An Art Museum - What Every Israeli Working Class Town Needs

Former art college lecturer teamed up with local mayor to build arts complex on ruins of vegetable market in Kiryat Ata, a blue-collar town near Haifa.

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The krayot area, also known as that bundle of sleepy cities north of Haifa (comprising Kiryat Bialik, Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Motzkin) is also an area that smacks of missed opportunities. The krayot is home to around 200,000 citizens, yet it hardly makes the headlines, except when it comes to crime (like the triple murder last week), or the Kiryon, the most successful mall in the country. Yossi Ohayon, former head of the visual communications department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, wants to do something almost crazy. He wants to put these sleepy suburbs on the Israeli art world’s map.

We head to an unusual building adjacent to the Kiryat Ata football stadium. This abandoned vegetable market was inaugurated in 1993, but never was actually put into use on account of a disagreement between the stallholders and the municipality. It has several rusty arches covered with plastic sheets, and colored tile walls that have been covered with graffiti over the years. Ohayon gets out of the car with a childlike excitement, exclaiming “wow!” as he passes a homeless person’s bed with last night’s blanket still covering it. This site, in what is perhaps the most unlikely location in Israel, is where Ohayon is planning to build an art museum and art school. I ask him whether in his heart he really believes it’ll happen. “Of course it’ll happen. Kiryat Ata needs this,” he replies.

Ohayon, 54, who grew up in one of the city’s neighborhoods, met mayor Yaakov Peretz three years ago at a social function. Peretz, who branded Kiryat Ata as a “city of the future,” wondered whether Ohayon wanted to do something connected to art in the city. Ohayon was surprised by his proposal: “I said to him: ‘You? Art?’ He said: ‘Why not? We also have something to say.’ So I took a tour around the city, and then I saw this absolutely crazy building. It looked like a cool place because it was a sort of unfinished building and now it’s a pothead’s hangout. I said, wow, it’s an amazing building.”

Two months ago Ohayon succeeded in rounding up a basic development budget from the city, and has since formed a team and is working on the program like a man possessed, dashing between his home in Tel Aviv and the deserted building in Kiryat Ata. “At the moment, there are only shopping malls and shops in the krayot. I don’t know why people are always shopping here. But if they don’t shop, what will they do? It also isn’t a sophisticated consumer culture, rather something basic and pretty pathetic an imitation of the center of the country for no particular reason.”

Hitler, Coke and Ehud Barak

Ohayon is disgusted by consumer culture, and even initiated an exhibition titled “Coke Sucker” when he was at Bezalel. The exhibition made headlines because of an artwork that showed Hitler alongside the Coca-Cola logo. But on the other hand, he was a partner in the “Armoni Mordi Ohayon” advertising firm, and was responsible for constructing campaigns such as “Israel is waiting for Rabin” for the Labor Party in the 1992 elections. He also worked on the 2009 election campaign for former Labor chairman Ehud Barak, which had the slogan: “Not a buddy. A leader.” Discussing the Barak campaign, he says: “There’s an advertising strategy where you interview 400 people in the street and then use the 10 best responses in your favor. We did this with Barak and no one had anything good to say about him. He was hated to an unbelievable degree. We sat and said to ourselves: ‘Fuck, no one can stand the man. What do we do?’ We decided to explain that he’s a leader.”

Establishing a museum in a remote area isn’t an unusual step in the diverse career Ohayon has had so far he’s also been a metalworker, sailor, and directed “Underdogs,” starring Dan Toren and the artist Noam Edry. Ohayon hasn’t chosen Kiryat Ata out of lack of choice; this city is his first choice. “I wouldn’t have been interested in establishing a museum in a big city. I’d have nothing to say there. You only do something interesting if you’re hungry. If you’re sated, the only important thing is that the food keeps coming.”

We take a tour around the city, slowing down near the neighborhood where Ohayon grew up, before continuing on to the place where the ATA factory once stood. Today it’s a characterless neighborhood full of highrises. We search in vain for a sign to remind us of the biggest textile factory in Israel, which closed in 1985. “Today its ATA, tomorrow it’s ata [you],” shouted the protesters at the time, who felt that the moment symbolized the country’s transition from a manufacturing society to a place full of real-estate sharks and building contractors. Ohayon makes references to the city’s proletarian past, calling his initiative an “art factory.” Its first exhibition will also be a tribute to the factory.

“Young people don’t have anything to do here,” he says. “Everyone was enthusiastic about the idea of establishing a museum. The artists as well. I haven’t heard any negative reactions. There were artists who asked where Kiryat Ata was, because all the krayot are lacking in identity.”

I ask him whether he thinks that the most appropriate use of the municipal budget is for a museum. “It won’t cost millions, we’ll only make small renovations without spending lots of money and getting people riled up,” he says. “It’ll be easy to obtain donations towards this social cause. It is a place that will pay for itself and bring money into the local economy. Do you know what a museum will do for the surrounding houses? There are always problems, but don’t the people here deserve a museum."

Yossi Ohayon at site designated for art museum at Kiryat Ata.Credit: Abdallah Shama