Tel Aviv Museum Director Rejects Accusations of 'Self-censorship' Over Nixed Ai Weiwei Exhibit

Tel Aviv Museum of Art director Suzanne Landau defends her organization's recent actions, and says she isn't afraid to resign if the culture minister tells her to censor something.

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei takes a photo with his smartphone as he arrives on the red carpet at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 11, 2016.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei takes a photo with his smartphone as he arrives on the red carpet at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 11, 2016.Credit: AP
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

It’s been four years since Suzanne Landau was appointed director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Since assuming the role after the death of long-standing director Mordechai “Moti” Omer, she’s become one of the most senior figures on the Israeli cultural scene.

When she started in September 2012, Landau declared her intent to introduce far-reaching changes to the way the museum was run. She spoke of transparency and a commitment to artistic standards, as well as tidying up the scheduling of exhibitions and the decision-making process regarding who and what would be exhibited.

She sticks to that commitment today, and vehemently denies recent allegations regarding self-censorship by the museum based on political considerations. “It has never crossed my mind to censor anything, and that was not the case this time either,” she says, referring to the postponement of a joint show by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman.

Kratsman and his gallerist, Nira Itzhaki, recently complained to Haaretz that the museum had decided to avoid mounting a potentially explosive exhibit in which Kratsman planned to show 3,000 portraits of Palestinians he had photographed over the years – people whose subsequent fate was unknown to him. Ai was planning to show projects connected to refugees.

Following negotiations between the museum and artists, which began in 2013, with several deferred openings by the museum, a new opening date was finally set for November 2016. However, Ai’s representatives informed the museum in December that Ai would not be available at that time. In response, Landau sent Ai and Kratsman a letter, dated December 31, 2015, in which she wrote, “I’m really sorry that the change in dates does not suit you. I have deep respect for both of you, which makes it regrettable that this date didn’t work. I hope we can work together in the near future.”

Earlier in December, a conversation took place at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair between Itzhaki and art collector Doron Sabag, who is head of the exhibitions committee at the Tel Aviv Museum. He told her that, as he saw it, the museum would find it difficult to present an exhibition such as Kratsman’s due to the political climate.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art director and chief curator Suzanne Landau.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Landau dismisses any connection between that conversation and the cancellation of Kratsman and Ai’s exhibition, as well as the premise that the museum is refraining from mounting a political exhibition at a time when Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Education Minister Naftali Bennett are trying to dictate a new cultural agenda.

“The reasons the exhibition has so far not taken place are technical,” she stresses. “If we wanted to self-censure or if we were afraid of putting on this exhibition, we would’ve had many opportunities for doing so. But we didn’t.”

Landau is surprised when asked about her political views. “I thought everyone knew,” she says, but is willing to reveal that she votes for the left.

She is very cautious during the interview, giving careful, concise answers. She says she has a tendency to minimize and give brief answers, knowing that this isn’t always effective for media purposes. “I’m trying to learn and improve,” she smiles.

Regarding the cancellation of Kratsman and Ai’s exhibition, her explanations remain short and technical.

Why did the museum postpone the exhibition’s opening three times?

“Postponements aren’t unique to the Tel Aviv Museum. We hold 34 exhibitions a year. It’s a complicated and complex puzzle. We often get stuck for budgetary reasons – as happens in every museum around the world. It was the same when I worked at the Israel Museum. There was one point where we offered Kratsman to move the exhibition to the Meyerhoff gallery, in order to avoid further delays. But he refused and insisted that the exhibition be held as originally agreed upon, in the Lilly Elstein gallery in the museum’s new pavilion. Since we only hold two exhibitions a year there, the only remaining option was November 2016. If he’d accepted the option of changing galleries, the exhibition could have already been shown last year.”

What originally piqued your interest in this exhibition?

“When Miki came and suggested this project, he said this was an opportunity for him to present alongside Ai. They both have a political agenda and I thought there was room for that. That was the main consideration.”

Was this exhibition important for you?

