Leveraging Israel's Periphery to Create Powerful Art

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Galia Bar Or.
Galia Bar Or.Credit: Yael Engelhart

There are almost no paintings on the walls of Galia Bar Or’s home on Kibbutz Ein Harod Meuhad. After a careful search, you discover a tiny painting by Ori Reisman close to the corner with the grandchildren’s toys and another tiny one by Lea Nikel.

Bar Or, 64, director and chief curator of the Mishkan Art Museum in Ein Harod for 30 years, has no private collection. “I didn’t feel it was appropriate,” she says. She donated the paintings she received as gifts over the years to the museum collection. In January, she vacated her position in favor of the successor she trained for many years, Yaniv Shapira.

The lack of a private collection may be surprising in light of Bar Or’s status as a leading and influential Israeli art curator, but it’s not surprising in light of her personality and her life story. During her three decades in charge of the Ein Harod museum, she turned it into one of the most important and flourishing art institutions in Israel. It stands alongside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, despite the huge difference in size and budgets between the distant kibbutz museum and the urban art museums.

Bar Or treated the museum’s remote location as an advantage – and turned it into its driving force. That was reflected in the photography biennales she held in the 1980s, the first of their kind in Israel, and in solo exhibitions for artists who for years were rejected or forgotten by the mainstream, such as Miron Sima, Shalom Seba, Meira Shemesh and Henry Shelesnyak.

Born in Ein Harod in 1951 to parents who came to the kibbutz from Germany in the early 1930s, Bar Or still lives on the kibbutz, only a few minutes’ walk from the museum. Her biographical connection to the place influenced her concept of management and curating.

The Mishkan Art Museum in Ein Harod was established in 1938 at the initiative of two kibbutz members, artist Haim Apteker (Atar) and Aharon Zisling, who later became a minister in the first government of the State of Israel. At first it was housed in a wooden hut that Atar used as a studio. The permanent building, designed by architect Shmuel Bickels, was dedicated in October 1948, in the middle of the War of Independence.

The Ein Herod museum, designed by Shmuel Bickels.Credit: Ran Arda

Bar Or met her partner Itamar Bar Or, a computer expert, while studying for her BA degree in art history and history at Tel Aviv University. They couple lived on his kibbutz, Shomrat, where they had two daughters and a son. She did her doctorate in the TAU history department on cultural institutions in the kibbutz movements, dedicating a special chapter to the establishment of the Ein Harod museum.

Returning to Ein Harod in the late 1970s, she taught and worked in the museum, documenting the collections. Gradually she began to curate exhibitions. “By 1985, I remained almost alone, with only the man in charge of the storeroom, who was very old and deaf. I could do whatever I wanted, and then I began making long-term plans and didn’t have to battle anyone,” she explains.

“The first important decision was that there had to be a major exhibition once a year, in the entire space, which would be of cultural significance. For example, we began holding interactive exhibitions, such as ‘Critical Utopia’ in 1996 or ‘Journey – an Israeli Project’ in 1997."

Instead of trying to compete with the big museums in the center of the country, Bar Or decided to expose the margins, in their full centrality. She produced three photography biennales, in 1986, 1988 and 1991, a field that until then had not enjoyed any orderly and in-depth treatment in museums or in research. For the biennales she cooperated, among others, with Adam Baruch, Avi Ganor, Micha Kirschner, Tuli and Ilana Bauman and Yona Fischer.

In 1988, she curated a large retrospective of artist Uri Reisman, “The Red and the Green,” which contributed to a change in his status in the Israeli art world. That same year, she curated the group exhibition “Hebrew Labor,” which she says summed up a long process of introducing artists who were not included in the canon, including Naftali Bezem, Avraham Ofek and Moshe Gat.

Hebrew labor also appeared in the contents of the works on display – like a drawing of a Hebrew worker with a concentration camp number on his arm, created by Naftali Bezem, or a large portrait of a Yemenite cleaning worker by the same artist – as did her preoccupation with foreign workers.

Galia Bar-Or: ‘There’s an advantage to a place that’s not in the center and not so dependent on the powers that are active in the center. It affords another option.’Credit: Mishkan Art Museum in Ein Harod

Curator Yona Fischer has been following Bar Or from the start of her career. “Her repertoire is unlike anything else,” he says. “The other museums are in a kind of competition. Instead of a concept of high and low, she has a very special concept of the place of art within a specific society and a specific history.”

Fischer notes the exhibitions she curated for artists Michael Druks and Aviva Ori as being particularly important, adding that “she also presented unknown or amateur artists, who had a certain moment, and she knew how to raise them without arrogance.”

Shares her salary

It was Bar Or’s decision to resign from the directorship of the museum. She says she realized that the time had come.

“I didn’t plan it,” she says. “Yaniv came and said that he was about to complete his doctorate. The museum can’t bring someone from outside because there’s no money to pay him. The salaries here are token.”

Shapira’s kibbutz, Yizrael, is a collective kibbutz that has not been privatized, so that as opposed to someone who pays all his own expenses, he can make do with the pennies he will earn as director of the museum.

Bar Or herself earned 5,000 shekels a month as director and chief curator. “The budget is skin and bones. There’s no fat at all. And all you have you invest in the museum and the exhibitions.”

She explains that “there was some money that the community set aside for salaries, but it wasn’t enough for all the workers (the museum has five full-time workers and another five part-timers) and I preferred not to fire anyone, but to divide this sum among all of us. It may sound strange, but it isn’t. It’s an understanding that sometimes when there’s a radical change, you have to share what there is, and not that the director will get three times as much as the man at the entrance.”

Bar Or sees the remote location of Ein Harod mainly as an advantage. “It’s not the periphery as inferior, it’s the periphery as places that are very special, that nobody came to visit,” she says. “There’s an advantage to a place that’s not in the center and not so dependent on the powers that are active in the center, it affords another option.”

Art curator and scholar Gideon Ofrat believes that the physical distance gave Bar Or freedom of action and and enabled her to think out of the box.

“If an exhibition like ‘Hebrew Labor’ – in which she presented Bezem’s Hebrew laborer with the concentration camp number opposite Joseph Zaritsky and the abstract art – was exhibited in the Tel Aviv Museum, I wonder if it wouldn’t have raised an uproar. To take the outsider Bezem from the margins and place him opposite Zaritsky the totem? That was an almost suicidal act, and this suicide could be accepted because they said, ‘nu, what do you expect, it’s in the [Jezreel] Valley.’ The distance enabled her to refrain from the colloquium of the art world.”

Bar Or, like many others involved in culture, is very worried about the recent attempts to subordinate culture to the political agendas of the government. “I deal with places where they create a dialogue and not a barrier,” she says. “The question is how culture works today in such a sensitive environment that can be ignited by any spark.”

Bar Or says that Culture Minister Miri Regev has a superficial and simplistic world view, but notes that her predecessor, Limor Livnat, never visited the Ein Harod Musuem either, and that in general the violent and disparaging attitude to culture considered “high” is not a recent invention. The responsibility of the leadership, says Bar Or, is to aspire as high as possible.

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