The censorship by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art indicates a right-wing deviation in cultural politics, and Prof. Omer’s very efforts to avoid being identified as political at all place him with the cultural right-wing. A few notes on the Tel Aviv Museum of A
Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian Bedouin photographic artist and citizen of Israel, was awarded the 2002 Gottesdiener Prize by the Tel Aviv Museum. The annual prize includes $10,000 and a solo show at the museum. Dr. Ulrich Loock, an internationally recognized German curator and a longstanding member of the board, curated the exhibition and wrote an essay of which only part was published in the catalogue of the show. Under the title, Arab al-N’aim, An Unrecognized Village, Shibli presented documentation of daily life in this unrecognized Bedouin village. Professor Mordechai Omer, director and chief curator of the museum, disagreed with some of the phrasing in the essay and edited out a section dealing with the history and the present circumstances under which the Bedouin live in the Negev. Dr. Loock responded by resigning from the committee. The disagreement centered on two pivotal points: the phrase “with the occupation of the Negev…” and the word “poisoned” used in describing the circumstances of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev as “a place where the Jewish state’s laws forbid the construction of permanent structures, where houses are demolished, fields are poisoned and families evicted according to Israeli property law, where inhabitants have no access to electricity, running water, medical treatment, sanitation services, or higher education.” The censored section of the article included other things as well, including a 1963 quotation from Haaretz newspaper in which Moshe Dayan explains how, within two generations, the Bedouin could be turned into urban workers. Dr. Loock tried to rephrase the principal contested words, “occupation” and “poisoning,” but to no avail. He claims that the museum’s resistance to compromise revealed their disinterest in issues pertaining to art, history and politics and that this attitude would lead to future censorship. He thus could not partake in the affair (not even in awarding the prize, according to Dana Gilerman of Haaretz newspaper).
Ahlam Shibli Unrecognized 2002
The article took many turns before it could be published in its full original form (read here), but, as Dr. Loock believed, its censorship in the Ahlam Shibli’s exhibition catalogue was the first of other similar events that have transpired at the Tel Aviv Museum. On August 29th, 2003, Haaretz newspaper reported that the Tel Aviv Museum barred from David Wakstein’s exhibition nine drawings based on anti-Semitic caricatures (Gilerman 8.29.2003). Within a few days an article appeared in the literature section of Haaretz newspaper by the writer, Haim Be’er, and the historian, Mordechai Naor, in which they harshly criticized the appalling lack of historical details in Yitzchak Susskin’s exhibition catalogue, and called for its boycott until it is re-edited (Be’er, Naor 9.3.2006).
In addition to his singularity, Prof. Omer is endowed with responsibility and generosity: “In Israel there is no relevant standard, nobody that can test Moti Omer. Moti Omer must face an international standard, international criticism… I’m not trying to control… this isn’t a power struggle… it’s much more: it’s existentialism… it’s beyond knowledge… it’s what burns in the bones.”
These two incidents, of censorship and professional negligence, shed some light on the curatorial policy of the Tel Aviv Museum. One would assume that what reaches the press is just the tip of the iceberg with respect to how public institutions are managed. The museum, it is hoped, does not want to publicize its episodes of censorship or negligence, and so what eventually becomes public knowledge should serve as a stern warning and testimony of the cultural decline in which museums are enmeshed.
Since his appointment as director and chief curator of the museum in September 1994 (Sheffi 10.18.1994), Prof. Mordechai Omer has granted a number of press interviews. From Prof. Omer’s views on himself, the art community, the audience, and curating, one can glean a number of basic principles. Prof. Omer sees himself as a unique phenomenon in the local art world; no one else could replace him. In addition to his singularity, Prof. Omer is endowed with responsibility and generosity: “In Israel there is no relevant standard, nobody that can test Moti Omer. Moti Omer must face an international standard, international criticism… I’m not trying to control… this isn’t a power struggle… it’s much more: it’s existentialism… it’s beyond knowledge… it’s what burns in the bones. I don’t think of myself as a genius. I think I’m committed… it’s a need to serve that is even greater than my will.” (Kazin 3.28.1997) As for the collectors, Omer has stated: “To my mind, they have a vested interest which is a good thing… I wish there were ten Yossi Hachamis… that’s what makes the market.” He is equally unabashed with regards to his experience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “I worked for three years at the MoMA… To work there is to work for the most important museum in the world”.
Prof. Omer draws a particular picture. In addition to his singularity and generosity stand the collectors and the MoMA. Indeed, it is this trinity that can shed light on the complex process of dependency with which the museum, capital and power are bound to censorship and incompetence.
Prof. Omer’s enthrallment with MoMA influences his approach to managing the Tel Aviv Museum (Karpel 10.14.1994). However, MoMA is not always praised. Its curatorial policy has been criticized over the years, exposing how the cultural “map” is being drawn. The criticism is divided into two approaches: one is rooted in historical art research and views art as inherently autonomous and apolitical. The other is rooted in cultural critique and views art as inseparable from dominant power and cultural processes (Owens 1992, 88).
