A Museum in Search of Self

It was supposed to be a big moment - the upcoming dedication of a new building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which would double its existing exhibition space. But the museum is in crisis. What will this key national institution look like in the era after the death of its long-time director, Mordechai Omer?

In three months, on October 29, the new Herta and Paul Amir building at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will open its doors. The gala opening will be attended by devotees and friends of the museum from around the world, as well as by an international cadre of art and architecture journalists, who will cover the opening of one of the largest and most impressive buildings constructed in Israel in recent years.

However, the untimely death in June of Prof. Mordechai Omer, the museum's director and chief curator, has left the institution teetering on the brink of an abyss. The museum, which will be expanded to more than twice its present size with the opening of the new building - its most significant expansion since its inception - has a relatively small team of curators lacking leadership and has faltered in its fund-raising this year. Plus, the exhibitions slated for the new wing are already garnering criticism, even before they open.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Yuval Tebol

At what was supposed to be a shining moment for this important cultural institution, questions about its status are arising. After Omer's 16-year tenure, the question is, to what extent is the museum capable of self-criticism? What capacity does it have for change and renewal?

These questions are all the more pressing in light of the exhibitions planned for the opening of the new building. One of the most controversial is the monumental display of work by German artist Anselm Kiefer, "The Hidden Light Within the Broken Vessels," which will be on show in the building's largest hall. Alongside it will be design exhibitions by Yaacov Kaufman and Hanan de-Lange, neither of them surprising choices; an odd and insignificant architectural show focusing on the five buildings of the Tel Aviv Museum; and exhibits of work from the permanent collection, including prints, drawings, photography and video installations.

There will also be an exhibition that will cover 100 years of art in Israel. This is something Omer had been talking about since assuming his position in 1995, but it will not feature the 400 works he had envisioned, but only 150. There are two main reasons for this: First, the fact that Omer, who was 70 at his death, was not able to complete the curating process; and second, the museum's decision not to divide up the exhibit halls so that, at least during its first year, visitors will have an unobstructed view of the lines of the new building, designed by American architect Preston Scott Cohen. This decision is to the museum's detriment, for it appears that the importance of the ostentatious building is dwarfing that of its artistic content.

Ellen Ginton, the museum's chief curator of Israeli art, was not involved in organizing the new exhibit featuring the Israeli art collection, since Omer had taken on all the planning himself. "It was very dear to him," Ginton said last week by way of explanation. Still, Dr. Doron Luria, the museum's chief restorer and the curator of 16th-19th century art, says he noticed during his visits with Ginton to Omer's hospital room in Ichilov Hospital how "the reins were gradually being transferred to Ellen." Instead of the three books Omer planned to publish in conjunction with the exhibition, only one catalog, that of Israeli art taken from the museum's collection, has come out.

Luria recalls another experience the museum's curators had in relation to the new building: "Ten years ago, they had us do a two-day brainstorming session, not limited by budget or space considerations. Everyone was asked to say what his dreams were, and Motti's task was to translate all this into a program. One thing that was talked about in these discussions, for example, were two halls for restoration in the new building. But as in any Turkish bazaar, it came down to haggling and little by little we ended up with something else."

Another proposal that evaporated over the years was a retrospective by Pinhas Cohen Gan, which was supposed to open this past June, but whose fate is still undetermined. For one thing, it's not clear who will curate it in Omer's stead.

Curator and art historian Dr. Gideon Ofrat cites another problem. "There's something unresolved with the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, everything there appears random," he says.

Art collector Doron Sabag, a member of the museum's board of directors, says about this space - one of the Tel Aviv Museum's finest halls, which has the advantages of being distinct from the other museum buildings and having free entry: "For years I told Motti that the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion should be a Kunsthalle [an exhibition space without a permanent collection], that it should be the laboratory for bold, young and experimental Israeli art. I told him, let's take someone like [curator] Tami Katz-Freiman and let her do Israeli art shows there - 'meta-sex,' 'mega-sex,' all the things she likes to do. Even if 10 years from now, people will say that the shows there were terrible, it doesn't scare me."

