Should an Israeli Billionaire Be Allowed to Erase Helena Rubinstein Off a Museum?

Tel Aviv Museum's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion is being renamed after Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer on the back of a $5 million donation. A court petition says the process has been badly blundered

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The late cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein and businessman Eyal Ofer. A questionable facelift and renaming of the pavilion.
The late cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein and businessman Eyal Ofer. A questionable facelift and renaming of the pavilion.Credit: Anne-Sophie Heist and AP
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The announcement came out in March 2019: Tel Aviv's iconic Helena Rubinstein Pavilion would receive a facelift and be renamed the Eyal Ofer Pavilion for the Arts, honoring the real estate and shipping billionaire, who inherited his wealth from his late father Sammy Ofer.

The reason for the change? A $5 million donation from the Eyal and Marilyn Ofer Family Foundation, which announced the move in a joint statement with the municipality and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, of which the pavilion is a part.

The statement was made on the day of a meeting of the museum’s board of directors, where attorney Haim Samet, the public representative on the board, reported on his talks with the foundation.

A sign announcing the new name of the pavilion, which is currently under construction.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In 2006, the Tel Aviv museum of Art was to be named "the Sammy and Aviva Ofer Tel Aviv Museum" in exchange for a $20 million contribution.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Samet said he had the impression that Eyal Ofer's “decision was to make a significant donation to the Tel Aviv Museum comes from a place of love for art and a sincere desire to benefit the museum.”

This isn't the first time members of the Ofer family try to buy the museum's name. In 2006, the Tel Aviv museum of Art was to be named "the Sammy and Aviva Ofer Tel Aviv Museum" in exchange for a $20 million contribution for a new building. But following a public outcry the Ofer family retracted the donation.

At the board meeting, Samet noted that the direct descendants of Rubinstein, the cosmetics magnate who died in 1965, were no longer alive.

The renaming of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion is now also being confronted with a pushback. Social-activist and attorney Miki Roitman together with 27 other Israelis have petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court, which will rule on the matter in a few weeks. In addition to lambasting alleged administrative and legal failings, the petitioners note the eroding of the presence of women in Israel's public sphere.

The decision to change the name was made at the start of Tania Coen-Uzzielli’s term as museum director, so she was barely involved in the deliberations. According to the minutes, board members didn’t object to the name change. In interviews with Haaretz, they said they didn't remember any significant debate; it was more of an update.

Tel Aviv Museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli.Credit: Moti Milrod

At the board meeting, Samet noted that the direct descendants of Rubinstein, the cosmetics magnate who died in 1965, were no longer alive. He added that the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, which had the building put up and underwrote later renovations, ceased operations in 2011. Since then there has been no contact with the family.

But after an inquiry by Haaretz, it emerged that officials at the museum and the municipality overlooked that Rubinstein has two living nephews, whom they failed to tell about the donation and name change. The initial announcement passed without protest by the public or the art world, which in the past has objected when tycoons got involved with museums.

It needs to be noted that in the original announcement on the name change and renovation, the Eyal and Marilyn Ofer Family Foundation was mentioned as asking the museum to commemorate Rubinstein's past donation, without providing details on what the specific commemoration would be.

When the issue of renaming Tel Aviv institutions was brought up at a city council meeting, Mayor Huldai interjected: 'We’ve lost $20 million because of this nonsense.'

Eyal Ofer. His net worth is estimated at $12 billion.Credit: Anne-Sophie Heist

In early 2022, fences went up around the building near Habima Square on Tarsat Boulevard, where signs announced that the place would actually be called the Eyal Ofer Pavilion.

The nuance isn’t coincidental, and it followed an affair in 2005. Back then, a donation by Sammy Ofer, Eyal Ofer’s shipping-magnate father, was canceled when the public objected to the renaming of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. A decade and a half later, use of the word “building” instead of “pavilion” was an attempt to obfuscate the erasure of Rubinstein’s name.

At a city council meeting in early 2020, Avraham Poraz, a member of the council and a former interior minister who now sits on the museum’s board, raised the issue of renaming Tel Aviv institutions. Mayor Ron Huldai interjected: “That has happened in the past. With all the shouting, we’ve lost $20 million because of this nonsense.”