Prof. Omer with the collector and CEO of a human resources company, Doron Sabag. Detail from a work in the Doron exhibition by Noa Yaari (to view the full work click here)
The distinction between the two approaches is important for understanding MoMA’s (founded in 1929) approach to modern art, an approach outlined by Alfred Barr, its first director (Barr at Sandler 1986, 7). In 1927 Barr traveled to the USSR to learn about Soviet avant-garde art after the Bolshevik revolution. Rodchenko, Lissitzky and other artists at that time tested new ideas that were stemming from the processes of dismantling the object and abstraction, which were then permeating modern art. Barr discovered a thriving art scene comprised of artists and writers with a developed awareness of the social significance of new aesthetics that utilizes photography, sculpture and print media as means of expression and distribution. These methods completely changed traditional painting and sculpture and formulated alternative avenues for the artwork and the museum. The disintegration of the art object and public exhibition that Barr witnessed did not conform to the idea of a sanctioned museum. Despite the call for mass appeal inherent in the avant-garde art to which Barr was exposed, he chose to continue with a plan to build a modern art museum based on a Western museological model. This step, according to Benjamin Buchloh, postponed the arrival of avant-garde ideas in the United States and Western Europe until the late 1960s (Buchloh at Michelson 1987, 78).
The altered place of the art object and the social implications of modern abstraction were fundamentally expressive of a very decisive period. The few years between WWI and Stalin’s rise to power in Russia and the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany boldly illustrated the deep structural change from a formerly aristocratic society to one of industrialized democracy. The artistic experimentation that occurred between the two world wars holds a crucial position in defining the pendulum’s swing between authoritarian prevalence to significant social concepts within democracy.
During the 1940s and 1950s the American government, the media, the art world and the public attacked modern art. Some accused it of being Communist propaganda. On an undated piece of paper Barr noted derogatory terms for modern art: foreign, childish, Jewish, Communist, homosexual, commercial, crazy.
During this time of upheaval, Marcel Duchamp left France for New York in 1915 as a WWI refugee. Within his artistic practice he used found objects, known as “Readymades,” as a game for understanding the object within a new cultural field. In 1917 Duchamp chose a found object, a urinal, which he purchased from Mott Ceramics Company, as an object with which to test the status of the art object and its presentation. Duchamp joined the New York Society of Independent Artists and was a member of its board of directors and the exhibitions committee. The society organized annual shows intent on exhibiting the state of contemporary American art directly to the public without any curatorial intervention. The only condition for joining the society was a registration fee of $6. The society’s goals were to develop standards for democratic exhibition and its phrasing and advertised terms were in accordance with these values. Duchamp christened the urinal he purchased “Fountain,” signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and sent it to be exhibited. “Mott was too close [to the company name],” explained Duchamp. “I changed it to ‘Mutt’ after the ‘Mutt and Jeff’ comics that were published at the time… and added Richard (French slang for moneybags)… the opposite of poverty. And not even that, R. Mutt.” When a debate arouse among the board over the artistic validity of the urinal and they refused to exhibit it, Duchamp rejected the censorship, which negated the principles expressed in the exhibition mandate, and resigned from the board of directors (Camfield at Thierry De Dauve, 1992, 137).
Duchamp understood the intricate relativity of progressive definitions of art. The artist, Ferdinand Leger, describes a tour he took with Duchamp and with the sculptor, Brancusi, at an aviation fair in 1912. After a few moments of silence, Duchamp suddenly said to Brancusi, “painting is over. Who can make something better than this propeller?” In an interview with Katherine Kuh, he claimed, “even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades. So man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from readymade things like even his own mother and father.” And, indeed, even Duchamp’s unique understanding is arguably subject to the cultural map’s pendulum: “When I discovered the readymades,” explains Duchamp, “I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Data [late 1950s and early 1960s] they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty” (Camfield at Thierry De Duve, 1992, 164-166).
In 1936, when Alfred Barr curated Cubism and Abstract Art, the formalist ideas of abstraction were presented without the significant social concepts expressed by the Russian avant-garde and intended by Duchamp’s ready-mades. This approach emphasized that the modern avant-garde completely changed the conditions of production and dissemination of art, inherited from the bourgeois worldview and its institutions (Buchloh at Michelson 1987, 77). (Criticism during the 1970s and 1980s against Barr’s position was not just a result of temporal distance. For example, Douglas Crimp claims that Barr prevented American artists and the public from understanding the full significance of the ideas behind the modern avant-garde (Crimp at Michelson, 1987). Such critiques stemmed from developments in contemporary art that will be discussed below.)
Cover exhibition catalogue of Cubism and Abstract Art curated by Alfred Barr in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In 1957 Meyer Schaprio wrote an article in which he advises artists to stay out of public affairs in order to best serve American culture. “The artist,” Schapiro writes, “must develop the personal as the safe harbor in the violent and unstable reality of today… [P]ainting, which is an impressive example of personal freedom, imagination and precision of expression in artistic thought... helps maintain the critical and idealist spirit of creativity, sincerity and independence that are so vital to our cultural life.”
Meyer Schapiro, an art historian from Columbia University, who was Prof. Omer’s teacher in the 1960s and who recommended him to the MoMA (Karpel 10.14.1994), criticized Barr’s position in a 1937 article, The Nature of Abstract Art. He countered the view of abstract art as free of historical or social conditions and as expressing a basic natural order through a purely visual language, devoid of content (Sandler at Barr, 1986, 23). He nonetheless assumed that “artists who are concerned with the world around them in its action and conflict, who ask the same questions that are asked by the impoverished masses and oppressed minorities – these artists cannot permanently devote themselves to a painting committed to the aesthetic moments of life, to spectacles designed for passive, detached individuals, or to an art of the studio” (Sandler at Barr, 1986, 24).
