Fresh Paint: Israel's Art Scene Gets a New Visionary

In her first major interview as director, Suzanne Landau reveals her plans to revitalize the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Ellie Armon Azoulay
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Ellie Armon Azoulay

When asked whether she is apprehensive about her new job as director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Suzanne Landau answers carefully, but the glint in her eye and her rapid speech give away her immense excitement.

“I don’t know if I want to share my apprehensions,” she says. “What really made me accept the offer is the challenge. When you think of a challenge, you are swept forward. I hope the challenge will be such that I will be able to achieve what I want. Naturally I had apprehensions, that is only natural.”

In the past, Landau, 62, was careful to stay behind the scenes. For many years she was a senior curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where she began to work in 1978. She later became chief curator of fine arts, was involved in the annual Art Focus project, curated dozens of wide-ranging exhibitions and created a rich collection of international contemporary art. However, she has published very little in terms of research, and has always left center stage to the artists and their art.

Landau’s appointment as chief curator and director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art ? which inaugurated its new wing exactly a year ago, thus doubling its exhibition space ? catapults her into one of the most influential positions in the Israeli art world today. For the first time in her long career, she has agreed to give an extensive interview. In it she sums up an era and speaks of the philosophy that guides her and of her plans.

Our meeting takes place in the late afternoon in her new office at TAMA. The setting seems to reflect Landay’s current situation: The bookshelves are empty, crates are stacked in a corner of the room, the desk overflows with official documents, catalogs and magazines. She still hasn’t had time to unpack and settle in.

Landau was scheduled to take up her new post on September 1, but made the move about a month earlier. From the day the appointment was announced, last February, she started living a double life ? coping with what she terms a “schizophrenic” identity. She went on working full time at the Israel Museum and one day a week traveled from historic, weighty, conflicted Jerusalem to young, vibrant Tel Aviv, the “bubble” city.

The disparity is institutional as much as it is geographical: The Israel Museum is a national institution, encyclopedic, sated to a large degree, which for 16 years has been under the strong directorship of James Snyder. TAMA, though, has been in a state of crisis since the death of Landau’s predecessor, Prof. Mordechai Omer, in June 2011. It has suffered from the lack of a long-term curatorial and budgetary plan and has been the subject of criticism by many in the local art community.

Landau appears to grasp the scale of the daunting task she faces. She is aware that the entire art world is watching with bated breath, not to say suspicion, to see what her first steps at TAMA will be. Within a remarkably short period she has managed to meet with everyone on the museum’s staff, collectively and individually ? from senior curators like Ellen Ginton and Doron Lurie, to administrative personnel. “Museum work is teamwork,” she says. “That was important for me in the Israel Museum, and I will want to establish the same principle here.” She also was actively involved in four gala events held by the museum lately, aimed at strengthening its international support and funding.

Born in Bratislava (then in Czechoslovakia), Landau immigrated to Israel in 1968. She divides her time between her home in Lower Motza, outside Jerusalem, and a rented apartment in Tel Aviv. She arrives at the museum early in the morning and leaves after dark. And she prefers not to talk about her personal life.

Landau is the first woman to head one of Israel’s two major art institutions. As such, she is “first among equals” in a group of women that head smaller museums: Dalia Levin in Herzliya, Galia Bar-Or at Ein Harod, Drorit Gur Arie in Petah Tikva and Ruth Direktor, chief curator of the Haifa Museum of Art.

Landau has a five-year contract at TAMA. “Look, I’m still at the learning stage,” she says, trying to project restraint. “The two most important things for me at the beginning were to meet the staff and become acquainted with the museum’s activity in terms of future exhibitions.”

An open letter by the Association of Artists in early October revealed that Landau had canceled several exhibitions that had been approved under Mordechai Omer. According to the letter, Landau explained to the artists in a meeting that the desire to set forth her vision is an essential and obligatory element of her role at the museum. Accordingly, of the exhibitions scheduled before her appointment, only those which she sees as obligations that must be fulfilled will go ahead.

