The decision to sell the name, identity and honor of the Tel Aviv Museum to tycoon Sammy Ofer for $20 million came from very weighty pragmatic concerns. The museum needs a new wing to hang its collection of classic Israeli art from the last century. The cost of the new wing is around $45 million.
Efforts to raise the money in an honest way failed. Therefore, the $20 million that industrialist Ofer paid to acquire the name, identity and honor of the Tel Aviv Museum was vital. It was only by selling its name, identity and honor that the museum could set up the new wing and guarantee that in the 100th anniversary year of the city of Tel Aviv it would be able to properly exhibit 100 years of Israeli art.
Against those weighty pragmatic issues there was no less weighty and pragmatic criticism. Was it in fact a reasonable deal? Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently received a $200 million donation without changing its name and selling its identity. Does it make sense for the Tel Aviv Museum to change is name and sell its identity for a tenth of that sum?
The Israel Museum named its photography department after a man who donated $12 million. Is it possible that the market value of the Tel Aviv Museum is not much more than the photography department of the rival museum? Does it really make sense that in exchange for financing 40 percent of a single museum wing, a tycoon is able to get the name, identity and honor of Tel Aviv's art museum?
Moreover, the Sammy Ofer deal will block the way to future donations since no tycoon will donate a significant amount to a cultural institution that has been turned into the symbolic property of another tycoon. The deal with Ofer makes a mockery of anyone who gave to the museum in the past under the understanding that they were donating to the public museum of the city of Tel Aviv. The Ofer deal is particularly contemptuous of the Israeli taxpayer, who since its founding has invested in the museum an amount far greater than what the billionaire is going to invest.
However, what is particularly galling about the decision to turn the Tel Aviv Museum into the Ofer Museum is not its pragmatic dimensions. What is really aggravating in the Ron Huldai-Sammy Ofer deal is not the inherent management failure. The problem is with the principle, the readiness to sell identity for money, the unbearable ease with which a fundamental pillar of Israeli culture and identity is handed over to the great capitalist.
In the last 15 years there have been far more scandalous privatization deals than the privatization of the name of the Tel Aviv Museum. Sammy Ofer was involved in a few of them. However, the contemptible deal imposed by the shipping magnate on the museum's spineless management is one of the low points in the privatization process. It is testimony to just how much the ethos of privatization has corrupted us. It proves how basic concepts have been twisted. It makes tangible the fact that everything here is for sale. Everything. Even art and culture, which were supposed to be the holy of holies of Israeli secularism.
Mordechai Warshavsky, Raya Jaglom and Shelly Yachimovich protested against the Ofer deal. However, their protests have done no good so far. It seems that in the Israel of 2005 there is nobody who will even try to block a capitalist busy at his feeding.
The decision to do to the Tel Aviv Museum what nobody would dare do to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery, or the Museum of Modern Art is symbolic and also dramatic. In a certain sense, it turns the Sammy Ofer Museum into a kind of subversive installation piece. It's an installation that says something insightful about the super-rich of Israel, their values, limits and nobility. It's an installation that says something insightful about Israeli civic society and its attitude toward the super-rich. It's an installation that says who we are and what we are, who we were and what we turned into.
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