This Time, It's the Art Collectors on Display

Artist-collector relations and how board members of the Tel Aviv Museum make their money are some of the questions Ishai Shapira Kalter examines in his new exhibition.

Galia Yahav
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'WORKING EVERYDAY OF MY LIFE'.Credit: Ishai Shapira Kalter
Galia Yahav

The number of art exhibitions that deal with the local art scene from a critical sociological standpoint can be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare. In Israel, we usually remain far from this sort of discussion, or automatically relegate it to the past.

Around here, when speaking of reflection, one is referring to artistic elements such as the use of space, materials and form, and the tensions among these, or else to the private symbols of the language of the self. There are exhibitions that purportedly deal with ideology and history, but really revolve around the narrative of (Zionist) collectivity and what happened to it. Exhibitions that wail and moan without naming names, that seem to imply that privatization, occupation, gentrification and so on are just forces of nature. Once there were Palestinian laborers, then the Thais came; once there was a White City, then high-rises sprouted up; once there was a sandstone ridge, now there’s a boardwalk. Decorated military commanders retired and went off to make their fortunes in Africa, and suddenly the “refugee problem” pops up in south Tel Aviv, in an area that will soon be wiped off the face of the earth and rebuilt “for the public’s benefit.”

“Institutional critique” is also not found that often in art institutions in America and Europe, which have a historical memory and a leftist consciousness. But here it has never really been accepted; honestly, what’s artistic about focusing on the what and the who that makes art possible? In this country, we want social justice, but we aren’t about to touch the tycoons who meddle in the plastic arts. Whenever someone tries to talk about the economics of the present culture, about the tycoons who have taken over cultural institutions, we are certain to hear the code word “Medici” mentioned. The frequent mention of this name in any discussion of the power relations between money and art has a clear purpose – to fatalistically acknowledge that it has always been thus, and therefore critical art really has nothing new to say. In other words, capitalism is a force of nature. This is the context in which to view Ishai Shapira Kalter’s exhibit “Hobby” at RawArt in Tel Aviv. Clearly inspired by artists such as Hans Haacke and Mark Lombardi, Shapira Kalter has researched the various professional and business ties of the members of the Tel Aviv Museum’s board of directors.

In 1971, Haacke exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, a project entitled “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System.” It was comprised of 142 photographs of slum properties owned by a few families, including trustees of the museum, and exposed an empire of exploitation. The exhibition was canceled, artists took over the museum in protest, and the Guggenheim’s director was fired. Lombardi dedicated his whole life to creating complex drawings showing the flow of money, oil, drugs, political appointments, wars, and government and mafia ties. Shapira Kalter, a young artist, has trained his sights on a much smaller target – the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Objectifying the patron

In a large (graphite on yellow acrylic) drawing, he displays the names of the board members and the companies they own (mostly real estate), their donations to other fields besides art, and their other jobs. The names include Ronald Lauder, CPA Menachem Atzmon, Yael Moritz, attorney Zvi Pomrock, Beny Steinmetz, Ruth Sheetrit, Edna Tokatly, attorney Hanina Brandes, Igal Ahuvi, attorney Allen Baharaff, and, of course, Ron Huldai, the chairman of the board. Can anyone from the art world – artists, scholars, curators – be found among all these industrialists, lawyers and real estate magnates? Yes – Arturo Schwarz. One out of 36.

“As the oversight body, the board of directors holds the responsibility for appointing the museum’s administrative staff, for taking part in planning the exhibitions and participating in the selection committees for the awards presented by the museum,” writes curator Noga Davidson. “This information is accessible to the general public, but instead of it remaining behind the scenes, Shapira Kalter has raised it to the surface and placed it front and center, as if to say – If these are who are pulling the strings, why am I only watching the play? There’s another drama going on here too, and it’s bigger and more interesting and more important than the one I’m supposed to be watching.”

She says that, in addition to the board members’ influence on art, the drawing also shows that a few of them are heavily invested in land and properties in south Tel Aviv. Therefore, “their support for art interfaces with their interest in promoting the gentrification process in the area, signified by the entry of artists, art galleries and hip nightspots into areas known as hotbeds of poverty and crime, as part of the urban renewal trend directed from above that is raising real estate values in the area.”

At the entrance to the exhibition space, a video called “Working Every Day of My Life” is playing. It shows a Nigerian priest preaching in a makeshift church located in a building, owned by one member of the board, that is slated for demolition as part of an “urban renewal” project. Nearby is an electronic panel upon which the names of museum donors flash by (the minimum sum required to be added to the list is NIS 5,000) – the list is taken from a plaque by the museum entrance (“the only free work at the museum,” says Shapira Kalter, since it’s located before you get to the box office). He says it tells us what we’re about to see in the museum, in the social sense. There are also seven portraits of collectors, created on commission, in a pop-art poster style, like products that are cheaply made and sold at a high price, or forged designer products. On the rear wall is a large pink neon sign displaying a single word – Occupation – with a double meaning, and both meanings are posed against the title of the exhibition: Hobby. What’s considered a profession, and what’s considered a Hobby? What is the connection between the occupation (the main subject of political art in Israel) and the serious, talented artist? According to the curator, all of this involves “casting an objectifying gaze toward the patrons of art,” and posing the question of who works for whom.

The main weakness of this project is its incompleteness. Most of the companies cited here remain largely unfathomable to anyone not very familiar with the ins and outs of industry and business (What does ownership of Tekoa Mushroom Farm Ltd or City Millennium Investments Ltd, for example, really tell us?). The list reveals a very thin layer of interests, and hardly touches upon the implied political connections.

Unlike the artists upon whose shoulders his project rests, artists like Artur Zmijewski and Christian Jankowski, Shapira Kalter’s aesthetic is not of the scholarly, documentary style. On the contrary: Instead of the dry, stern infographics commonly found in this genre, Shapira Kalter creates a highly produced and synthetic pop aesthetic that makes use of an orange-pink-yellow palette and flashing signs, of art that is manufactured like a product or brand. Despite a 40-year tradition of institutional critique, in Israel the few exhibitions of this type are usually immediately labeled as provocations. The question is: Just who is being provoked here? They clearly arouse opposition from artists, of all people, who leap to defend the art-loving tycoons, who like to think of themselves as more liberal. This time, one collector chose to respond violently while another, Doron Sabag, hastened to purchase his portrait. “I love art and I support artists, including Ishai, who had the guts to create this series,” he explained, also proving that every artist has his price.