Highbrows With Lowbrow Concerns

The new council for culture and art, which met for the first time last week, represents a genuine revolution. The entire organizational mechanism involved in support for art and culture in Israel will be dismantled.

The new council for culture and art, which met for the first time last week, represents a genuine revolution. Culture Minister Matan Vilnai's decision to appoint an 18-member council to replace the previous 180-member council is quite courageous as a new approach in cultural administration in Israel. However, only time will tell if this step will produce favorable or negative results.

The entire organizational mechanism involved in support for art and culture in Israel will be dismantled. The new council, whose decisions will affect cultural policy from 2003 on, will decide who receives funding, how much, for how long and under what conditions funding will be stopped or held up.

Minister Vilnai, the chair of the new council, appointed most of its members after consultation with Emanuel Halperin, who was to be appointed as acting chair. At the last moment, Halperin backed out for fear of a conflict of interest in terms of his employer, the Israel Broadcast Authority. He was replaced by Ram Evron, who no longer works for the IBA. While Evron will head the council, Halperin handpicked its members.

There was no transparency in the selection process of the council members. It is not at all clear why they were chosen and by what criteria. At first, Vilnai appointed a search committee to appoint the members of the new council. The committee included Shimshon Shoshani, Michael Ben Yair, Hed Sela and Professor Zohar Shavit. Their proposals were not accepted.

Shavit, a member of the new council and head of the Vision 2000 committee, which in January 2000 submitted a position paper on cultural policy in Israel, says: "The selection process of committees is never transparent. With whom did Benjamin Ben-Eliezer consult in appointing the Second Authority Council? We consulted with dozens of organizations involved in cultural activities. According to the decision of the current government, the minister does not have to consult anyone. The requirement to consult should be mandated by law."

The members

The members of the committee are: Meir Aharonson, artistic director of the Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan; Yossi Ahimeir, editor of The Nation, a quarterly published by the Jabotinsky Institute; Meron H. Isaacson, poet and writer, who served as chair of the literary department in the outgoing council of culture and art; Ruth Almagor-Ramon, IBA Hebrew language adviser; Dr. Meir Buzaglo, lecturer in philosophy at the Hebrew University; Salem Jubran, writer and poet, author of a weekly column in the Israeli and Palestinian press; Roni Duek, founder of Zionism 2000, an apolitical movement, founder of the Now movement for immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia and chair of the Al-Sam anti drug organization; Ruti Director, art critic of the Ha'ir Tel Aviv local weekly and exhibition curator; Halit Yeshurun, editor of the Hadarim poetry journal; Dr. Micha Levin, lecturer in art history and architecture at the Technion and chair of the plastic arts department in the outgoing council; Professor Yehuda Morali, lecturer in the department of theater at the Hebrew University; Marina Ne'eman, political and news reporter for the Russian-language television news magazine Kaleidoscope; Hed Sela, director of the music department in the Tel Aviv Museum, former co-author, with Elihu Katz, of the Bracha report and chair of the committee for organizational reform in the culture ministry; Professor Zohar Shavit, a researcher in the Unit for Culture Research at Tel Aviv University and member of the Second Authority for Television and Radio Council; Ze'ev Shor, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and chair of the Association for Culture Departments in the Union of Local Authorities; Inna Shapira, producer and director of documentaries in Israel and abroad; and Samiha Hijazi, teacher of Arabic and teacher mentor at Haifa University.

The revolution was sparked by the Bracha report on cultural policy in Israel, written in 1999 by Elihu Katz and Hed Sela, and further supported by a special report commissioned by Minister Vilnai and submitted in 2001, "on the organizational reform in the support mechanism for arts and culture," which was adopted almost in its entirety by the minister.

The report points out the many flaws in the mechanism controlling the funding that the culture budget distributes to various areas and organizations, including to the public council for culture and arts, whose 180 members are volunteers that make recommendations to the minister on how to distribute support.

The job of the cultural administration in the ministry is to carry out the council's recommendations.

According to the report, this mechanism suffered from various maladies that became increasingly serious over the years. "The entire mechanism has stagnated and lacks flexibility or imagination," says the report. "The council served as a rubber stamp for the failures of the culture administration. [...] The council was huge and unwieldy. It did not hold plenary sessions and consequently did not consider the entire picture." According to the report, "The council did not have authority, muscle; it could not enforce, confirm or follow up the implementation of its recommendations."