Later this year, Katz-Freiman will indeed curate a group show of contemporary Indian art in the space that will first house the Kiefer exhibition. Other plans in the works include a home-design exhibition based on the DIY phenomenon; a big show by artist Douglas Gordon; a show of Picasso drawings and prints; and exhibitions by Reuven Israel, Shai Azoulay, Walid Abu-Shakra and Gaston Zvi Ickowicz. The exhibition plan devised by Omer goes through the start of 2013. And what then?

Artist Tsibi Geva says the Tel Aviv Museum "is a place in crisis. It has expanded in volume, but now Motti is gone and it's not clear who will be running things. Conceptual thinking and a serious strategy is needed to ensure a meaningful appointment, not just to plug holes and exploit opportunities."

Curator Sara Breitberg-Semel also feels that "beyond the human dimension, it's a catastrophic situation that the museum is doubling its space within such a very short time. Such a change requires prior preparation and the construction of an intellectual and physical infrastructure that will sustain it and create content for it. The museum staff remains as sparse as before; even in the old space it was too small and not up-to-date in terms of new media.

"The urgent thing now, therefore, is not just to find a director for the museum, but to put together an expanded and high-quality staff that will have to think where it's going while it is going."

In addition to Ginton and Luria, the museum staff now includes five regular curators, six deputy curators, four curatorial assistants, four restorers, five registrars and two exhibition technicians.

"I didn't envy Motti, having to work under these conditions. He gave his all and it wasn't enough. And I don't envy whoever will succeed him in running the museum, which is at an ethical dead end," adds Breitberg-Semel. "This is the moment to think about the museum, a distinguished and weighty institution, in 21st-century terms. And this is no easy thing to do."

Quest for director

A few weeks ago, the Tel Aviv Museum published an ad saying it is seeking a general director. Applications will be accepted until August 10.

The ad explains that the future director should be "an accessible and polite person who is pleasant to be with ... who has a good sense of people and communicates well with them." It also says that an applicant should bring "his vision and his expertise in leadership and management" and be prepared to oversee the completion of the project of the new museum building and to make the museum "a model of what an art museum should be in the 21st century." The successful applicant's qualities should include familiarity and affinity for the museum's heritage and a love of art - at least a master's degree in the field - more than a decade of proven managerial experience (preferably in museum management ), and the person should be accomplished in carrying out "large-scale projects." The director will oversee a total staff of 150 and an operating budget of more than $20 million.

"In short," says Doron Sabag, a member of the search committee, "we are looking for a leader. Someone who will raise money, who will create international connections, who will bring us exhibitions from abroad and put us on the international map on the axis of exhibits that travel from MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York ) to MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles ) to the Tate Modern to the Pompidou. Someone who can take exhibitions of Israeli art and bring them to museums around the world."

One of the big questions is whether the future director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum will be the same person - as Omer and some of his predecessors were - or whether the job will be split. Decision makers are not presenting a clear stance on this. They say it will be up to the director general that is selected.

Although Omer formally wore both hats until his death, some of his work was actually delegated to others at one point.

"When we learned that Motti had cancer and was embarking on treatment that would last weeks and possibly months, I organized a discussion at the museum, at which it was agreed that Ginton and Luria would take on the curating burden that Motti had borne until then," says attorney Haim Samet, a member of the museum search committee and board of directors. Since Omer was hospitalized, Shuli Kislev, the museum's deputy director, has been interim director.

Given the museum's major expansion, it's a little hard to imagine one person being able to oversee all the management and curating tasks. Says Sabag: "I don't know if the director will also be the chief curator. At one point we were really thinking about taking someone more in the James Snyder model [a reference to the director of the Israel Museum], with less connection to art history."

The description of the director position leaves little room for applicants from the local art scene, since very few would meet the requirements. As for the possible appointment of a chief curator, this has become the talk of the town. Names of potential candidates include Sergio Edelstein, Sarit Shapira, Katz-Freiman, Tali Tamir and Galia Bar Or, as well as Ginton and Luria.