The late cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein in her office in New York in 1958.Credit: AP

Either way, the renovations are nearly finished, and the pavilion is due to reopen in the spring with an exhibition of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti.

Attorney Roitman noticed the erasure of Rubinstein’s name from the building and wrote to the municipality and the museum; she demanded that the current agreement and the one from decades ago be made public. Roitman also filed freedom-of-information requests.

Since then, the museum and the municipality have provided only two documents: the minutes of the board meeting where Samet spoke and an announcement on the dropping of Rubinstein’s name. In one response to Roitman it was claimed that the decision was not discussed at any other meeting.

Social-activist and attorney Miki Roitman.Credit: Jens Braune del Angel

The petition, which has been filed against the municipality, the museum and Eyal Ofer, details the claim that a raft of legal and managerial mistakes were made in renaming the pavilion. For example, the municipality and the museum allegedly violated the Interior Ministry’s fundraising guidelines.

The guidelines dictate a two-stage authorization mechanism; first the donation is assessed by a donations committee. The greater a desired deviation from the committee’s position, the greater the decision must be justified. In the next stage, the city council must be notified of the donation, whose size must be announced within 30 days of its receipt.

“Nothing of this happened,” the petition reads. “According to the documents provided, the donations committee never convened and no assessment of the donation was ever done. It was not approved by the legal adviser or the treasurer, and no announcement was made to the city council or the public.”

Avraham Poraz, a member of the council and a former interior minister who now sits on the museum’s board, raised the issue of renaming Tel Aviv institutions.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

'No questions were raised'

Poraz says the name change bothered him the most. “It’s obvious that a donor doesn’t donate for no good reason, but a transaction is going on here, because the donor wants his name displayed. They claimed they sought to contact Helena Rubinstein’s heirs and didn’t find a single one,” he says.

“I pressured them to put up a sign with her name, which would note that this place was built thanks to her. Similarly, the Palace of Culture [on Habima Square] was called the Mann Auditorium, which was changed to Bronfman [the Charles Bronfman Auditorium]. In that case, they compensated the heirs.”

The petitioners say the decision on the pavilion was reached without a proper consideration of the facts. “From the documents that the petitioners received, it appears that the donation agreement was not presented to the museum’s board of directors, or even to those present at the one meeting where the agreement was purportedly discussed and approved,” the petition reads.

The entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv, which was renamed the Tel Aviv Museum Eyal Ofer Pavilion.Credit: David Bachar

“No questions were raised about the decision, no details were provided on the talks with the Marilyn and Eyal Ofer Foundation, no fundraising alternatives were discussed. There was no discussion of the substantial donation by Helena Rubinstein and the significance of removing her name from the pavilion. ... Her endeavors in the arts were not taken into account, and no full factual picture was presented regarding her and the Rubinstein Foundation’s donations to the museum over the years.”

Roitman says the museum and the municipality didn’t show a willingness to talk and reach agreements respecting Rubinstein and those protesting the erasure of her name. “They're dragging their feet,” she says. “They're refusing to show the contracts that were signed, including the one signed with the Ofer Foundation, so we have no choice but to turn to the courts.”

Roitman adds that the municipality and the museum are reducing Rubinstein’s accomplishments to that of “providing a donation.” She says that “the decision to rename the pavilion turns a very central place in the city and the country into a billboard disconnected from the accomplishments of the commemorated person and her historical significance.”

For its part, the municipality said that the donation by Rubinstein, and her memory, “will be commemorated and receive worthy recognition and appreciation.” It said it would respond in court to the claims in the petition.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art added that in renovating the building, the Ofer family foundation would ensure that the donation by the Helena Rubinstein Foundation “will be remembered and valued, and Rubinstein will be commemorated in a respectful manner both inside and outside the pavilion.” It said the other questions in the petition would be discussed in court.

The Eyal and Marilyn Ofer Family Foundation said that it was “honored and delighted to respond to the museum’s approach about supporting the extensive renovation program required for the pavilion. As part of the renovation and the renaming, the foundation requested the museum to ensure that past support from the Helena Rubinstein Foundation is meaningfully commemorated forever.”

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