Barr preferred to emphasize the work as an object, and its influence by art history and formalism. Schapiro thus saw Barr as a formalist. However, during the 1930s Barr could not ignore the harsh political reality and its influence on free artistic expression. The attitude of Stalinists, Nazis, and Fascists towards the new art and their capitalist democracy dissenters in America forced Barr to act against any form of censorship that enforced any sort of bureaucracy. Amongst those resistant to abstract art in America were Communists who saw abstract art as bourgeois, atrophied, and an ivory tower of escapism. These accusations, because of the harsh conditions created by the 1930s economic depression, were upheld by intellectuals, and anti-Stalinist Marxists joined in the criticism. Barr’s political competition did not end in the 1930s. Resistance to the new art appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, especially during the Cold War, by various parties of the government, the media, the art world and the American public. President Truman, Congressman Dondero and Hearst Newspapers accused modern art of being Communist propaganda (Sandler at Barr 1986, 24-37). On an undated piece of paper Barr noted derogatory terms for modern art: foreign, childish, Jewish, Communist, homosexual, commercial, crazy.
Barr’s main political response was a harsh struggle against censorship and the protection of freedom of expression. In 1956 Barr was a member of the United States Information Agency. The USIA organized a traveling exhibition entitled 100 American Artists of the Twentieth Century. Some of the USIA’s administrators requested the removal of ten artworks that were politically unacceptable. Barr and all 42 trustees objected and the exhibition was canceled. Barr was not content with that. He sent various art organizations a letter in which he called them to protect the freedom of expression against “the Communists and fanatical pressure groups working under the banner of anti-Communist.” (Sandler at Barr, 1986, 37). The anti-modernist pressure was so strong that in 1957 Meyer Schaprio wrote an article in which he advises artists to stay out of public affairs in order to best serve American culture. “The artist,” Schapiro writes, “must develop the personal as the safe harbor in the violent and unstable reality of today… [P]ainting, which is an impressive example of personal freedom, imagination and precision of expression in artistic thought...helps maintain the critical and idealist spirit of creativity, sincerity and independence that are so vital to our cultural life” (Meyer Schapiro, 1952, 42).
Throughout the first half of the 20th century tensions regarding the artist’s place within society ran high. In March 1936, long before Shapiro advised the artist to remain private, Theodore Adorno wrote to Walter Benjamin that his essays (The Author as Producer (1934) and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) among others) expressed optimism with regard to the revolutionary potential of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. It appears that during the 1930s artists such as Lissitzky and Rodchenko were serving Stalinist propaganda (Buchloh at Michelson, 1987, 103). In his letter, Adorno sketches a political picture that can pertain to today’s cultural reality: "Both the dialectic of the highest and the lowest [modernism and mass-culture] bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change….Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up. It would be romantic to sacrifice one to the other, either as the bourgeois romanticism of the conservation of personality and all that stuff, or as the anarchistic romanticism of blind confidence in the spontaneous power of the proletariat in the historical process – a proletariat which is itself a product of bourgeois society." (Adorno, at Bloch 1977, 120ff).
The art object and the artist’s positions, which rose to prominence again during the early 1980s with the return to painting, contradicted the growing criticism of conceptual art against the art institution and modernism as a whole. The return to painting, Crimp adds, was supported by various conservative trends: museums, cultural administrators, the art market and corporate boards that sought new “geniuses” for newly prosperous collectors needing art that would sustain its value and be linked to past traditions of grandeur based on adornment and perfect forms. Whatever was left out of this trend, what was denied and repressed, were all the criticisms against museums and their power to define art as a purely formal endeavor.
The harsh social circumstances throughout the years during which Alfred Barr founded the MoMA, years during which Schapiro vacillated between social involvement and personal introspection, did not spare Barr from Douglas Crimp and Benjamin Buchloh’s (and others’) barrage of criticism. Barr’s struggle for freedom of expression was not enough to stave off the criticism of the 1960s that interpreted culture as politically and economically linked to society. Adorno’s outline defines the political map which the critics are trying to shape. Cultural criticism attempts to deconstruct the representational limits defined by capitalism. By exposing the power matrix of cultural institutions one finds a rift between power and public good. Criticizing the system aids the struggle against censorship in which Barr partook.
Crimp examines Barr through three exhibitions mounted in the early 1980s which focused on a return to painting by American and European artists: Documenta 7 in Kassel; Zeitgeist in Berlin; and An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture (an exhibition which inaugurated a new MoMA extension). Crimp addresses the museum and the work of art critic Hilton Kramer, who left the New York Times after 16 years in order to found the New Criterion journal. In the journal, which is supported by five right-wing American foundations and was considered the primary intellectual mouthpiece for the Reagan administration, Kramer was careful to separate aesthetics and politics. In a special issue dedicated to the reopening of the new wing, Kramer wrote that Barr was not interested in politics but in the aesthetic ramifications of radical tendencies brought about through photography, design and film of an artistic caliber on par with painting and sculpture. Nonetheless, Crimp claims, the real modernist avant-garde radicalism wanted to discard the fine arts in favor of social change that would topple art from its pedestal.