The very fact that the director and chief curator met with the artists’ representatives was a refreshing change. During Omer’s tenure, and even more forcefully after his death, the museum was criticized for possessing a “bunker mentality” and displaying a defensiveness and opacity unbefitting its status as a public institution.

Even before the move to TAMA, Landau was aware of this criticism and the local artists’ protest. “I find such feedback very important, and I followed the developments,” she says. “I can say that I demonstrated professional integrity when I was at the Israel Museum, and I will continue on that path. Transparency of management is important. I met with the artists’ union and I want to meet with some of the artists who took part in the protest.”

Such an encounter, which both sides view positively, could potentially engender a new dialogue, the first of its kind.

Quality and nationality

Landau’s touch can already be felt in the exhibitions and activities at the museum. One example of this is the video trilogy on show there last summer by Yael Bartana, “And Europe Will Be Stunned,” which was initially screened at the Venice Biennale in 2011, in the Polish pavilion. “It is an excellent, extraordinary work, and it was important for me that it be shown in full and not as a video collection at the cinematheque,” Landau notes.

Bartana told a Tel Aviv weekly that she contacted Landau immediately after her appointment as director of the museum.

“In the past it [i.e., a screening of her work] was never on the agenda,” Bartana says. “Mordechai Omer would never have invited me.” Does she see it as heralding a new beginning for the museum? “Yes, definitely. Landau is taking a very clear stance. She is declaring, ‘I am making a change here.’”

Similarly, the current exhibition by Belgian artist David Claerbout, in the museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, illustrates the fact that Landau has a sharp eye for contemporary international art and is trying to exhibit it without delay. Among the other leading artists whose works will be exhibited at TAMA in the next two years are Canadian photographer Jeff Wall and Anri Sala, who was chosen this year to represent France at the Venice Biennale.

At the same time, Landau is frequently accused of ignoring Israeli art. At the Israel Museum, where she worked for more than three decades ? and where she was appointed chief curator of fine arts in 1998 ? there was a clear separation between curators of Israeli art and of contemporary art. But works by many artists can be found on the list of exhibitions she curated, from the start of her career in Jerusalem. They include the video/computer art duo Aya & Gal (Vertman), photographers Ariane Littman-Cohen and Ruti Nemet, video artist Ofri Cnaani, along with visual artist Zvi Goldstein, and painter and sculptor Orit Adar Bachar. Landau was also the first to bring to Israel the marvelous exhibition by the late Israeli-French artist Absalon (1964-1993), which was shown at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin two years ago.

Asked which tradition she wishes to preserve at the Tel Aviv Museum, Landau replies quickly and confidently: “What I was aware of from the start was the institution’s long-term commitment to Israeli art. I would like to continue that commitment. At the same time, it is also important for me to find a certain balance with contemporary international exhibitions. I think that was missing in TAMA’s program.”

Landau says she has always liked and taken an interest in local art: “It’s true that I did not deal with Israeli art per se, but in all the years in which I mounted exhibitions I tried to combine Israeli and international art. That is something I would like to try here, too.”

Landau notes the vast change that has occurred in terms of the exposure of Israeli art worldwide. This is due to many factors, she says: “For example, there is a program at Columbia University to which three Israeli artists are accepted every year. Some also exhibit in New York galleries. It’s the same in London, Berlin and elsewhere. It’s not by chance that Israeli artists have studios in Berlin. There are good conditions there and also possibilities to exhibit; they are an integral part of the scene. It wasn’t like that in the past. Rivka Saker, the managing director of Sotheby’s Israel, is contributing a great deal to the advancement and exposure of Israeli art.

“I always saw, and continue to see Israel art as part of the international scene,” Landau emphasizes. “I think the artists see themselves in the same way. I don’t know how relevant the division by nationality is today. Sometimes it’s enough just to mention the artist’s place and year of birth. The focus is more on the quality of an artist’s work and not his nationality, and I believe this is also what the artists want. At the same time, one should note that more and more galleries in Israel are showing international art alongside local art.”

