Sailing the Flagship of Israeli Art

Israel Museum's new art curator strives to maintain her commitment to local art while avoiding experimental exhibitions that other museums prefer. 'This isn't just a place,' she says.

Mira Lapidot’s appointment as the Israel Museum’s new art curator comes after many veteran curators have retired. So Lapidot is encouraging change and evolution, but as someone who moved up the ranks and was the right-hand woman of sure-handed curator Suzanne Landau, Lapidot respects the museum’s history.

Lapidot, 42, met with a reporter a week after the opening of Yehudit Sasportas’ new exhibition, the first to be curated by Lapidot since her appointment. The exhibition, entitled “Seven Winters,” is impressive in its scope. It’s the fruit of two years of cooperation.

Lapidot’s excitement is evident as she walks through the installation. She’s full of stories about the works, about the dialogue with the artist − small stories from behind the scenes and possible interpretations of the works.

As we enter the darkened space, Lapidot notes that the curator’s traditional text is missing. “In this exhibition, and especially at the entrance, we preferred to let the viewer enjoy a visual experience without creating the forced delay of reading and understanding,” she says.

The exhibition is the result of a meeting three and a half years ago, when Sasportas made an offer to Landau, who at the time was chief art curator and curator of contemporary art. Two years ago, before Landau left her post, Lapidot was entrusted with the project, starting a two-year intensive dialogue. Lapidot says Sasportas’ exhibition is proof of the museum’s commitment to its role in the Israeli art scene and its promotion of Israeli artists.

When Landau left a year ago to join the Tel Aviv Museum as chief curator, her role at the Israel Museum was split between two people. Lapidot became chief art curator, while German curator Rita Kersting was appointed Landeau Family Curator of Contemporary Art.

Lapidot was relatively unknown before her appointment because she didn’t curate many exhibitions or publish academic research. But she held many posts; for example, she was Landau’s assistant and the curator of group exhibitions.

Learning under Landau

Lapidot grew up in Jerusalem and studied chemistry and art history. She began working as a guide at the museum’s youth division in 1997.

She defines her years under Landau as a learning period. “She wore two hats, and I was fortunate to become familiar with all the aspects of a curator’s work, as well as the museum’s inner mechanisms,” Lapidot says.

The most exciting time for Lapidot was the museum’s renewal period. “There were three years of thinking what story we were telling and how we planned to tell it,” she says.

“We moved between meta-curatorial topics in the background and the most practical questions of placing every detail. In this sense, it was an extremely interesting and significant juncture that include a physical renewal and a change of staff.”

The past two years saw the departure of Landau, Yigal Zalmona and Nissan Perez, the curator and founder of the photography department. One of Lapidot’s first initiatives was to rethink the art department. Instead of opening different exhibition’s separately on different dates, four or five exhibitions have been launched simultaneously in recent months.

One of the next exhibitions will be “Aircraft Carrier,” which was presented this year at the Israel pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition addresses the radical transformation of Israeli architecture and the American influences of recent decades. At the same time, the museum is showing an exhibition on Herod the Great and Lapidot hopes that both exhibitions will provoke thoughts on the relationship between empire and the provinces.

Lapidot opts for what she defines as intellectual and research-oriented exhibitions. But she avoids the experimental exhibitions that other museums prefer, believing that the Israel Museum has a different role, integrating the various departments and collections.

“This isn’t just a place,” she says. “We have professional abilities and staff that enable something to come to life and gain significance in the history of the artist and in the history of art.”

Yigal Pardo
Uri Gershoni