As for their qualifications - Edelstein founded and curated the Artifact Gallery, the International Video Art Biennale and Videozone, and also founded the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, in 1997; Shapira was a curator at the Israel Museum, a member of the curating team of the independent exhibition space Magazine 3 in Stockholm, and curator of the Yigal Ahuvi collection; Katz-Freiman served for a brief time as the curator of the university gallery in Tel Aviv under Omer's supervision, and was also chief curator of the Haifa Museum of Art for five years; Tamir was curator of the Kibbutz Gallery and of the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art; and Bar-Or has been curator and director of the Ein Harod Art Museum for the past 24 years.

Unusual condition

The end of the tenure of a director or chief curator at a major museum is always a time for reflection. In the case of the Tel Aviv Museum and Omer's death just before the dedication of the new building, this discussion is especially pertinent.

It seems that everything that can be said about Omer has already been said: In his lifetime he was not spared criticism and worse; and in life and in death, he was also the object of much admiration and respect. A controversial figure, his centralizing tendencies and his personality dictated the museum's image over the last 15 years.

Omer was offered the post of chief curator during a time of administrative and budgetary crisis and of instability in the field of curating. That crisis began in July 1989: At the time the museum was in a deep deficit of NIS 5 million and the Tel Aviv municipality demanded that Marc Scheps, who had served as director since 1976, initiate some serious cost-cutting measures. Without advance warning, dismissal letters were sent to 22 employees, including Breitberg-Semel, who had been curator of Israeli art there since 1977.

Leading artists, curators and critics, among them Philip Rentzer, Dganit Brest, Ido Bar-El, Moshe Gershuni and Raffi Lavie, immediately signed a protest letter that was critical of Scheps' conduct. "We view him as responsible for the situation that has been created and therefore we deem that it is vital to replace him in order to improve the situation," they wrote at the time. It wasn't long before Scheps resigned.

Then-mayor Shlomo Lahat appointed Roni Disenchik, a financial adviser, to the position. Most of his work was focused on developing the museum's collections and improving its marketing systems. Disenchik, and Scheps before him, were the only administrators in the museum's history who did not also serve as chief curator. From 1989-93, this role was filled by the highly regarded curator Yona Fisher. About a month before Fisher resigned, because of poor relations with Disenchik, Omer's name came up as a possible candidate for the job. He was 52 at the time, a professor of modern art, a senior lecturer at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and in the Tel Aviv University art history department, and head of the museum studies and gallery-curating program that he'd started there in 1977. But he was not offered the job at that time, some say because of the criticism expressed by other artists and curators.

After two years in which the search committee was unable to locate another candidate, and amid public pressure to bring the saga to an end, Omer's name was brought up again. He presented the committee with an unusual condition: that if he accepted the job, he would also be in charge of the museum's overall budget. Disenchik, known for keeping power to himself and being difficult to work with, saw the direction the situation was taking and resigned. And thus, in 1995 Omer was appointed chief curator and director general of the museum.

At the same time, he presented another condition: that he be allowed to continue his work at the university and its gallery, and be excused one day a week from his duties at the museum for this purpose.

"I was always surprised by his confidence that he could do so many things and do them all well," says Dr. Dalia Manor, curator of the Negev Museum of Art.

Despite the days off, there is no one who feels that Omer did not give his heart and soul to the museum. Breitberg-Semel, who was at the museum every day for a year, preceding the retrospective she curated last year for Moshe Gershuni, says, "What surprised me, or maybe not, was that Motti was there all the time - in his office, in the cafeteria, with artists that he cherished, with distinguished guests. They said he had no life outside the museum and that's really how it seemed."

A passion for art

The positions of chief curator and director general had already been given to one person in the past, but under different circumstances: When the Tel Aviv Museum first opened in 1932, when it was located in Beit Dizengoff, its first director, Dr. Karl Schwarz, was also chief curator. This combination was perceived as natural at the time because the institution was new and small, and had not yet amassed any significant collections. Schwarz was also an art historian with much experience; he had previously been director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Haim Gamzu, the art and theater critic, succeeded Schwarz after his death and served in the position for two years.

When Gamzu left in 1949, Moshe Kaniuk, the administrative director, became the director general until artist and critic Eugen Kolb took over in 1952; after his appointment, for ethical reasons, Kolb stopped writing criticism. Still, like Omer years later, Kolb continued to lecture in various places, including the Seminar Hakibbutzim and the Center for Progressive Culture (later Tzavta ), in addition to his work at the museum.

