As the world converges on its own navel, Suzanne Landau elected “not to wallow in all that mire,” as she puts it. After stints at the topmost two jobs in the Israeli art world, chief curator of fine arts at the Israel Museum and then director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum, Landau embarked on a new adventure: a gallery showcasing international artists in Tel Aviv.
This week, with collector Steeve Nassima, an old-new immigrant from Belgium, she inaugurated the Nassima-Landau commercial gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv. “We have to have art. People have been withering without it, in the absence of anything else,” she says.
Most commercial galleries in Tel Aviv usually proffer solo exhibitions of individual artists. Landau and Nassima plan to present group exhibitions, mainly by international artists. Later they intend to add space-adapted installations and one-time cultural events as well.
The first exhibition at the new gallery is called “High Voltage” – 35 figurative works by 15 young artists, of whom three are Israeli: Nirit Takele, Guy Yanai and Gideon Rubin.
The text accompanying the exhibition sounds promising: “They all breathe new life into figurative painting, pushing the boundaries of what figuration can mean, often turning to and reinventing historical subjects, current events and comics as sources of imagery and inspiration.”
Behind this polished explanation lies a commercial decision. In recent years, figurative art has become all the rage among collectors the world wide. It’s easier to sell figurative works compared with abstract contemporary art or installations, like the ones Landau curated and promoted during her 40 years of working at Israel’s foremost museums.
“It’s true. It’s much easier to sell figurative art,” Landau agrees in a conversation we hold in the yard of Nassima’s elegant Tel Aviv apartment. “But that wasn’t the only consideration. We wanted to create an atmosphere of things as they’re happening now. If you go to galleries in Chelsea, Manhattan, you’ll see many galleries with figurative art. We want to keep our finger on the pulse and present things that are current in the art world. That’s not always possible in museums, in which operations are less flexible and more geared to the long-term range. We have the option of being flexible.”
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Nassima hails from a family of diamond merchants. He came to Israel 12 years ago with his wife and children (they divorced later). He says he began collecting art at the age of 21 and now owns a few dozen works.
“My tastes are expensive,” he says, explaining the relatively small collection – mere minutes after the arrival of a package containing a pumpkin sculpture by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Most of the financial investment in the new gallery comes from him. “There are many expenses,” Landau admits, adding that the two of them decided to do what they love and enjoy.
Finding Covid Face 19
All the artists in the opening exhibition are relatively young: less than 50 years old. Some are in their 20s. None of them are known in Israel.
“Our goal is to feature unknown artists,” explains Landau in describing the curating process. “We identified some of them especially for this exhibition, while following others we did know. These days, when it’s impossible to travel abroad, I found some by roaming on the internet. Were it not for the coronavirus, we would not have chosen artists that way.”
The pandemic has also impacted customers, she adds: “People now buy art works for millions after seeing them on a screen. Art fairs have moved online, and they’re flourishing.”
The decision to target unknowns also had an economic rationale. Young and lesser-known artists are cheaper. “We didn’t plan on getting art works priced at tens of thousands of dollars. We thought that prices, ranging in the thousands, should be more affordable. It’s not easy to bring art that’s both accessible and high-quality,” she says.
Among the artists presenting their work at the exhibition is Derek Aylward, a 44-year-old American who has exhibited his work at galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Two of his paintings will be displayed. One of them is an acrylic of a twisted colorful face, called Covid Face 19, which has an affinity with other modern paintings. During the lockdown, Aylward started almost manically painting faces, which he says show the utmost in the anxiety and uncertainty besetting us these days.
'In an ideal world the state would give much more substantial support without interfering with content, and there’s no reason for the state to interfere'
Another intriguing artist is the German painter Christopher Hartmann, 27, who works in London and has exhibited his work in London and Berlin. In Tel Aviv, he’ll present three of his works. He says he is influenced by movements such as the New Objectivity of the 1920s, and by romantic painting.
A more mature artist is Ann Toebbe, who has exhibited her work at many U.S. galleries, although Landau admits she hadn’t heard of the American artist prior to the current exhibition. Toebbe will be showing two collages dealing with life at home.
“I identified artists who have potential and who are willing to create something new,” says Landau. “I saw artists doing good work, and we took a chance. I like the idea of taking risks. I had a similar experience at the Israel Museum in a project called Guest Artist, but I don’t believe this method will make its way to museums.”
