New Tel Aviv Museum Appointment Is No-confidence Vote in Curating

The choice of artist Doron Rabina as chief curator shows that the museum is still trying to adapt to its directors’ view of the contemporary art world and its role in it.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art's new chief curator, Doron Rabina.
Tomer Appelbaum

In the Israeli art world, where resentment and disappointment are common, the announcement on Monday of Doron Rabina’s appointment as chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was initially greeted as a pleasant and head-scratching surprise.

On the one hand, all the conspiracy theories floated during the search process of the past months – citing ties between potential candidates and collectors and tycoons, and suggesting that the tender was a mere formality – turned out to be baseless. But on the other hand, it suddenly became apparent that the museum hadn’t conducted its search in the expected manner at all: Instead, it selected someone who has never worked in museum curating or within a museum system, and who didn’t even apply for the job when the tender for the position was publicized.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Rabina can’t be a successful curator; it simply means that the study of art, which many consider one of the necessary foundations of a museum that aspires to leave a mark, hasn’t been one of his main occupations up to now.

Rabina’s selection shows that the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is still trying to find its way and adapt itself to its directors’ view of the contemporary art world, and of the museum’s role within that world. As Rabina’s career has so far been mainly as an artist and art educator, the museum appears to be trying to latch on to global trends regarding curating, a profession that seems to be raising more and more questions.

Indeed, other artists have been invited to curate major art events lately: The seventh Berlin biennale in 2012 was curated by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, and the upcoming Istanbul biennale will be curated by the Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset.

Rabina’s selection can also be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the kind of institutional curating to which we’ve grown accustomed. Among the candidates who applied via the internal and external tenders issued by the museum during its search for a chief curator, were some of the most senior and experienced curators in Israel, but none of them was deemed suitable for the position.

In choosing Rabina, the museum is saying that it’s looking for something new, for something outside the traditional lines of Israeli museum curating. Is that a good thing? Some will say the museum needs a fresh perspective and a serious shakeup, that it hasn’t really been taking off, and that the exhibitions it puts on don’t have anything meaningful to say.

Others will argue that, for that precise reason, what’s needed is a curator with experience and depth, one who could help the museum formulate a clear research, historical and thematic direction that would gather weight from one exhibition to the next, as is the case at the world’s leading art institutions.

Rabina’s appointment does raise a few questions. During his tenure as head of the Beit Berl Faculty of Arts - Hamidrasha, the school, which was considered one of the top two in the country (alongside Bezalel, and prior to the opening of the Shenkar art department), was at a low point. In fairness, the crisis at Hamidrasha was part of the overall crisis affecting all the art schools in Israel, but it seemed to hit there especially hard, with the number of applicants falling off precipitously. Opinions are divided as to whether or not Rabina contributed to that situation.

Rabina resigned from that post after five years, and when I interviewed him then in Haaretz, he told me that he longed to get back to doing his art. “I think I managed to achieve the important things that were dear to me, and I was afraid that if I stayed too long, it would create a chasm between me and the art itself. Such a chasm isn’t right for someone who does art, and it also isn’t right for someone who runs an art school. The director should also have the smell of the studio in his nose,” Rabina said, after departing Beit Berl two years ago.

Now he is leaving the studio behind again to take up an administrative post. Like every artist who is part of the scene, and like every teacher who has either frustrated or delighted many young artists, Rabina has collected a range of alliances, rivalries, fans and haters. Will he be able to set aside all these relationships and start with a fresh clean slate, free of debts and reckonings, as he takes the artistic reins of one of the country’s most important cultural institutions? The burden of proof is on him.