Controversies Israel

Israeli artists join nationwide government protests

Demands for greater say in museum appointments and better financial support

Artists take over an abandoned building to use as studio and exhibition space, hanging a red poster that says: "This building is liberated". Police later evicted them (Photo: Merav Maroody)

JERUSALEM. Visual artists from across the country have joined hundreds of thousands of Israelis on the streets and on social media to protest against the current government's socio-economic policies.

In addition to supporting what they call "the people's revolution", the artists have also carved out their own niche via petitions, separate protests, squatting in abandoned buildings to encourage the creation of art and community centers, and presenting demands to municipal government and the ministry of culture.

The first major focus of their efforts has been the Tel Aviv Museum ( due to re-open in November with its re-designed building by US-based architect Preston Scott Cohen) which gets about 40% of its budget from the city and 10% from the culture ministry.

Yonatan Amir, editor-in-chief of the online art magazine Erev Rav, says public art institutions in Israel are run as if they were private, by collectors, donors and people with other economic interests. “Artists should be involved in decision-making because the public owns the museum and the museum should serve the public. If we can change things at the Tel Aviv Museum, we can change things at other institutions, too,” he says. “What we’re seeking isn’t to hang the rich men in the city’s square but to create regulations that would balance their personal interests with the public’s interests and needs.”

When Tel Aviv Museum director, Mordechai Omer, died of cancer in June, the city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, established a committee, consisting of lawyers, collectors and sponsors of art prizes, to search for a replacement. Infuriated artists staged a rowdy protest at the museum's front door and presented a petition signed by 500 prominent artists, museum curators, art historians and critics. The result was a meeting with the mayor, who eventually agreed to add an artist to the selection committee.

However artists are continuing to demand that the museum search committee be disbanded and a debate opened about the functions of public museums. Their demands include having transparent budgets and decision making processes, shorter terms for museum directors and curators, wider representation works by artists from minority communities, free entrance for the public on one day a week, better working conditions for museum workers, and fees for artists.

“They spent $50m on the building but there is not money to pay janitors or for catalogues of senior artists represented worldwide—this is a banana republic,” Amir says.

A source at Tel Aviv City Hall, who declined to be named, says that some of the demands are reasonable and would be considered favorably: “We will put artists on the board of the museum. But 500 people don’t decide how a museum is run; there is no museum in the world where artists choose the director.”

A spokesman for the minister of culture says: “We do give museums almost 40m new shekels ($10.8m) a year, but the museums manage the budgets without our involvement.”

Artists have also started taking over Tel Aviv’s many abandoned buildings, joining the sweeping social protest movement that is campaigning for more and cheaper housing. Most recently, a former girl’s school that has lain empty for 12 years was transformed into an artists’ and community centre; on the outside hung a huge banner reading “this building has been liberated”. However despite the protestors’ efforts to clean and use the building for studios and exhibition space, the police evicted them.

“The city of Tel Aviv helps us by [subsidising] studios in security shelters, but when there is a security situation, we have one hour to clear out; it is crazy,” says Tel Aviv-based artist Hadas Reshef. “Five years ago they went around… artists’ studios and destroyed any that had bathtubs or kitchens, to make sure artists weren’t living there. The law says artists pay less property tax but it defines artists as only painters or sculptors; if you are a photographer [or] work with a computer they say it is a place of business and not an art studio and [you] must pay business property tax. The municipality is not only not [actively] helping artists to survive but [actually] making it more difficult.”

The minster of culture's spokesman responds: “Life is hard for artists as it is for all citizens; we try to increase the budget [however] it is not easy… There are limited funds and security and economic considerations [come first].”

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Comments

5 Oct 11
15:4 CET

ANNABEL BEDINI, ROMA

I agree with this comment and ask, would Palestinian artists be among the 'artists from minorities' mentioned as deserving funding?

30 Sep 11
1:1 CET

SISSY ROSA, EDINBURGH

Good luck to them. Their actions would be more inspiring however, were they to take account of the hardships faced by Palestinian artists, due to the politics of the Israeli Occupation.

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