“The exhibition is important because it involves an Israeli artist together with an internationally renowned one, and one of my missions and the museum’s goals is to present as many Israeli artists together with international ones. This is very important to me. It’s important not only to present them together, but to firmly place the museum and Israeli artists on the international map.”

Kratsman approached Tel Aviv Museum with his idea for the exhibition back in 2013, but it was never scheduled to be presented before the exhibitions committee until last December. Other artists who have exhibited at the museum say it usually takes a year for a project to reach the committee stage from the time negotiations begin. Landau says that presenting a show to the committee a year before it opens is quite common.

Ai Weiwei and Miki Kratsman at the Chelouche Art Gallery.Credit: Nira Itzhaki

“There were some contacts between the museum and the artists, but it still needed to be presented to the committee," says Landau. "These committees meet once every three months or so. Since there were constant changes in projected dates, it hadn’t reached the committee yet. As soon as we had a date, we wanted to present it to the committee.”

You wrote that you hoped you’d still get to work together. It wasn’t a letter saying you would soon propose alternate dates. The feeling is that it was a parting of the ways.

“The truth is that we were very surprised and disappointed. We really felt this was going to happen, and suddenly he [Ai] says in two sentences that he can’t. So we didn’t come up right away with an alternative. We’ve been with this exhibition the whole way and wanted it to happen. Maybe the whole process was too drawn out.”

On a personal level, does this exhibition seem more important than other ones to you?

“No. For me, all exhibitions are equally important. Showing [French-American artist] Louise Bourgeois or the Colombian sculptress Doris Salcedo is no less important than exhibiting Ai Weiwei. I respect him, but there are other artists I like better. It’s especially important for me to show Doris Salcedo, an artist I’ve been following for 20 years. It was also very important for me to present Miki. I saw the ties between us as ones of friendship.”

If you admire his work, would you have an exhibition of his work without Ai Weiwei?

“What was important for Miki was to exhibit together with Ai Weiwei. It was an achievement for him – a personal and artistic one. It was also a challenge for him. I understand that. That’s why I’m not sure he’d want an exhibition on his own.”

Would you be willing to exhibit a solo show by Kratsman?

“Yes.”

What are your thoughts on what Doron Sabag told Nira Itzhaki in Miami?

“He expressed his personal, private opinion, and it’s his right to say what he thinks. I hope that’s still possible. He didn’t represent the museum or the museum’s position. That’s important for me to say. On the one hand it’s his right to say what he thinks, and on the other he wasn’t representing the museum.”

Did you consult with him about this exhibition?

“I talked to him as I always do before exhibition committee meetings, discussing which ones will be presented. It’s always like that. He’s the head of the committee. He always wants to know in advance and I tell him. I give him a list of the exhibitions we’re working on in preparation for presenting them to the committee.”

What did he say about this one?

“More or less what he told the gallerist [Itzhaki]. I know his position, but it didn’t prevent us from continuing to work on preparing this exhibition. After Ai announced that he wasn’t free, we ended up not presenting it to the committee. I definitely relate to what [Sabag] said as the personal opinion of an art collector speaking to a gallerist. He told me the same thing. I was sorry this was what he believed, but I think differently and the museum’s position is different.”

Doron Sabag is an influential and powerful person at the museum. Weren’t you worried that the committee wouldn’t approve the exhibition?

“The committee has more people beside him, and each has their own opinion. I talked to curator Raz Samira about the way we would present it. I hoped it would pass. I can never know in advance what the result will be, since there’s a committee and they’re the ones who decide.”

Maybe you wanted to avoid a rejection?

“No. Definitely not.”

Do you believe there isn’t a problem today with presenting 3,000 portraits of Palestinians at the museum?

“Look, it’s not an easy move. But we were prepared for it.”

Even today, with things being as they are? Even with Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev?

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev holding a press conference. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Even today with Miri Regev.”

So theoretically it could still happen?

“It could happen.”

