“It’s really ugly,” said one visitor to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which reopened last week, after seeing its Jeff Koons exhibition. The museum’s chief curator, Doron Rabina, who was standing at the entrance to the gallery and tried to explain the American pop artist to her, was unable to convince her to change her mind.
Rabina is not there these days only to talk with visitors, but as a security guard for all intents and purposes. The museum in Tel Aviv decided for budgetary reasons at this stage of the coronavirus crisis to bring back only 40 percent of its employees: The guards remain on unpaid leave and are being replaced by museum employees – including curators.
During our conversation, Rabina stood up several times and asked some young visitors not to get too close to Koons’ shiny sculptures. Actually, he said, he is enjoying playing a combined role that shakes up the museum's staff hierarchy. The idea was initiated by museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli, who "imported" it from her previous workplace – the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There, in the wake of the financial crisis that accompanied the second intifada over 15 years ago, the employees also served as security guards.
Meanwhile, in another gallery, Ruth Direktor, curator of contemporary art at the Tel Aviv Museum, is guarding the group show she curated – “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” – and talking to visitors.
Several of the new guards seem to take their work quite seriously. In one gallery housing a permanent exhibition, the guard reminds me several times to wear a mask and not to talk on the phone. The workers Haaretz spoke to seemed to be happy to return to work despite the new job forced upon them.
“It’s a bummer but I accept it,” said a graphic designer.
“It’s fun to see that the place is waking up and that there are people here,” an accountant, in another gallery, added.
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The government permitted the country's museums to open already on May 17, but only a few did so, including the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. Among others, the Design Museum Holon and the Haifa Museum of Art are now opening their doors gradually, as are public galleries and museums from the Beit Ussishkin Nature Museum on Kibbutz Dan in the north to the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva, in the south.
However, Israel’s flagship museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – which is suffering from a sharp decline in revenues due to the total absence of tourism during the pandemic – continues to be shuttered and it’s not clear when it will reopen. The majority of its employees will remain on unpaid leave until the end of June.
For its part, the Tel Aviv Museum will be closed on Mondays, in addition to Sundays, and its opening hours have been reduced. To deal with the decrease in revenues the museum has cut quite deeply into its employees’ salaries; for now educational activities are still on hold there.
The Koons’ exhibition opened several days before the Israeli government ordered the lockdown. While the management had high hopes that the works of the 65-year-old artist would attract a large audience, there were those in the local art world who were less impressed by the show, entitled “Absolute Value,” which includes only 11 works – sculptures and paintings from the collection of Marie and Jose Mugrabi. These individuals claimed that they had already seen Koons' works abroad where there was a significantly larger selection.
But the coronavirus crisis, which resulted in the cancellation of almost all incoming and outgoing flights in the country, actually proves that it was worthwhile to showcase the works of the artist of glittery kitsch. Last week there was a long line of people at the entrance to the Koons exhibition, from among a total of 620 visitors who entered the museum all together that day – close to the usual number of visitors on weekdays (between 700 and 1,000) in the pre-pandemic period.
As opposed to the way many members of the public have ignored the coronavirus regulations in public places in recent weeks, visitors to the museum the day Haaretz was there were careful to maintain their distance and to don masks.
Micky, a Tel Aviv resident who was waiting outside the Koons show, said that she usually visits the museum on a regular basis. “I was very happy to receive the news about the reopening and it’s fun to be first,” she said.
May, who took her daughter Caitlin out of kindergarten to go to the museum with her, said she had been waiting since March to see the Koons show: “My daughter has been coming to the museum since she was 2 years old, and I preferred to take her out of kindergarten so she could come when she isn’t tired. And as soon as I heard they were opening again, we came.”
Also waiting were two retirees, Anat and Dori, and their daughter Roni, who is on unpaid leave from her job.
“We decided to come to the Koons’ exhibition. It’s a big draw,” Anat said. “And on the website of the Tel Aviv Municipality they also advertised ‘pay for one, get one free,’” added Dori.
Keen on Koons, or not
Anyone who isn't keen on Koons can visit other exhibitions at the museum (its Helena Rubinstein Pavilion is slated to reopen only next week). Although almost no new shows will apparently be launched this year, most of the temporary exhibitions are well worth seeing and offer a window to international contemporary art.
For example, there is Raymond Pettibon's show “And What is Drawing For?” and monumental video works by South African artist William Kentridge, "More Sweetly Play the Dance," and by Scottish artist Rachel MacLean, "Spite Your Face." There are also some tempting options in the realm of Israeli art, among them "Party" – an erotic photography exhibition by Daniel Tsal, which includes intriguing androgynous images.
In a conversation in the sculpture garden, museum director Coen-Uzzielli noted that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality is helping out a great deal at present.
“It’s a privilege to be part of the city,” she said, adding that about 40 percent of the museum budget comes from the city and that they aren’t planning to cut it. “Hats off to the municipality for its willingness to be a listening ear.”
However, she said these coronavirus days have been exacting a high cost: “I’m excited about the opening. But there are fears and sadness. The government doesn’t understand the role of culture and nobody gets upset that institutions are closed. I find that shocking.”
There are those in the art world who observe that this period illustrates the pointlessness of their milieu. Coen-Uzzielli thinks differently.
“Art is connected and relevant to the situation, and it 'reads' the situation," she said. "And it also provides opportunities for escape. I think that the crisis that's now being experienced by the art world everywhere is an opportunity to strengthen local resources.”