The art object and the artist’s position, which rose to prominence again during the early 1980s with the return to painting, contradicted the growing criticism of conceptual art against the art institution and modernism as a whole. The return to painting, Crimp adds, was supported by various conservative trends: museums, cultural administrators, the art market and corporate boards that sought new “geniuses” for newly prosperous collectors needing art that would sustain its value and be linked to past traditions of grandeur based on ornament and perfect form. Whatever was left out of this trend, what was denied and repressed, were all the criticisms against museums and their power to define art as a purely formal endeavor. Left missing are representations of art that attempt to deconstruct artistic principles and replace them with forms of expression that contradict the artistic establishment. Where, Crimp asks, can we find Feminist and minority art that was rejected by the artistic establishment and relegated to self-realization? Where can we find mention of artwork in social and environmental spheres? Where, in all of the articles and essays that came along with exhibitions of painting’s return, can we find mention of political critique, which was so typical of those years of alternative practice? To them, the political in art should be repressed. To them, art is autonomous and exists only in ivory towers. They find politics threatening. But what about their own politics? asks Crimp. Are there no politics involved in the exhibition? Is it not political to exhibit only one female artist out of 43? Would suppressing debates about style be considered political? Is it not political to define art as existing strictly in an aesthetic arena? (Crimp at Michelson, 1987, 236-250)
Crimp’s questions regarding the return to painting clarify Adorno’s left- and right-wing readings of capitalist influence. From this standpoint, the very fact that Prof. Omer tried to shed any political affiliation – “I have no political criteria for running a museum… I didn’t vote in the last two elections. I am apolitical” (Bar-Kedma, 2.3.1995) – places him in the right-wing cultural sector. Prof. Omer arrived at his position as director of the Tel Aviv Museum when the left and right cultural camps in Israel were clearly defined. The left-leaning criticism against him was heard already at his appointment as director to the museum (Azoulay 10.21.1994). And nonetheless, beyond theoretical disagreement, the censorship at the Tel Aviv Museum indicates a deviation towards the extreme right of cultural politics and a fundamental blow to the public.
The pop producer David Bowie donated $75,000 towards the Sunshine exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and agreed to fund its audio guide as well. Not long after, his commercial website won the rights to showcase the online Sunshine. David Bowie is a close friend of Saatchi, whose collection provided the works for this show. Bowie’s website retails artwork, clothing and membership to the fan club.
It is reasonable to assume that the position of a modern art museum director would not be placed in the hands of someone espousing the avant-garde ambitions of its dismantling. Is there a similar line that should not be crossed on the conservative extreme? Is not the censorship scandal at the Tel Aviv Museum one such example? The fact that there is no clear boundary for conservativeness in museology leaves the playing field open to be run by the likes of Prof. Omer, who places himself outside of the local standards. The interdependency of museums, capital and power puts the museum in a right-wing cultural political milieu. Censorship under such conditions compromises the level of freedom of expression at the heart of this institution, and defines cultural circumstances within economic and communication structures.
Under such conditions, in New York during September 1999, similar censorship was attempted. A few days before the opening of Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum, New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, demanded it be cancelled, threatened to limit municipal funding, and threatened to reconfigure the governing board of the museum. He noted that a few of the pictures, including The Virgin Mary painted by Chris Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian descent, were “sick” (Vogel 9.28.1999). In Ofili’s painting the Virgin Mary is depicted as an African woman with one breast made of dry elephant dung. New York’s cardinal, John O’Connor, called the exhibition an “attack on religion” and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights labeled the painting insulting. The mayor’s demand put the museum in a dire situation but its director refused to give in to censorship. The museum turned to legal measures in order to prevent the mayor from discontinuing public funding to the museum because of the exhibition (Barstow 10.2.1999, B2). In response, New York’s municipality accused the Brooklyn Museum of conspiring with Christie’s auctioneers, who donated funds in support of the exhibition, to increase the value of works being shown in the show. All of the works in the exhibition belonged to the private collector Charles Saatchi, one of the owners of the giant advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi. In the past, Saatchi has sold works after they have been exhibited in important shows. The municipality claimed that such a conspiracy was a breech of contract and threatened to turn to New York’s Supreme Court (Herszenhorn 9.30.1999 A1). The crisis between the municipality and the museum led to an investigative story by the New York Times dealing with the commercial profits gained by donors to the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Barstow 31.10.1999). The investigation details the manner in which the museum enlisted financial support from private sources: galleries, collectors and auction houses, that might stand to gain from such an exhibition. The museum solicited galleries that represented artists in the show, and concealed the fact that it received $160,000 from Saatchi. In an interview for the investigation, Arnold Lehman, the museum’s director, denied any commercial motivation in fundraising and claimed that the donations were given out of sheer enthusiasm for the work being presented, and not for economic profit.
Chris Ofili The Virgin Mary
The confrontation between the museum and the municipality exposed the tangible danger facing the museum’s integrity and independence. The museum’s credibility, according to the article, erodes when the line between support for the arts and private profit is blurred. The pop producer David Bowie donated $75,000 towards the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and agreed to fund its audio guide as well. Not long after, his commercial website won the rights to showcase the online Sensation. David Bowie is a close friend of Saatchi, whose collection provided the works for this show. Bowie’s website retails artwork, clothing and membership to the fan club. The museum did not report Bowie’s donation to the public, but online visits to the websites more than tripled since it launched the exhibition.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art thwarts the concept of modern art in its censorship, in its dependency on capital and power and its approach to the public. Prof. Omer said: “When accepting a donation or gift, it is hard to argue for every detail and one must compromise. In order to get one good Cezanne I’m willing to accept a number of less important works. The trick is in having the public pass quickly over the less impressive works. That’s the curator’s job.” The public which the curator leads is “not cultured enough, not smart enough. It’s a provincial museum.”