Do you rely on your reputation to sell work by unknown artists?
“You could say that too, but I believe there is a thirst for art. There is no one at this exhibition who never had a show, all of them have a resumé and some past exposure. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s Suzanne or not, people rely on themselves, not just on the vendor. They are the ones who will have to live with it 24 hours a day.”
Landau, 74, met Nassima, 46, after retiring from Tel Aviv Museum in 2018 and providing him with advice about his collection. The two began thinking about the new gallery after Nassima noticed a space for rent across from his house a few months ago. The gallery was designed by Reut Iron, who does a lot of work for the Tel Aviv Museum.
Its location is unusual. Most commercial galleries in Tel Aviv have moved to the southern part of the city, where rent is cheaper. Most of the art world’s events take place in studios and in cooperative galleries.
They hadn’t set out to be different, Landau says. “It happened by chance. Steeve saw the space and the location appealed to him, and from there things progressed. It all took two months. There was an element of spontaneity here, as well as intuition.”
She believes the new gallery will add a cultural feature to a street in which commerce is the main activity, with its restaurants and grocery stores. “It may seem bold, but everyone is waiting for something to happen. So, we just jumped into the cold water.”
Who will your customers be?
“There is Steeve’s social circle, which includes people who know many others, and there are the people I know. That’s the starting point, from which we hope to expand, finding people whose interest we can pique. I think there are more collectors and people buying art than is believed. They are a bit under the radar.”
A museum isn’t an amusement park
Landau was born in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia, an only daughter to Holocaust survivors. She came to Israel in 1968 and after the events of the Prague Spring, decided to stay. Her parents came in her wake. She studied art history at the Hebrew University and worked as an illustrator for the Hebrew Encyclopedia until joining the art collections registration unit at the Israel Museum, in 1978. She later became curator for contemporary art and chief curator at the Bezalel art wing at the museum, handling group and solo exhibitions, including ones by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer; German painter Gerhard Richter, and a show called “New York Now,” which included artists Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Allan McCollum, Peter Nagy and Haim Steinbach. In 2011 she was the chief curator at an exhibition by the South African artist William Kentridge. She also curated projects in the museum’s sculpture garden. In 2007, she curated an exhibition by Yehudit Sasportas at the Venice Biennale.
In 2012, after 34 years at the Israel Museum, Landau was appointed as the director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum. She curated exhibitions such as “From her wooden sleep” by Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendeles, “The Clock”, by Christian Marclay, “Twosome” by Louise Bourgeois, and “Modern Times”, a collection of masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
During her tenure, the positions of director and chief curator were split again, after being merged during the term of previous director Mordechai Omer. The new curator was Doron Rabina.
Another significant project she initiated was the renovation of the museum’s old historic building. This included a reconstruction of the original design and the removal of later additions from its front, establishing a café facing the sculpture garden, expanding the museum’s gift shop and upgrading the entry hall and box office at the main entrance. As part of the renovations, an experiential family center was established, including a gallery for exhibitions and a space for workshops, with interactive activities for children and adults.
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the local art world went into hibernation. Since the first lockdown, most museums have only been open for three months, from mid-May or early June until the beginning of the second lockdown. In September, some museums, such as the Tel Aviv Museum or the Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod, put on new exhibitions. A new cluster of exhibitions is waiting for the reopening of the Herzliya Museum. Furthermore, there are several public initiatives designed for open spaces, such as an exhibition at the botanical garden in Jerusalem, a photography festival in Tel Aviv, and a chain of events called “Loving Art.”
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The Israel Museum has been notable in its absence. “It’s a pity they’ve done nothing. It saddens me a great deal,” says Landau. “One could have utilized the large space of the sculpture garden in order to launch all kinds of activities. It’s a missed opportunity.”
In the shadow of the coronavirus, any interest shown in museums has been unrelated to art, focusing instead on the unusual burglary at the Wilfrid Israel Museum at Kibbutz Hazorea; or on tensions between employees and management at the Israel Museum, which has been hit particularly hard by the drop in the number of visitors, which delayed the museum’s reopening after the first lockdown.
