What Brown Did for Us

Art collector Ami Brown died just when an exhibition of works by his brother Ika Brown, who died young, was closing. The breakup of Brown's fine collection will be a great cultural loss.

Ami Brown's death is a great loss to the art world - this may be a cliche but in this case it is absolutely true. Brown's name has became known to a broad public of lovers of culture over the past two years, ever since he showed part of his art collection at Ein Harod with unprecedented success for exhibition of this type in Israel. The fame came after several decades during which Brown, together with his wife Gaby, promoted art through purchases and help to artists and institutions, and this with hardly any exposure, certainly when compared to the recognition afforded to other collectors.

Brown, who died last Thursday at the age of 81, was a collector who loved art and not what goes along with it. This is a rare quality. For hundreds of years collecting has been a status symbol ennobling the collector perhaps more than any other status symbol, in part because of the common misidentification of a love of art and culture with exalted qualities. This aura spurs collectors who acquire and exhibit, and in this way make the wheels of the art world go round. In recent years art collecting has acquired a fashion patina, and as in the past it is often a means to some other end.

Ami Brown (Yuval Tebol)
Yuval Tebol

Brown, a wealthy man and a collector on a huge scale, did not give interviews, did not get photographed and did not bask in honors. If the Tel Aviv Museum is considered the most glamorous institution in the Israeli art world, for a very long time he refused to have anything to do with it.

In a conversation about a year ago, after a review I published of the exhibition from the collection at Ein Harod, he said he didn't feel like someone who holds a cultural position, and the exhibition was the result of pressure from wife Gaby and the good relations between the couple and the director of the Ein Harod Museum of Art.

Brown's greatest disappointment was that his offer to establish a museum in Be'er Sheva did not come to fruition, and it is hard to see how the city fathers allowed this opportunity to be missed. Brown wanted there to be a public fund established to ensure the museum's maintenance - the unglamorous side of the operation after the ribbon cutting for a new museum, for which collectors are prepared to give a lot in order to have their name inscribed above its halls. When a solution for this was not found Brown gave up on the immediate honors and the project.

The success of the exhibition at Ein Harod, which lasted for seven months and drew more than 60,000 visitors, surprised and delighted Brown, who came down with cancer a few years ago but continued to collect and nurture his art collection.

He was even more gratified by the exhibition of works by his younger brother Ika Brown, which closed at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv a week and a half ago. Ika was killed in a traffic accident at the age of 27 in 1964, and his works had not been shown for more than 40 years. For Brown, the exhibition and the exposure of his brother's fine body of work, which has stood the test of time well, were a kind of closing of a circle and the payment of a debt to his brother and to himself.

In Ben-Gurion's footsteps

Brown was born in Tel Aviv in 1929 to a well-to-do family from the third aliyah (wave of Jewish immigration from Europe between 1919 and 1923 ). He attended high school in Jerusalem and later a boarding school in England. He earned his bachelor's degree in London and his master's degree in the United States, both in the field of economics. At the start of the 1950s he worked alongside Teddy Kollek at the Prime Minister's Office, and toward the end of the decade he was Sam Dubiner's assistant at the Cargal packaging company. In 1961 Dubiner, an industrialist and art collector, opened a gallery for modern art in Tel Aviv and engaged in promoting Israeli art abroad. Apparently the work alongside Dubiner reinforced Brown's nascent interest in art.

In the 1960s he engaged in political activity at the side of David Ben-Gurion (which is connected to his desire to donate his collection specifically to Be'er Sheva ). He served as an Israeli envoy to the United States and from there he turned to business, including at the pharmaceutical company Teva in its early days. At the end of the 1960s he was among the founders of the Coca-Cola company in Israel.

Brown married Gaby in 1955 and the couple have one daughter, Dana Brown, an illustrator. After their marriage the couple began to purchase works of art. Brown said of himself that he bought non-stop. He purchased from many artists over a long period, and in that way built up a collection of artists' working processes and not just works by one artist or another.

Brown bought from the mainstream artists of his time and did not engage in attempts to find new talents and thereby acquire cheaply works that would supposedly increase in value. Joseph Zaritsky, Aviva Uri, Arie Aroch, Moshe Kupferman and Moshe Gershuni are represented extensively in his collection, as is Yechiel Krize, whose entire estate Brown purchased.

In addition to Israeli art, Brown also collected antiquities (an interest he shared with Moshe Dayan ), art nouveau which he sold, objects with anti-Semitic messages, Damascus work by Jewish artists from Syria, Judaica, books and more.

A treasure in danger

Over the years Brown supported art activities. He established the Artists Studios Gallery in Jerusalem, which is named after his brother Ika Brown, and he supported art journals ("Kav" and "Studio" ), retrospective exhibitions, catalogs and art books. This support was not given in secret, but neither was it accompanied by demands for publicity, which in recent times has become a frequent condition for support from individuals and institutions. People close to Brown say he contributed considerable amounts anonymously to other causes.

The exhibition at Ein Harod was the crowning glory of decades of collecting. Brown insisted that the catalog not include biographical details about him and not revolve around him. The collection as it was exhibited is conservative with respect to the medium: Most of it painting, a small part of it is sculpture and even less of it is photography or new media. In the exhibition prominence was also given to artists from the margins of the mainstream whose works Brown purchased, such as Hagit Lalo, Kaete Ephraim Marcus and Avraham Naton.

It seems the exhibition won the audience over because it spoke of personal collecting. Alongside spaces in which works were hung in a traditional museological fashion, such as the space dedicated to Krize, there were areas that created the feeling of a wall in the home of a collector who sticks by his choices and doesn't replace something old with something new. Brown was a collector who developed a style. His personal intuition, knowledge and discriminations are the leitmotif running though the collection.

The breakup of the Brown collection, which consists of more than 3,000 works, is a sad process that apparently is on its way. Though there are rumors that parts of it will be donated to the Museum of Art at Ein Harod, nothing has yet been decided. It is most regrettable that there is no organization today that can concern itself with the cultural loss incurred by the breakup of this collection and find a way to help keep at least key parts of the collection intact. The reconstruction of a cultural treasure like this in the future is liable to be almost impossible.