Arnold Lehman defended the museum’s fundraising strategies, and refused to accept mayor Giuliani’s censorship. He avoided a more detrimental decent into the margins of cultural politics, and raised the issue of freedom of expression among the public. On October 2nd, 1999 the New York Times featured an editorial which stated that public opinion was two-to-one against Giuliani’s censorship prosecution. The article claimed that the public understands that a “museum is obliged to challenge the public…or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts…an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.” The impact of donations on museum exhibition was hotly debated in the public sphere and this caused the American Association of Museums to draft new ethical guidelines. According to Edward Able, the association’s president, the guidelines are meant “to strengthen the public’s faith in museums” (Barstow 8.3.2000 E1). The new guidelines define the relationship between a museum and lenders to its exhibitions. They emphasize the museum’s open-book obligation to the public, and the role the museum plays as solely responsible for the content and method of exhibition. In the Sensation exhibition, the director allowed the collector, Saatchi, to influence the hanging of the works to the point where top museum employees accused him of controlling the show. The ethical guidelines require a clear correlation between the museum’s objectives, its exhibits and the conceptual content of its shows. The guidelines compel museums to avoid any conflict of interest, or what might appear as conflicts of interest, between the lenders and museum decision makers. No member may participate in meetings where a conflict of interest pertaining to a board member, employee or donor might arise from his or her influence. The museum is not to accept any payment in exchange for the sale of works that were exhibited within its walls. The American Association of Museums guidelines seek to offset the deterioration towards the privatized funding of museums. Viewing the public as integral to defining culture helps focus, to a certain degree, the capitalist approach and bring back to the museum a bit of the ideological foundations of Modernism. The concept of “the public” also signifies a discourse restricting private profit. Similar to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, this concept undermines the romantic notion of the unique individual. Every ethical blunder in realizing the concept is complicated by doubts and ensuing lack of faith in the modernist ideal. The primary democratic means protecting the public are freedom of expression and change of government. Judge Dalia Dorner, in a verdict that denied the Film Board’s request to ban the screening of the film Jenin Jenin, wrote in her summation that “an open democratic society, which upholds the freedom of expression out of certainty that this principle allows for the preservation of society rather than threatens it, is willing to suffer a blow, even a very substantial blow, to the public’s feelings for the sake of freedom of expression.” (Haaretz 11.12.2003 5A). The value of freedom of speech to the public was clear to the Brooklyn Museum’s director, and it set its course of confrontation with the New York municipality. The American Association of Museums’ guidelines complete what was unclear to that very director.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art thwarts the concept of modern art in its censorship, in its dependency on capital and power and its approach to the public. Prof. Omer testifies that “the museum functions under restrictions that compel it to accept donations from collectors.” He explains: “I can’t take the Picasso from the Meir collection and the one from the Minzah-Blumenthal collection and make a Picasso room. We have ten Monets in different collections that we can’t show together” (Sheffi 11.14.1999 D1). And he continues: “When accepting a donation or gift, it is hard to argue for every detail and one must compromise. In order to get one good Cezanne I’m willing to accept a number of less important works. The trick is in having the public pass quickly over the less impressive works. That’s the curator’s job.” The public which the curator leads is “not cultured enough, not smart enough. It’s a provincial museum. The greater Israeli public…is yet to be educated” (Melzer 11.12.1999, 60-64). And so the public gets pounded when it comes to the forced exhibit of Botero: “I’d be grateful if you could explain to me what the Israeli public sees in this. We were forced to show it because of something related to our Latin American supporters…and here it is, a mind-boggling success…” (Sheffi 11.14.1999).
Ms. Brightman, who for $70,000 designed the show which was funded by Bank Leumi and shown at the Tel Aviv Museum, is also the in-house designer for the bank and chairperson of the museum council, and is married to the chairperson of the inspections committee of the board of governors, the accountant Igal Brightman. Dr. Haim Samet, a member of the inspection committee of the museum and acting chairperson of the board of governors, is a member of the board of governors of Bank Leumi.
In 1988 the museum foyer housed the exhibition A City Corner – From Orientalism through Bauhaus to Contemporary Architecture. The show featured photographs and models from buildings that belong to Bank Leumi on Yehuda HaLevi Street in Tel Aviv. The architect, Ilan Solel, curated the show and it was designed by Claude Grundman-Brightman, the in-house designer for the bank. Esther Zandberg, architecture columnist for Haaretz newspaper, wrote: “Disregarding the quality of the exhibition, its very existence gives cause to ponder. From all of the burning architectural issues plaguing Israel…the museum chose to showcase the corner belonging to Bank Leumi, which also initiated, realized, designed and funded the exhibition… The show’s concept was set by the executing party. The curator’s involvement consisted of handing over documentation and writing texts. According to him, he has no curating experience whatsoever” (Zanberg 2.29.1998, D1). The museum received a letter on February 11th, 1998 from Bank Leumi stating their agreement with Prof. Omer: “The bank will host social functions in the display space throughout the exhibition… [and] publish a six-page pamphlet to be distributed freely to every visitor to the bank’s pavilion in the museum” (Gilerman 7.16.1998, D1 and D2). Israeli museums’ duty towards public credibility is stipulated in section 15 of the 1984 museum guidelines. Clause A of the guidelines, which is meant to prevent advertising in the museum, states “exhibition halls shall not have advertisements for commercial products or entities.” In response to Gilerman and Kazin, two Haaretz journalists, Prof. Omer stated that “the Bank Leumi show was not an advertising exhibition, and its contents were examined by the finest architecture scholars in Israel. Public funding by the municipality and the Ministry of Education are dwindling, and the museum’s dependency on donations by public and private institutions is growing. Banks are renowned for funding many cultural institutions.” Prof. Omer did not name the finest architecture scholars in Israel that examined the exhibition content. Ilan Solel claims he has no experience in curating, and Ms. Brightman, the exhibition’s designer, told Haaretz newspaper that they “relied on a study done by a firm specializing in architectural conservation.” The newspaper further adds that the lawyer, Haim Samet, a member of the museum’s inspection committee and acting chairperson of its board of directors, is also a member of the board of governors of Bank Leumi. Brightman, who received $70,000 for the exhibition design, is married to the chairperson of the board of director's inspection committee, the accountant Igal Brightman.