Both Kaniuk and Kolb put a strong emphasis on Israeli art. The former promoted abstract lyrical art from the New Horizons group and sought to expand the museum by opening the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion; like Omer, he did not live to see this major construction project completed. For his part, Kolb sought to focus on Israeli painting and its position within the Jewish context; he was also a fan of abstract art, but also promoted other streams. One of the most esteemed figures in the art world at the time, and in the history of the Tel Aviv Museum, Kolb died in 1959. Gamzu returned to the museum then and filled both roles until 1976.

Like his predecessors Kolb and Kaniuk, Omer was also committed to Israel art and stressed this at every opportunity. Many came to think of him as "Mr. Israeli Art," as he was eulogized at his funeral.

After earning his bachelor's degree in art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Omer continued his education and acquired professional experience abroad, specializing in modern art. He earned his master's degree from Columbia University in New York and his doctorate in England. He also worked at MOMA under curator Rene d'Harnoncourt. After returning to Israel in the mid-1970s, he gained a reputation as a scholar and published books on the artists Yitzhak Danziger, Joseph Zaritsky and Michael Gross, among others.

Omer's appointment as director in 1995 caused an uproar, including demonstrations in front of the museum and editorials in the press that argued he was conservative and anachronistic, and not open to critical-political discourse or contemporary media. In response, in the first interview after his appointment, Omer said: "It is beneath me to comment." Yet, in one article that was published shortly after he began his job, he did express his views - about his predecessors ("Marc Scheps is a frustrated artist"; Yona Fisher never earned a matriculation certificate" ) or colleagues ("Dalia Levin, the chief curator of the Herzliya Museum, can show fresh art, but not consolidated art" ).

The museum's veteran team of curators also did not get off easy, at first. In a 1999 article in Yedioth Ahronoth, one of them, who declined to give her name, said that Omer summoned each curator for a private talk, which mostly involved berating them and hurling insults at them over their insufficient academic backgrounds and poor performance.

Looking back now, however, Ellen Ginton for one says that in recent years her relationship with Omer was excellent. "At first our relationship was more tense. I was a curator of Israeli art and that was also something dear to him. It wasn't clear how it would work out."

Omer curated some of the large, comprehensive exhibitions of Israeli artists who are considered part of the local canon, like Arieh Aroch, Yaacov Dorchin, Dani Karavan and Danziger, and younger artists like Sigalit Landau and Michal Rovner. Asked how the work was divided between her and Omer, Ginton says: "He was the chief curator, he made the decision and acted accordingly. I came with suggestions, some were accepted and some weren't. Looking back, I can say that I did fulfill most of my plans. I don't feel like impassable hurdles were placed before me."

Curator Tali Tamir believes that Omer's big contribution was in putting the artists he liked on the map and "highlighting the theological aspect in secular art - concepts like the lofty, the inexpressible, the absence and so on. The insertion of elements of romantic, messianic thought into the modern."

Dalia Manor says: "The exhibitions he curated or that were curated under his aegis had a similar pattern: didactic and conservative. Every exhibition began with an introduction that featured a self-portrait of the artist, information about his family, about the artist's background, where he came from, and division into subjects." She adds that despite all the critical acclaim for many of Omer's exhibitions, something was lacking in terms of exhibits grouped around a specific theme and cutting-edge research.

But Luria says: "The museum's role is to research and enrich the collection. Every Israeli exhibition is research. Every catalog is research." Ginton adds: "Without the books created by the museum there would be no research."

Yet Manor argues: "Not every publication with a colorful cover is research. The museum did not fulfill a most important role. It does not research history - neither of the collections in its possession nor of Israeli art. And if it doesn't do this, who will?"

Tsibi Geva says: "Motti brought an asset that must be appreciated, and that is a great and total passion. This is no trivial thing in the art world. It's a kind of energy you don't often find."