"In effect," says Hed Sela, "the practice was to meet twice a month, formulate recommendations but almost nothing happened because the council members had practically no authority and the money was promised in advance, especially to the larger institutions, the dinosaurs. The council could make recommendations concerning prizes, grants, representatives to the international exhibitions or festivals. But it had no real effect on the main part of the budget. Consequently, the officials made all the decisions. In other words, the culture administration officials decided how and to whom to give funds, especially the administration's funding committee on which treasury officials also sat."

The report's recommendations were supposed to resolve all these problems, and the minister consequently decided to form a small council with only 18 members, which would deal with matters of culture policy. It would, for example, decide how to divide up the pie among the various areas, for example, the theater budget versus music, and also to determine how much funding each applicant would get.

Alongside the council, there would be professional teams of three to five members, experts in each field, that would conduct an in-depth examination of each applicant for funding. Another basic change was that the professional consultants would be employees rather than volunteers. Their recommendations will be binding on the council, which will submit them to the minister for approval.

If the minister decides not to adopt a particular recommendation, he must return it to the council for discussion and explain his opposition. In other words, the new council has considerable power - it is not just an advisory council, but the one to actually decide. The administration and all its officials will only implement the decisions of the council that have been approved by the minister. It should be noted that the new council has no representatives from cinema, museums and libraries, which have their own councils. Observers representing them will be present at council meetings, but will not vote.

Fear of politicization

The entire move raises numerous questions and doubts. The success of the new council is dependent first and foremost on the quality of its members, as the report itself states. But it appears that most of the council members, who will need to address complex cultural issues, are out of touch with what is happening on the ground, or are well-versed in one specific area but are unfamiliar with other areas.

Another question is whether all the members of the council indeed meet the criterion demanded in the report: "an authority of the first order and prominent intellectuals."

Apparently the composition of the council was primarily affected by considerations of political correctness, and that consequently representatives of Mizrahi Jews, Arabs, women, etc. were selected.

The deliberate decision not to choose the council members in accordance with the various areas of culture and art is one of the main problems. It will be interesting to see how they deal with matters related to dance, considering that not a single member of the council comes from this area. A similar situation exists for music and theater, for which each has only one council member. Will they have the final word in these areas?

But the central problem is the fear of politicization of the new council. Because the council is small and its members are appointed by the minister, who serves as its chair, it would be only natural for him to appoint people close to him who share his views and opinions. This does apply necessarily to the current culture minister.

"The one who cooked this whole thing up is Zohar Shavit," maintain employees of the Culture Ministry. "She developed a thesis that the supreme culture council distanced politicians from the decision-making process, while the reality may turn out to be just the opposite."

The appointment of the new council, in fact the entire move, is causing embarrassment and confusion among the employees of the ministry, who fear the loss of their authority. Some say that Shavit pushed through the entire maneuver after she took over the ministry. In their view, she is the minister's official adviser, albeit on a voluntary basis, but with an inflated expense account. She is also the director of the Culture Ministry research information center, while the council that she is a member of will set the ministry's research policy.

In response, Shavit says: "I do not want to respond to the petty complaints directed at me although I have a satisfactory response for all of them. But that would divert attention from the main point - the urgent need to change the way the culture administration operates. The whole purpose of the insinuations is to try to place a spoke in the wheel of change. I will only say that the hundreds of hours I have worked in the Ministry of Culture and Science have been completely voluntary and done out of a sense of mission."

Vilnai is currently searching for a director-general for the new council, who will coordinate between the council and the culture administration. The two roles - that of director-general and administration head - may eventually be combined into one job, and this fact may further increase the agitation.

Last week, the members of the dance and plastic arts departments of the outgoing council met with Minister Vilnai and presented their complaints. One involved the payment to be made to the members of the professional teams. "The minister responded that he didn't like the idea that the professional teams would get paid for giving advice and that the new council would reconsider the matter," says Avishai Eyal, a member of the plastic arts department who participated in the meeting.

Zohar Shavit explains, "It is only natural that when conducting a debate on a voluntary basis, the debate is less professional. I know of no area in the economy in which professional consultants are not paid. When people work for money, they do a better and more professional job."

Eyal adds that at the meeting with the minister, "We asked what the qualifications of the members of the new council were that gave them the prestige and status to determine cultural policy, and why there isn't a single artist of stature on the council, someone like Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yehoshua Sobol or Noam Sharif. The minister responded that they had discussed the matter and decided not to choose well-known artists from any field, claiming that public figures with common sense had been appointed."