Abroad and at home

What are Landau’s plans for TAMA? In the long term, she aims to expand the museum’s collection, refresh the permanent exhibits, renovate the main building and carry out various special projects. More immediately, she says, her efforts are geared mainly to fundraising, and to finalizing the schedule of exhibitions through 2014. Landau expresses her esteem for her predecessor, Prof. Omer, in particular the special place he gave to Israeli art at the museum, and his in-depth research.

Landau: “I was in touch with Motti all along, our acquaintance goes way back. “We maintained good professional relations, including loans for exhibitions and meetings on various occasions. I always made it a point to see the shows mounted at TAMA, as I did elsewhere in the country.”

In contrast to the museum’s management under Omer, Landau emphasizes that she will not ignore legitimate protest and criticism from people in the field. However, she declined to comment on the specific allegations that were raised by the protesters last summer concerning conflicts of interest on the part of some members of the museum’s board of governors, who are also private collectors.

What are you bringing from the Israel Museum?

“Experience ? the many years [I spent] in that museum, in mounting exhibitions, in organized work and above all in building up a collection. After we get through the present stage, the next stage will be to build up the collection. I think that will be my first goal. At the moment I have more urgent things to deal with.”

Landau also intends to bring her experience in fundraising and her extensive ties with artists, collectors and buyers’ groups into play as part of her new role; indeed this is vital at the museum. At the same time, she underscores the importance of the international arena, both in itself and vis-a-vis Israeli art. “It’s a two-way street,” she explains.

How would you characterize the collection at TAMA?

“In regard to Israeli art, the museum has a strong, good collection. There are also masterpieces of modern art. The Mayer and Blumental collections contain marvelous works. Still, I think that in regard to contemporary art ? those from the last 30 years, say ? it’s not enough: not good enough and certainly not representative.”

Landau established the Israel Museum’s contemporary art division in 1982, and left her imprint on it and on its collection, which had began to take shape even earlier, at the start of the 1970s. Today it features works by leading artists of that period and through today, among them Anselm Kiefer, John Baldessari, Annette Messager, Vito Acconci, Rosemarie Trockel, Antony Gormley, Kiki Smith, Hans Haacke, Bill Viola, Jeff Wall, Mona Hatoum, Andreas Gursky and Christian Marclay.

“When I first established the contemporary art department, none of the departments had funds earmarked for acquisition,” Landau relates. “The support groups abroad gradually developed, and afterward in Israel as well. Now there is a group that is active in Israel and donates funds for the purchase of contemporary art. It operates according to the same model I developed abroad, in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. It’s a mechanism that has helped with the purchase and creation of the Israel Museum’s collection.

“The Tel Aviv Museum has neither a support group nor acquisition funds,” she continues. “We have to start from scratch. The same model needs to be applied here. One way to do that is by strengthening the museum’s international status and thereby drawing closer collectors and others who are interested in contemporary art.”

There are also quite a few other differences between the country’s two largest museums. Landau is willing to talk about the external and structural differences, but chooses her words carefully.

How are you coping with the transition from exemplary order and planning to a state of chaos? After all, the exhibitions at the Israel Museum are scheduled at least three years in advance, while at TAMA it was always hard to get a commitment a year in advance.

“In terms of organization, the Israel Museum is a well-oiled machine. The program is known so far in advance because there are many shows in other departments, such as archaeology and Judaica, which are scheduled ahead, and now the art exhibitions are joining them. In fact, maybe that’s what was missing at the museum: Everything was planned in advance, it was hard to be flexible, and it’s hard to be up-to-date in art without that flexibility.

“We are now finalizing the program of exhibitions for the coming two years ? but with flexibility. I would like the museum to have a fresh, young spirit. It’s important to bring in different and even young artists, to take certain risks here and there, in which we will succeed ? or not.”

Landau adds a critical element for understanding the challenge of managing TAMA since its expansion. “According to my calculations,” she says, “TAMA holds an average of 26 to 30 exhibitions a year. That is a great many. More than the Israel Museum. That requires budgets. The exhibition space was doubled with the inauguration of the Herta and Paul Amir Building, which contains many galleries for temporary exhibitions, and I am not even counting the permanent exhibits, the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion and the central building. If we want international exhibitions, that will mean a larger budget. I hope we will be able to continue with our plans.”