A minister calls (on Shabbat)

Born in 1946, Landau was appointed director of Tel Aviv Museum after serving as chief curator of the Israel Museum for 14 years. She was born in Bratislava (in the former Czechoslovakia) and initially came to Israel on a visit with her first husband at the age of 22, during the Prague Spring of 1968. During their vacation, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and she decided to stay in Israel. She started studying art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and worked as an illustrator for the Hebrew Encyclopedia, until joining Israel Museum’s department of collection registries in 1978.

In her job as curator, she assembled exhibitions from the museum’s collection. She subsequently staged exhibitions that were considered innovative and critical. As chief curator, she worked under the museum’s director, James Snyder.

She says she’s not subjected to pressure from donors, and political personalities don’t usually contact her either – except for one conversation on a Friday evening a few months ago, when Miri Regev was on the line. The culture minister was inquiring about complaints she had received regarding a swastika-shaped chair that was part of an exhibition by Uri Katzenstein.

Regev called after the beginning of Shabbat?

“Apparently she doesn’t observe it. First I got a call from someone at the ministry saying the director general wanted to talk to me, not the minister. I asked what had happened and why it couldn’t wait until Sunday. I asked if someone had died. I really thought something dreadful had happened, I didn’t understand the urgency. All she said was that the minister wanted to talk to me. Regev didn’t say much, the call was short and strange. No one apologized for calling on a Friday evening. I thought it would have been appropriate to apologize. She didn’t say hello or apologize, but got straight to the point: ‘So tell me, is this art?’ I tried to explain, she said goodbye and hung up.”

She didn’t want to talk to Katzenstein?

“No. I called Uri and told him I was in total shock. I told him the minister had called, but it turned out he already knew something was happening because there was something on Facebook. I hadn’t been aware of that. He wasn’t completely surprised. I told him I’d tried to explain it to her, and then he offered to speak with her. I didn’t prevent him from doing so. I didn’t ask him to; it was really his initiative. They made contact and talked, and apparently she really loved what he said.”

Unexpected calls like that on a Friday evening contain an element of pressure. Maybe it created a feeling where you told yourself you didn’t want the minister calling you again on a Friday night?

“I regarded that conversation as unimportant – one that doesn’t affect decisions, the manner in which I manage the museum or how I see its content. I made it clear that if a demand was made to remove that object from the exhibition, I would resign. There’s no way I would have agreed to its removal.

“In this case [the Kratsman and Ai exhibition] as well, if there was a demand to cancel the exhibition, I stand behind my words. If I think this exhibition is worthy of being shown at the museum, I stand behind it and behind the artists involved in it.”

However, Landau was once involved in an exhibition that was canceled for blatantly political reasons. This was in 2001, when she was still chief curator at the Israel Museum. Artist Efrat Shvily was about to exhibit a series of portraits of the then-Palestinian cabinet, in a show curated by Sarit Shapira. Landau wrote her in October 2001: “I’m very sorry for the long delays in setting a final date for the exhibition of Palestinian cabinet member portraits. Unfortunately, life in our region has some forceful dynamics and their direction is not always predictable. In conversations I’ve held with other curators about this exhibition, all of them expressed serious misgivings about presenting these portraits at this time at the Israel Museum. I, too, like my colleagues, am not convinced that the timing is right.”

Landau argues that today’s political climate is not the same as the one which accompanied the second intifada. “It wasn’t my personal decision then and there was probably an extensive discussion that led to that decision, according to that letter. The situation then was almost like that of a war. It was different,” she says.

There’s also a sort of intifada today.

“But you know exactly what the difference is.”

What is the difference?

“We’re in a situation where there are attempts to silence people and not allow artists to express what they think. That wasn’t the situation then. It wasn’t a question of silencing. It was more related to the fact that it was odd to present the Palestinian parliament during an intifada.”

Are you saying that precisely because of attempts to silence artists today, it’s even more important to show these things?

“Of course it’s important to show them. It’s always important.”

If it’s so important, why didn’t you do everything you possibly could to mount this exhibition?

“The guy said he was unavailable. It somehow didn’t work out with this exhibition. That happens.”

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