In another incident, Ms. Eda Taiber, a member of the museum’s board of directors, was appointed to curate an exhibition of Ketta Ephraim Markus which comprised works she owned as well as works owned by another board member, Mordechai Rubenstein. On the occasion of Mr. Rubenstein’s son’s wedding, the museum closed that day at 2:00 p.m., rather than at 6:00 p.m., without prior notice to the public. Mr. Rubenstein’s son married the daughter of Shai Meir, one of the museum’s most important donors. The wedding took place in the museum’s foyer (Gilerman 12.29.1998, D2).
Instead of thinking of the Tel Aviv’s Museum’s cultural place within the Middle East, they’re making a McMOMA out of it. It’s a Western copy of a New York museum. The only ones that can fill that kind of economic quota are the extravagantly wealthy – and that comes at a price.
Prof. Omer probably formed his behavioral pattern in 1968, during his self-proclaimed artistic peak as he apprenticed at the MoMA: “Outside there were artists protesting to take down Cezanne paintings. They demanded MoMA show only artists from the second half of the 20th century, so there would be room for all those frustrated artists that weren’t in the museum. That’s the position pertaining to Israel and to the Tel Aviv Museum. And that’s my answer to you and all others criticizing conservatism” (Melzer 11.12.1999).
Prof. Omer has adopted the institutional mind-frame to such an extent that he proclaimed: “We are a Modern art museum. We begin in the mid-19th century, and if I could go back even further I would buy a good Delacroix and a good Casper David Friedrich and Turner. That’s where we ought to start. I believe that Romanticism was the seed of Modernism” (Shefi, 11.14.1999).
Interviews with Prof. Omer convey the museum as inferior, with most funding going towards acquisitions and the building of new wings that are destined to fail and promise endless toil in the process (Shefi 5.3.2002, D1). Prof. Omer’s tenure as director is peppered with workers’ strikes and demonstrations caused by financial cutbacks. In May 1999 thirty workers stormed into his office protesting delays in receiving their salaries (Bior 5.12.1999, D2). In October 2002 the museum decided to close its library to the public due to financial cutbacks (Gilerman 9.19.2002, D2). The library reopened after demonstrations were held outside the museum. Acquiring Romantic and New York School works, which are selling for astounding prices these days, is completely illogical for an Israeli institution experiencing financial difficulties. At the end of 2001 the museum purchased Venetian Woman 9 by Alberto Giacometti for the sum of $3 million. Prof. Omer called the purchase “extremely important, filling a gap in the sculpture collection” (Shefi 5.2.2002, D1). Instead of thinking of the museum and its cultural place in the Middle East, they’re making a McMOMA out of it. It’s a Western copy of a New York museum. The only ones that can fill that kind of economic quota are the extravagantly wealthy – and that, of course, comes at a price.
Hachami: “[Do y]ou prefer a European-style board of directors, with all kinds of polit-rockers or their fuckers sitting on them? Here, at least, we’re talking about collectors, interested folks. We’re businesspeople that love art and help the museum as much as we can.”
The demands never end. In 1999, after inaugurating a new wing adding 20% more space and costing $7 million, Prof. Omer went on to realize another dream: building a wing only for Israeli art. “It would cost $40 million to construct such a building,” said Prof. Omer. “I’ve been promised a $10 million donation, and if the municipality and the government would match it, we could easily raise the remaining $10 million. So the difference between the State of Israel and a proper Israeli art museum is $20 to $25 million dollars. It’s not unattainable.” The new building will house the entire Phoenix company collection owned by Yossi Hachami, who promised, according to Prof. Omer, that “if there will be a building that can house it” he will donate the entire collection to the museum. In an interview by Gilad Melzer, Prof. Omer was asked: “Has not Yossi Hachami actually become the museum’s curator?” Prof. Omer answered: “No, since Hachami made it clear to me that he is willing to have the collection dynamic and be shown with other collections. It’s driving me crazy… With a rather small budget we could exhibit Israeli art properly, clearly, and dynamically” (Melzer 11.12.1999, 64).
The best works from the collection were shown in 1998 at the Ninety Years of Israeli Art exhibition, which was a central event planned by the museum for the state’s 50th anniversary. Yet even the quality of those works was disputed. Smadar Shefi, for example, claimed that “the impression is one of art that’s peripheral to international production, often out of a structural delay (like a slow clock).”