Landau emphasizes that in the light of all this, it is important to remember that the staff in Tel Aviv has not been beefed up. She is unwilling to say whether she intends to refresh the team of curators; that too is a matter of budget, she says. “As soon as I can, that will be a talking point.”

When she took over in Tel Aviv, Landau asked to see the museum’s architectural blueprint, to study its spaces and get a sense of its size and potential.

“At the moment there is a disparity between the new building and what we call the central building,” she points out. “I would like to renew the central building. The same goes for the museum’s plaza and the sculpture garden.” Indeed, Landau was the longtime curator of the Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum, initiating and planning several projects in that context with artists such as Richard Serra, Sol Lewitt, Claes Oldenburg, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor.

‘Curator-creator’

Not long after the announcement of Landau’s appointment, art critic and historian Dr. Gideon Ofrat began to investigate her professional history and published his findings on his blog (in Hebrew). According to Ofrat, two of Landau’s major attributes as a curator are her ability to identify a new language in art and her quiet intervention in exhibitions. He also emphasized the way she works with a collection, dubbing her a “curator-creator.”

As an example, he noted the way in which “Landau integrated ‘nonartistic’ environments and objects into exhibitions of artists’ works ? such as a library room, or a public telephone or a children’s corner with games, a sandbox and a rocking horse.” A 2009 exhibition, “Bizarre Perfection,” consisted entirely of items that Landau retrieved from the museum’s storerooms. For the show marking the conclusion of the museum’s three-year, $100-million renovation and expansion (in July 2010), she invited three artists ? Yinka Shonibare, Zvi Goldstein and Susan Hiller ? to create exhibitions of their own choosing from the museum’s collections.

Landau is not deterred by the fact that the collections at TAMA are radically different from the extensive ones owned by the Israel Museum. “I am thinking a great deal about the way the collections are exhibited here in Tel Aviv,” she says, “and I am not talking about temporary shows, but about the permanent exhibition: [but about] how, why and what connections can be created.”

Landau is a member of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and was on its executive for five years. She has also served on many judges’ panels, including that of the LennonOno Grant for Peace and the Wolf Prize for the Arts. She was also twice a judge for TAMA’s Nathan Gottesdiener Foundation Prize for Israeli art. Her loyalty to the institution is not in question, but at the same time she is occupied with the role of museums in general and of TAMA in particular.

“Recently, during many visits to museums abroad, I noticed that many visitors were not looking at the works but only photographing them, collecting images,” she says. “I wondered whether they look at what they photographed when they get home. The fact that thousands of people visit museums, that art has become so fashionable, that an average tourist visits at least one museum ? that turns the whole story into something of a circus.

“Still,” she continues, “when I thought about the role of the museum I realized that I had to start examining this specific museum: how I see it in terms of the place in which it is located, what its future is in relation to other museums in Israel. Its focus as a museum of modern and contemporary art needs to be sharpened, and it needs to be accorded international recognition as such.”

What about the traditional tasks of a museum, such as conservation and documentation?

“Those tasks are still part of the goals and missions of museums. In the meantime, I would not shatter conventions here. But I am trying to think about what the museum can be like in a city that is so vibrant and young, a city that never stops. How the museum can reflect that and be more dynamic, active and experimental. Be more daring.”

As for the special projects she is planning, Landau notes that the major architectural element in the new building, what she calls the “waterfall of light,” has a wide range of possible uses: installations, screenings, audio works, performance art. Perhaps along the lines of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, where a different artist is invited each year to create a special work for the site.

Landau also wants to make use of the museum’s exterior spaces, such as the entrance plaza, “so that the museum will increasingly enter the public’s consciousness,” she explains. “For example, I want the museum to be open until midnight once a month.”

Indications of this approach were evident at the start of Landau’s career as a curator in Jerusalem, when she organized innovative and even critical exhibitions. In one case, artists from various fields showed their work around the city. Subsequently, possibly because of the agenda and tight control of the museum’s director, James Snyder, Landau’s approach was toned down and she tended toward more formalistic exhibitions.

