While many of Tel Aviv’s galleries are moving to the southern part of the city, the Israeli branch of Sotheby’s has recently opened in the heart of Tel Aviv, on a square at the southern end of the upscale Rothschild Boulevard. The multinational corporation's Israeli branch moved to its new location after 12 years on a busy and loud street.
“Before that, we were in the Russian Embassy compound, and we wanted to return to Rothschild,” Sigal Mordechai, the managing director of the global art, auction and real estate firm’s Israeli office, explained.
Sotheby’s Israel doesn’t really function as a sales branch. “We held auctions of Israeli art and Judaica until 2003,” Mordechai said. “Then the political situation deteriorated and a decision was made to move our sales to New York, because we knew there were American collectors there who buy Israeli art. Half of all of the sales of Israeli art are to American buyers.”
“With regard to international art, we report to London,” she added. “There was a similar trend to shift the sale of German or Italian art to London.”
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So what does Sotheby’s do in Israel? The local office does consulting both for Israelis and foreigners, she said. “Most of our work is in international art.”
The gallery — the art at which is not for sale — serves as a way of promoting business opportunities. For its inaugural show at its new home, Sotheby’s decided to display some 20 work by contemporary Chinese artists that is owned by two anonymous Israeli collectors. “It’s rather as if a collector in Shanghai had a collection of Israeli art,” Mordechai said. The exhibition is entitled “Beijing to Tel Aviv — Non Stop.”
Mordechai explained how it creates business opportunities. “People who come to the exhibit can ask if the artist on display is sold at Sotheby’s. Perhaps someone will come and want us to handle selling a work in their [own] possession. That’s already happened in the past few days.”
One of the artists in the new show is Yue Minjun. His sculpture “Warrior” — an intriguing fiberglass statue of a man laughing — is at the front of the gallery. Minjun frequently paints and sculpts figures who seem to be laughing uproariously. (There are three others in the exhibition).
In an interview, he explained that Chinese tradition doesn’t allow things to be stated directly. “You have to show something else for the real meaning,” he said. “I wanted to show a happy smile and show that behind it is something sad, and even dangerous.”
Two paintings by Wang Guangyi are also in the show. The two pieces, “Nokia” and “Nikon,” are part of his Great Criticism series.
Wang’s paintings combine propaganda images from the Maoist period, produced with strong reds, blues and yellows, and the logos of Western corporations such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Gucci and Chanel — or in this case, Nokia and Nikon. It’s Wang’s response to the commercialization of contemporary Chinese culture and is the product of the influence of Andy Warhol and the German artist Joseph Beuys.
In the future, Mordechai said, the gallery will also feature Israeli curators. “A gallery of this type makes it possible to show small exhibitions with museum-quality pieces,” she said. “The artwork displayed at our opening show is by artists who became known to the West in the 1990s and who come out in opposition to Chinese culture. Chinese artists had trouble exhibiting in China. They didn’t have galleries and the government imposed restrictions on them. But slowly, things trickled out, via Hong Kong and even Europe, similar to the way Russian art trickled out.”
What types of visitors will come to visit?
“All kinds, including people who are looking to buy paintings belonging to the [Sotheby’s] chain to hang at home, as well as collectors who are in ongoing contact with us. We hope the gallery, the exhibits and the events will reach all art lovers.”
How many major collectors are there in Israel?
“Not a lot, between 50 and 100. I’ll tell you something. The number of art collectors overseas isn’t that big either. We make a lot of noise, but the numbers aren’t large. There may be more collectors of cars.”
Even though art has proven to be a worthwhile financial investment?
“That’s true. But you won’t see people who are into art who collect just for investment purposes. A person has to see value in art for him to want to invest money in it. Not everyone who has money wants to invest in culture. If you’re willing to buy a work at a very high price, an amount for which you could buy another apartment, you really have to love art.”
Do you get museum curators here?
“Museums rely mainly on donors or purchasing groups. When the art market goes up, it creates a problem for the museums. That’s how it is all over the world, because they rely on donations. [Then] they can only buy work by young artists. The two largest museums in Israel have purchasing groups,” she added, referring to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
How does that work?
“Each member of a purchasing group gives an annual sum. Over the course of the year, the curators present us — the Sotheby’s group — with offers to buy pieces, and at the end of the year, the group votes and decides what to buy, based on its budget. These purchases are essentially donations to the museum. The added value for us is that the curators reveal their line of thinking and that of the museum. The purchased work is only by Israeli artists.”
Mordechai said it was important to her that the location have plenty of natural light — “to draw people in,” as she put it. “We want to have people notice us, so not only the art world’s professional community comes in, but also people off the street.”
Architects Arnon Nir and Ishai Breslauer, who redesigned the gallery, have experience with exhibition spaces. They designed the Basis Art School in Herzliya, the Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery on Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina square, Sotheby’s former offices and the Rothschild Blvd. site when it was home to the Alon Segev Gallery.
The architects were asked by Mordechai to create a link between the building’s exterior and interior. The result is a design that improves the appearance of the square on which it sits and makes Sotheby’s stand out in the five-story cubist building that is now its home.
Next to Sotheby’s is the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy Pavilion, a temporary structure surrounded by fencing — a somewhat ironic architectural statement considering the openness of democracy. It’s arguably an eyesore in the middle of the square, but it is slated to be removed soon.
Display spaces are supposed to accommodate the exhibition of art rather than serving the architect’s ego, said Nir. For the previous occupant, the Alon Segev Gallery, he said his firm was asked to increase the display space at the expense of the entrances, but Sotheby’s wanted its art to be made accessible.
“From that standpoint, it’s designed rather like a public building,” he remarked. “At Zemack on Kikar Hamedina, for instance, we designed a façade with a motif reminiscent of a barcode, made of materials that are unusual for that square. For Sotheby’s, we wanted something that would stand out but be clean and minimalist.”
You design a lot of private homes. What principles do you bring from that work to display spaces?
“This is a place where the staff are present during most of the hours of the day, and it’s important to us to provide a feeling of intimacy,” Breslauer said.
“At Sotheby’s, for example, there are vertical windows on both sides of the office areas, and they permit the employees to look outside onto the street,” Nir added. “The previous offices that we designed for Sotheby’s weren’t near a public space, and it wouldn’t have been possible to guess what was inside there. Here, there’s a more significant connection to the city.”