The latest scandal revolves around the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, which put five percent of its collection up for auction. The museum’s directors justified this controversial sale partly by noting the many sales carried out by the Israel Museum over the years. According to Landau, this comparison is inaccurate. “In Israel and Europe, it’s not customary to sell items from a museum’s collection. In the U.S., due to the pandemic, some museums began to sell off items for lack of choice. At the Israel Museum, sales were made in the past only with the approval of donors or their heirs, on condition that profits go towards the purchase of other works of art. The number of items that are up for auction at the Museum of Islamic Art is unusual. I don’t have all the data, but the missing piece in this story is the issue of ownership over these items.”
Maybe the problem begins with the mixture of public funds and money given by donors, who have their own interests?
“Every museum has a clearly defined budget, with clearly indicated amounts of state support and the extent of donations. Every donor is registered. In some cases, private donors have a specific goal in mind, such as an exhibition, and they can pose conditions.”
How can one ensure that donors don’t interfere with decisions?
“I always strived to have donations given unconditionally, so that we are not obliged to exhibit a donated work of art, with the museum remaining free to do with it what it chose to.”
Still, donors have clout. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for contemporary art at the Tel Aviv Museum is changing its name to the Eyal Ofer Pavilion.
“In this case, the main donation is for the building itself. That was the donor’s condition, and the museum has to decide if it accepts the donation or not. It’s an issue of semantics.”
'I saw artists doing good work, and we took a chance. I like the idea of taking risks'
Do you think that the budgetary allocation for museums should change? If the state provides more money than donors do, it too can start interfering with institutional decisions.
“In an ideal world the state would give much more substantial support without interfering with content, and there’s no reason for the state to interfere. Colleagues of mine in Europe didn’t know at first what raising money was. Now things have changed somewhat, but one can look at a country like Germany and see how much money artists and galleries received there during the coronavirus crisis.”
Some museums in recent years have been trying to increase the proportion of self-generated revenues in their budgets, sometimes by becoming somewhat like an amusement park.
“It’s a question of policy. It’s easy to turn a museum into a place for families, but one should maintain the correct proportions. One has to define the different activities taking place, such as youth or adult group activities, or events held by friends of the museum, but it shouldn’t turn into an amusement park.”
Holier than the pope
In interviews she’s given while in office, Landau noted that plastic art is at the bottom of the heap in terms of cultural priorities. She now says that hopes aroused by the appointment of Chili Tropper as the Minister of Culture have not changed the situation. “One should talk about the culture budget in relation to the state budget. Everything goes to other items, with culture considered only at the end. Everyone was happy when Tropper got the job after Miri Regev, of whom I don’t know what to say. Tropper is a nice guy, but that’s not enough. If he doesn’t bang on desks, cultural institutions will get nothing. Museums have still not received support and it’s unreasonable that they are still closed. Studies have shown they are very low-risk sites of infection.”
Along with fretting about budgets and the epidemic, Landau is worried about another danger facing museums. This is the era of political correctness.
“Museums now have a big problem with this issue,” she says. “Everyone is trying to be holier than the pope. There definitely was discrimination in the past, against women and minorities such as blacks in the U.S. But en route to fixing this, victims have fallen by the wayside.”
For example she notes the veteran curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who resigned after saying that he would continue to purchase works by white males, following the museum’s sale of a Rothko painting for $50 million in order to purchase works by minority artists for its collection.
Another incident in the same vein is the suspension of curator Mark Godfrey from the Tate Modern in London, she says: The museum, along with three other big museums, rejected holding a retrospective for painter Philippe Gaston, after concluding that the caricature motif of Ku Klux Klan members in white robes which appears in his work requires presenting a better context, more suited to current political realities. Godfrey criticized this decision and paid the price.
Can the current public climate lead to self-censorship?
“I don’t know. There could be curators who are worrying about their livelihood. There were a few exhibitions at the Israel Museum which continued to be shown despite protests against them. This included an exhibition by Roee Rosen’s exhibition “Live and Die as Eva Braun,” which dealt with the current representation of Holocaust memory, as well as an exhibition by Ram Katzir called “Within the Line,” which also evoked opposition. Katzir created coloring books, which when filled in, showed figures taken from Nazi propaganda. One has to explain such exhibitions. There are articles in the catalogs, one can add signage and a book for visitors, but one should not be afraid of mounting the exhibition.”