The public being asked to invest millions of dollars in building a wing for the collection should be interested in hearing Hachami’s views on art, museums and the public. In an interview with Sarah Breitberg-Semel for Studio (March 1994), Hachami defined himself as a member of the museum’s board of trustees and a chairperson of its new exhibitions and acquisitions committee. His views on art theory: “It’s bullshit. It doesn’t speak to me. At the end of the day, a beautiful picture is like a beautiful woman… These texts, which are based on weak works, are exactly what I don’t like.” Marcel Duchamp is “a curiosity to me [Hachami], I do not value him” and curators are “too trendy. They should wait a few years until we buy an artist… [T]he museum’s job is not to support, but to build a collection. An ideal museum is one with a good permanent collection. Exhibitions are secondary, and you could even do without them if the collection is good enough.” Not less interesting are his views on how to run a public museum: “Yona [Fischer] started working for me before he went to the Tel Aviv Museum,” said Hachami in the same interview. “The museum asked me to let Yona work for them as a favor… Not only did I agree that he could work for both me and them, but I paid him for his museum work out of Phoenix money, with the approval of the company managers. It’s all legal… What’s wrong with that?... I just helped him and them… [Do y]ou prefer a European-style board of directors, with all kinds of polit-rockers or their fuckers serving on them? Here, at least, we’re talking about collectors, interested folks. Look who’s on the board in Jerusalem – lots of Histadrutniks, representatives of the workers’ committee; I wouldn’t want things to be like that in Tel Aviv. So we’re businesspeople that love art and help the museum as much as we can” (Brietberg-Semel 1994, 4,5).
Prof. Omer curated Yossi Hachami’s Phoenix collection exhibition. In an interview between the curator and the collector published in the catalogue one can find a summary of the artistic, curatorial and public failure. “What does the object provide you? Is it an escape from daily reality?” asked Prof. Omer longingly. Hachami shallowly responded: “I see a beautiful object almost in the same way I see a beautiful landscape, a beautiful woman, or a beautiful car.” To complete the picture he added: “I’m repelled by any political or social meaning” (Shefi 12.24.1998).
"I'm this city. iI will call it on my name. Sammy Ofer"
Prof. Omer also served as an advisor to Hachami at one point. He claimed to have stopped doing so when he was appointed as the museum’s director, “but museum workers testify that Miri Ben-Moshe, Hachami’s Phoenix collection curator, brought to the director’s office a work that Hachami considered purchasing, in order to hear the director’s opinion. Ben-Moshe responded: “He may have advised us here and there, but he was never paid, it was out of pure generosity” (Gilerman, Kazin 7.16.1998). Hachami’s position on modern art is very personal. Personal, too, were his reasons for selling the Phoenix Company and its collection. Despite this change, the museum is still holding an architectural competition for the Israeli and international art wing, a matter still unresolved at the time of this article’s first publishing in HaKivun Mizrach (East-Word: A Literary-Cultural Revue).
Another chapter in the new wing story involves a donation by Aviva and Sammy Ofer, retracted in February 2006 (Ofer 2006). The way this matter was handled signified a low point in public cultural institution funding, and lead to public debate and demonstration. The demonstrations appear to have been successful in preventing the museum from receiving the $20 million it had asked for (half of the sum needed to build the new wing). The success stems mainly from the harsh reaction of some of the museum donors. The fervent opposition by the museum directorate, Raya Yaglom and other donors, to the Ofer family, the director, and the municipality’s appetite, momentarily served the public well (Chai, 2005).
Rather strangely, the public’s demand for a proper fundraising procedure actually increased the chances of having a new wing built. This slippery slope quickly drew attention away from the Ofer family. At this point, the barrier to its construction is the fundraising method as there is no objection to the actual construction of the wing itself. Thus is rejected the worn out mantra of needing “to construct a new wing in order to expand the museum and turn it into an artistic institution able to compete with leading international museums” (Ofer, 2006). The transformation of the debate to one of ethics has overshadowed the question of whether or not the museum, without sufficient budget to run its day-to-day activities, should need a new wing at all. Hopefully, the flickering light among the group of dissenting donors will spark a new public order that will unravel the tangled web of culture, capital and power. The manner in which the “big world” is made the impetus for cultural initiatives in Israel must be researched. There is no doubt that those who follow such a creed, especially if their name is immortalized during such as service, feel unappreciated and begrudge the public that sabotages their efforts to bring the world to Israel. The “world” is usually the western world; its capitals are mostly in Europe and the United States.
The new wing, first planned for the Phoenix collection, is now intended to be “an unprecedented development in the local scene: it will be the first space in Israel dedicated to a permanent survey exhibition of Israeli art and its development throughout its one-hundred year existence” (Aderet, 2005). All of this is taking place almost without any public debate that might actually be fruitful in contributing to the content intended to fill the new wing. Since a rendering of the building exists, the museum staff could provide a model of their version of the development and achievements of Israeli art, for which they and the Tel Aviv municipality were prepared to record a notice in the public registry for the benefit of a donor (Yudilovich, 2005).
Even though the director and donor are motivated by “good intentions” and “an obligation to serve [the public],” their public discussion is taking place via expensive newspaper advertising, which is paid for privately by the donor and with public funds by the museum.
The slew of advertisements and spokespeople cannot hide the rift between “good intentions” and the unfulfilled need to publicly face criticism: the museum’s deep pockets should not be used to buy advertising space. Instead, they should respond to criticisms and accusations made by journalists through proper communications channels intended just for such a purpose.