'Expression of admiration'

Omer was very dedicated to promoting the work of a number of artists over the years. "Motti was a friend and a partner," says the artist Ofer Lellouche at an evening in Omer's memory at the museum. "His connection with the artists far exceeded the usual connection between curator and artist; it was closer, warmer, sometimes tenser, but always much more fertile. Motti was able to have a close and intense dialogue with so many artists, maybe because he himself had traits that are usually typical of an artist: a kind of enlightened loneliness, a self-confidence planted in a deep faith, and the character of a soloist."

Photographer Avi Hai says: "More than anything, he loved to spend time in artists' studios. He recognized that art must be understood from the bottom up."

Curator Ami Steinitz observes: "Motti's curating was always an expression of admiration, either self-admiration or admiration directed at artists and collectors. It had no social or political expression, but was more about admiration of talent. He had a kind of innocent conception of these things - it was romantic, semi-religious, seemingly apolitical. For what he aspired to create, he needed a certain kind of power, and a lack of interest in and distance from the local reality."

Many in the art world claim Omer lacked a willingness to open up to young art, to new kinds of media, to art occurring outside the museum and to new concepts that could upset the old hierarchy.

"He wasn't close enough to contemporary art," says Naomi Givon, owner of the Givon Gallery in Tel Aviv. "He missed seeing many exhibits, and sometimes the main artistic activity was concentrated in the galleries." But she adds: "Maybe he unwittingly strengthened the gallery scene, which sought to fill the void created at the museum."

Manor relates: "When I lived in London, I often ran into esteemed museum directors at exhibits that were shown in galleries and other museums. If Motti was ever at Documenta, the biennales, or made the rounds of the Chelsea galleries - you never saw it anywhere in the museum's agenda. The feeling was that he lived in a bubble that he created for himself somewhere back in his youth."

Gideon Ofrat believes that "a museum must be essentially committed to holding exhibitions that ask social and political questions. Motti avoided such questions. Political activity barely entered the museum. Think about the times we went through - intifada, the Palestinian revival and Palestinian art in general - that were not handled at all by the Tel Aviv Museum."

Above all, it appears that Omer did not groom any heirs. "Everyone knows that Motti took too much upon himself: He curated alone, researched alone, hung works alone and ran things alone and there was a price to this," says Breitberg-Semel.

Curator Ruti Direktor also thinks that "Omer's inimitable centralization was certainly to the museum's detriment. The feeling is that he did not nurture the museum staff or groom any heirs, and you see now that his departure has left such a big vacuum."

Fund-raising woes

One sign of this vacuum is the museum's present financial state. Fund-raising has been lagging since Omer's death, reports interim director Kislev. She says that fund-raising plan will also have to be expanded but no strategic approach has been finalized yet.

Each large exhibition shown at the museum in recent years was budgeted at NIS 360,000, a sum that sounds ludicrous for exhibitions of the scale to be presented in the new building, whose large hall is 900 square meters in area. However, the museum's budget for the present year has grown and now stands at NIS 70,290,000, compared to NIS 52 million last year.

The Tel Aviv mayor's office says that the municipality has allocated NIS 29 million to the museum this year, NIS 8 million more than the previous year. In 2012, the city will also increase the museum's budget, but the final amount will only be determined two months from now.

The Culture Ministry says that as in previous years, this year too, the museum is receiving NIS 3 million in support.

Kislev: "We are hopeful that someone will wake up in the government, too, which did not give a cent to this wonderful building, but will maybe begin to relate to the Tel Aviv Museum properly - especially when it presents a coherent Israeli collection, as a national institution."

Aside from the allocations it receives from the city and the Culture Ministry, the museum's funds come from ticket sales, special events, the gift shop, rental of spaces, and donations.

At a memorial evening at the museum a few weeks ago, marking 30 days since Omer's passing, Kislev announced the establishment of an international forum in his name. This forum, which will be comprised of curators, museum directors and writers from around the world, will deal "with issues at the center of contemporary artistic activity, including, research, theory, museum education, community work and the museum's standing."

The forum is scheduled to convene for the first time in November 2012. It is apparently just the first of a number of initiatives that will memorialize the late director and curator. Tel Aviv University, where Omer lectured and founded the art gallery, has said it has yet to finalize its own plans in this regard.

As for where the Tel Aviv Museum is headed from here, says Haim Samet, "We'll be making a mistake if we search for the next Motti Omer. We won't find him." W