Fateful spring

Landau has not authored profound artistic studies or groundbreaking texts. “It’s true,” she says. “I was always interested in the personal connection with the work and the artist, with the creative aspect of curatorship. The process of accompanying the creative work and the artist was always more physical and emotional. It fascinated me to think about my attitude toward a work, about how it could go on existing in the given space into which I would bring it, about whom it could dialogue with and speak to.

“For me, the concept of an exhibition as a totality, as interwoven relationships, is more crucial than the overall theme,” she says. “I have highly developed three-dimensional and lateral vision, and always had the ability to see the way an exhibition would appear in an empty space ? [and that was stronger] than any inclination to sit at a desk and write on paper.”

Nevertheless, Landau admits that she has high esteem for those who write: “I find it very important and I encourage it. But for me, it works differently.”

In the course of her career Landau has met many famous artists; she has spent considerable time and conducted an ongoing dialogue with some of them. She never considered documenting those conversations and meetings, she says. Not even her many encounters, for example, with the German artist Anslem Kiefer, whom she first met in 1984.

“Maybe in the case of Kiefer I really should have written something personal,” she says. “He is the postwar generation. We had a great many conversations on the subject, but the only thing that was clear to me at the time is that I was the one who should mount an exhibition by a German artist in Israel.”

Even though Landau immigrated to Israel long ago, one still hears traces of an accent in her voice, even if it is difficult to pin down. The story of how she came to settle in Israel involves random and even unfortunate elements. In 1968, she arrived here with a group of students to spend the summer on a kibbutz and travel around. It was the period of the Prague Spring, and while she was in Israel the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. She did not return to Prague until the Velvet Revolution there, 20 years later.

“It was crazy,” she relates. “I was an only child, second generation of Holocaust survivors; no one remained from the family and we were all in a panic. I came to Israel with a small suitcase and summer clothes.”

Her parents followed Suzanne, fleeing Bratislava for Tel Aviv. The family spoke Hungarian and German at home. Landau attended an ulpan (intensive course in Hebrew) in Haifa, and eight months later, with halting Hebrew, enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study the history of art. She supported herself by creating illustrations for the Encyclopedia Judaica.

While she still a student, Dr. Ehud Lev, the registrar of the Israel Museum, suggested that she fill in for him while he was on sabbatical. “I thought it might be an opportunity,” Landau recalls. “I left the encyclopedia, where the working conditions were good, and took a job about which I knew nothing at the Israel Museum.” She never completed her university studies.

The museum’s chief curator at the time was Martin Weyl. In the wake of the surprise donation of a Judaica collection, Landau was asked to mount an exhibition based on it ? and the show was a resounding success. Subsequently, she was a “jack-of-all-trades curator” at the museum, as she puts it now, and also began to work with its collections.

In addition to Weyl, who accompanied Landau from the start of her career, she also notes the important influence of Swiss curator Harald Szeeman and of Suzanne Paget, the former director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. But the person who exerted the greatest influence on her, she says, was veteran curator Yona Fischer, whose tenure at the Israel Museum, from the mid-1960s until the end of the 1970s, is considered one of the most fascinating ever in the local museum world.

“Yona was and still is my hero,” Landau says. “I think that if I received a life lesson, apart from my jack-of-all-trades time during Martin’s tenure, it was from Yona. He told me something that I have since passed on to all the curators I have worked with: ‘Never hang apples with apples.’ That says so much. I think it contains the whole essence and secret of curatorial work. In its classic sense, of course.”

She also mentions the first art catalogs that Fischer produced and designed himself, noting particularly their sensitivity and modesty.

“He truly did marvelous work, ahead of its time,” she says. “His immediate grasp of what was happening in real time, his intuitive ability to choose the specific thing at the right time, the projects he carried out in the Billy Rose pavilion ? all this gave me tremendous inspiration.”

The exhibition "Earth, Wind, Fire and Water" by Yinka Shonibare.Credit: Emil Salman
Suzanne Landau.Credit: Shiran Granot
From the video "And Europe Will be Stunned," by Yael Bartana.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Motti Milrod

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