In another sordid episode, the museum has put out a restraint warrant against Gady Sprukt, who worked for the museum as a guard, and against the artist Jack Faber, to prevent their collaborative video work, Watchman, from being screened. In the making of this work, Sprukt and Faber used footage from the museum’s security cameras. The museum is attempting to censor Watchman for fear it would present the institution in an unfavorable light, and, as if this weren’t enough, they are also suing the artists. By doing so, the Tel Aviv Museum is bringing the issues of representation and freedom of expression directly to the court, using tax money, and playing boomerang with its essential role as a museum (Lupian, 2006). Public and museum resources are being handed over freely.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art Gala event in the French Riviera, July 28th, 2005
Left to Right: Dr. Martin Indick, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Ezra Nechmad, Daniela Luxembourg, Dr. David Khalili
From Left to Right: Marion Wiesel, François Curiel (auctioneer), Anis Steinmitz, Prof. Elie Wiesel, and Benny Steinmetz
From Left to Right: Sammy Ofer, Shiela Spara, Aviva Ofer, and Muiz Spara
tel Aviv's Mayor Ron Huldai (left) and Sammy Ofer
Blurring the boundaries between curators, collectors and donors defines the museum’s content and its finances. Constraints dictate exhibition. That is how the public comes to the museum to see the Botero exhibition, which is of little interest to Prof. Omer, and that is how an entire section of an essay and nine drawings are censored from the Wakstein show. Dependency leads to constraints, which lead to censorship. In David Wakstein’s case, the museum, in a newspaper notice, ascribed its censorship of his drawings to their Holocaust content. The works depict caricatures, taken from Arabic newspapers, similar to those of the Nazi cartoon, Der Stürmer, and swastikas. In a meeting with the artist, Prof. Omer said the decision was made “in consideration for Holocaust survivors” (Gilerman 8.29.2003).
Another story also appeared in a different series of articles. In an interview with Sarah Brietberg-Semel, Wakstein claims that “the key to this whole affair is the immense dependence of the museum on the government… The director didn’t want to remove pictures, but from the moment that Minister Livnat started sending messengers, he, the big man that shook the entire museum, turned into a wilted leaf” (Brietberg-Semel, 2003). The Ministry of Education and Culture confirmed that Minister Livnat turned to the chairperson of the museum council, Claude Brightman, after receiving several complaints by public figures and citizens. Ms. Brightman, as mentioned above, designed the Bank Leumi exhibition for the museum and is married to the chairperson of the inspection committee of the Tel Aviv Museum. The museum council is an official policymaker of issues pertaining to museum support and it advises the Minister of Culture. Brightman confirmed to Haaretz newspaper that she discussed the matter with Prof. Omer, and the Education and Culture Ministry reported that there had been no infringement on artistic freedom of expression since the artist freely decided to take down the offensive works. Wakstein denied this accusation (Lori 9.21.2003).
Representatives of a funding government body that, at the request of a minister, turn to a public cultural institution for its professional opinion are not aiding its independence. (For comparison sake: it’s hard to imagine the Ministry of Justice, which funds the judiciary, turning to a judge for his or her opinion on a particular case.)
David Wakstein Swastika Mosaic 2001
Censorship marks a strong departure from the public position of a cultural institution, and in order to avoid censorship one must face pressure, constraint and threat even to the point of resignation. Whoever fails at this should leave his or her job. Censorship is the red line and crossing it indicates to everyone on the cultural playing field a deviation from power. Basic professional integrity should lead every curator to resign in cases of censorship. The resignation of someone for society’s sake would be one of the highest forms of enriching it. Dr. Urlich Loock understood this rule and resigned from the Gottesdiener Prize committee. James Snyder, the Israel Museum director that came to Jerusalem after working at the MoMA in New York understands this (“We will not remove works under any public pressure” he said after the museum received letters demanding the removal of Holocaust images by Ram Katzir and Roee Rosen, “but we will present them in such a way that the public can understand the artist’s intentions. We will explain the context. If need be, we can place a warning outside the exhibition. We won’t remove; we’ll explain” (Litman 2.20.1997, D2). Prof. Omer, who prides himself on his cosmopolitanism, doesn’t compare at all to his colleague.
Fierce debates took place in Israel during Prof. Omer’s tenure pertaining to issues of identity, memory and history, ethics, cultural identity, social justice, Jews and Arabs, Mizrahi and European Jews, foreign workers, religion and secularism, violence against women, gender, democracy within a Jewish state, East and West, new historians, economic polarization, occupation, terror, unemployment and Post-Zionism. Instead of taking a central stand in cultural debate, the museum is focusing on gaps in its Western Romanticism collection, and has an aristocratic colonial approach to the object and the collector. It is no wonder that the museum censorship focuses on an urgent socio-cultural public debate and that the so-called “professionalism,” which Prof. Omer so likes to emphasize, is attracting chilling reviews.
Prof. Mordechai Omer has reached a hopeless situation that cannot be remedied by collections and new wings. He is professionally ineffectual (see Smadar Shefi’s critique of the Aroch exhibition’s curating 5.26.2003, D3). Yona Fisher has also criticized his credibility regarding the 1967-1982 exhibition and review index, which was compiled for the series of exhibitions, Aspects of Israeli Art from the 1970s. Fisher even claimed that the book should be banned as it is based on “negligence, distortions, deficiencies and mistakes” (Gilerman 7.5.1998, D1). 2004 marked a decade of Prof. Omer’s reign, throughout which he has not given up his position as curator at the Tel Aviv University gallery, lecturer in its art history department, and artistic advisor to the mayor (Kazin 1997,77). This amazing web testifies to his destructive lust that is ultimately a disservice to the public.
A high turnover of cultural institution leadership promotes the proper performance of that leadership’s civic duties, allows for a variety of voices and better embodies the Modernist ideal. Every museum administrator is responsible for keeping these standards if he or she is interested in maintaining public credibility. The museum’s board of directors, and its director and chief curator positions, are all temporary posts and require a turnover of personnel. Whoever takes on these positions should take them on wholeheartedly, temporarily, and avoid the same result that Prof. Omer produced: a museum that is not merely an empty vessel, but a complete shadow of its former self.
A previous version of this article was published in HaKivun Mizrach (East-Word: A Literary-Cultural Revue).
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