages could go through all the country.

You live in Jerusalem and work in Tel Aviv.  Where is your heart?

Can we divide the heart? I am a little bit split.


Tel Aviv, June 2019

All images are by kind permission of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.