In recent weeks, a group of artists, musicians, actors and creative young locals have set up shop in Alliance House, a building adjacent to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that has been abandoned since the early 1990s.
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“Why should the building stand empty?” thought Amir Biram, the real estate developer who purchased the structure and plants to turn it into a hotel in the future. After meeting Elisheva Mazya, the CEO of non-profit Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit) association who was looking for a temporary space for artists, he offered to loan her the building.
“When we first arrived at the building it was neglected and abandoned,” says Biram. “It pained us that such a beautiful building, in the heart of Jerusalem, was standing deserted, and we decided first of all to clear out the filth.” Biram and Mazya signed a contract that enables the Ruah Hadasha and groups of artists to make it their home for at least two years. The period could be extended to five — it all depends on when the planning committee approves the hotel project.
This is the last vestige of the Alliance institutions. The building was apparently completed in the early 20th century. It is three stories high, with an interior courtyard and an area of about 2,500 square meters. In the first stage, the top floor — an area of 1,000 square meters — was readied for the NGO and the artists. Another floor will soon be prepared for Mass Challenge, a social incubator for startups.
The project’s preservation architect, Dror Solar, prepared a renovation plan that will adapt the stone building for the artists’ workshops. The relatively low budget for the renovations, 700,000 shekels ($185,000) — which was raised mainly from donations, including one from Biram himself — will be used only while there is artistic activity at the site.
Following Solar’s example, students and graduates of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design industrial design department have also joined the renovation efforts. They set up a temporary workroom with tools and electric saws, and designed the work spaces and offices for the NGO as well as a lounge for journalists and members of the public with seating areas, desks and a kitchenette with a long communal table.
“The design of the spaces and the furniture was influenced by the temporary nature of a building that’s also a construction site,” say the designers. “That’s why we also used mainly pine.” Inspired by the nearby market, they included Perspex planks and polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, surfaces to cover some of the floors in order to break up the uniform appearance of the space, and designed lighting fixtures from plastic crates and garbage cans from cashew containers.
Elad Schechter, a choreographer and the director of Alliance House, chose the artist groups who will come and join his K.A.T.A.M.O.N. dance troupe in the space. The other groups that are taking part in the initiative are the School for Music and Quiet, a group of young musicians who give lessons and operate a recording studio; members of the Jerusalem-based Branja Theater; a group from the ultra-Orthodox branch of Bezalel; and Mikan Vehala, a group of Jerusalem filmmakers. There will also be a master class for drawing and painting taught by graduates of the Jerusalem Studio School and a residency for fine artists, which will include seven-week cycles for groups of six artists. Each cohort will receive about 60 square meters of space, with each participant paying only 100 shekels per month.
Although the NGO is also financed by municipal funds, Schechter promises that they won’t interfere in the content of the works.
For Biram, the most important part is that the abandoned building will be in use. He believes that the state or municipalities themselves should fine landlords who leave buildings empty. He calls on owners of assets not to be afraid to offer up the buildings for temporary use. "It’s possible to make an orderly agreement with a familiar NGO and everyone benefits,” he says, adding that since the building was re-opened, its positive influence on its surroundings has been evident. “Suddenly you hear music booming, young people coming and going, passersby enter the building and are amazed at its beauty — including those who studied there in the past, like my mother.”
The groups of artists participating in the initiative are also satisfied. “This move is a crazy dose of encouragement that gives everyone a push,” says Gadi Weisbart, who heads the Branja group. He believes that a place like Alliance House helps keep artists in Jerusalem, since “when they complete their studies, about 90 percent of the people leave because there are no professional opportunities and no professional workshops for adults, like our marketing workshop, for example.”
“Until we moved here we didn’t have a physical place," says Yochai Hadad of the Mikan Vehala filmmakers’ group. In the past, when they worked with youth at risk, including religious and ultra-Orthodox youth, "we used a center in Katamon but we didn’t have a space of our own.” Like Weisbart, he thinks that the new complex meets Jerusalem's need for a transitional space between people's studies and professional career. “In Tel Aviv there’s enough activity for people to rub shoulders with one another, in Jerusalem there’s no incubator in which to grow.”
“I believe that artists are agents of change, that’s why we’re promoting programs that will keep artists in the city — and that’s the greatest thing we’ve done,” says Mazya. “There are lots of graduates who want to stay in the city, and a place like this creates a community and enables them to keep their life here.” She admits that idea is “somewhat elitist: It will be a place for people in the profession. Jerusalem needs elites and I’m not ashamed of that.”
In practice, though, most of the artists who complete their studies in Jerusalem will continue to leave. One example is photographer Eyal Tagar, a graduate of Hadassah College of Technology. “When I studied in the city it was a productive place to do my art, I connected to people and there was great intimacy,” he says. Still, when he finished his degree he decided to specialize in architectural photography and moved to Tel Aviv. “I felt that if I stayed in Jerusalem in my field, I would stagnate. There’s far more movement and action and construction in Tel Aviv, and in addition, most of my friends from school have left.”