Bursting Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s ‘Bubble Inside a Bubble’

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Tania Coen-Uzzielli. 'It’s also very important to me to encourage the museum's staff'
Tania Coen-Uzzielli. 'It’s also very important to me to encourage the museum's staff'Credit: Roni Cnaani
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Tania Coen-Uzzielli took up her post as the new director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in January. As opposed to the situation when Doron Rabina was appointed chief curator of the museum, her appointment was not accompanied by foot-dragging or an uproar and, aside from rumors among the staff about who would be chosen for the top spot – there wasn’t much background noise.

Coen-Uzzielli: 'My world view is that a museum must be accessible. That’s my motto. That doesn’t mean that everything we show will be popular, but I can be an intermediary'

Coen-Uzzielli replaced Suzanne Landau, who is retiring at the end of a good period for the museum, at least in terms of its image. Some 174,000 people visited the “Modern Times” show of masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which closed in February, and the museum has also been showcasing the work of famous artists such as photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto in an eponymous exhibition (through June 8), and the “Twosome” exhibition by sculptor Louise Bourgeois, which drew some 150,000 visitors before it closed in February.

Prior to her new job, Coen-Uzzielli served as the head of curatorial services at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Born in Italy, she immigrated to Israel at the age of 19, and completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the History of Art and Archaeology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and studied ancient art as part of a special program. She lives in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood with her husband and three children and commutes to Tel Aviv every day (“I leave Jerusalem at times when there’s less traffic and leave the museum in the evening,” she says).

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Meged Gozani

Coen-Uzzielli worked at the Israel Antiquities Authority after university, and in the 1990s, during the Oslo Accords period, served as a cultural attache at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco. In 2000 she joined the staff at the Israel Museum where she was associate curator in the Department of Jewish Art and Ethnography. She was responsible for arranging for the reconstruction and exhibition of a Portuguese synagogue from Surinam, and was co-curator of the interdisciplinary show “Beauty and Sanctity,” in honor of the museum’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2006.

As part of her work in charge of curatorial services, Coen-Uzzielli was responsible for the content, budget, timetable, design and logistics of exhibitions, oversaw the curators’ activities and even ran the forum of chief curators.

Coen-Uzzielli: 'The generation that contributed to establishing the state, both American Jews and locals, had a Zionist commitment. It’s a commitment that is less prevalent, however, among the second and third generations'

In 2015 she curated the exhibition “A Brief History of Humankind,” based on the best-selling book by Yuval Noah Harari. Featuring works from the Israel Museum’s immense collection, it was the flagship exhibition of the museum’s jubilee, and was also displayed in November 2016 at the Bundeskunsthalle museum in Bonn. Coen-Uzzielli was involved in curating “In Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation” at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2018; it is now on display in one of the central halls at the Tel Aviv Museum through June 15.

Her interest in Jewish topics comes from a secular place, she tells Haaretz, “but with scientific tools. I’m not a believer. I describe myself as an agnostic.”

The shows Coen-Uzzielli has curated are very concrete. How does that conform with contemporary art? She says that she looks at art from a practical point of view. “In my opinion art has to foster excitement as well as offering an emotional and intellectual experience, and those two things are equally important,” she explains.

Sometimes when people go to art exhibitions they don’t understand what they’re seeing.

Synagogue from Surinam in the Israel Museum.Credit: Eli Posner / Israel Museum

“My world view is that a museum must be accessible. That’s my motto. That doesn’t mean that everything we show will be popular, but I can be an intermediary. I think the texts accompanying the works have to be more accessible and Doron (Rabina, the chief curator) shares this feeling. Doron is very intellectual and sometimes a bit elitist, but we have a similar vision. There must be captions on the wall in excellent Hebrew and English, but they have to mediate for the audience what is hanging on the wall. Sometimes the viewers understand, and sometimes they don’t; sometimes they get excited and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get annoyed and sometimes they get excited and it’s all fine.”

Coen-Uzzielli didn’t want to discuss specific exhibitions which I found inaccessible – for example, “Mess,” which was on display until recently in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion – with minimal texts.

'We don’t pay the employees enough, these aren’t people who get a high salary, and their sense of belonging and mission is important to me – the fact that everyone is working to fulfill the vision'

To what extent do you have to mediate the information to the audience, in your opinion? For example, a few days ago I was at the exhibition “Jacqueline Kahanoff – The Levant as a Parable” at the Eretz Israel Museum [in Tel Aviv] and I felt that the mediation there is overdone.

“Our job is to be intermediaries, not instructors. I think that just as we don’t want to embarrass the visitor, we don’t want to educate him either. The museum should be a platform for all kinds of things. An encounter involving an intellectual, aesthetic experience and, yes, it also has to teach you something, but not educate you. That’s the job of the school or the university.”

Are the visitors to the museum clients?

“I think the perception today is one that sees visitors, donors and friends [of the museum] as partners. The audience today is varied, and I see them as partners. That means that if you have a subscription, you sometimes bring your child and sometimes come alone. And if there are friends, there doesn’t have to be an attitude of ‘Come and give money.’”

Visitors in Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Ariel Yanay

Have you already made some changes?

“I can’t say that I’ve already made changes. I take a broad view of the museum, as a platform. I want to bring a more integrative approach to the museum. It shouldn’t be cut off from the space [where it’s located]. It’s in an area with four cultural institutions and they have to work with one another. In terms both of content and space, they have to work both in winter and in summer, both indoors and outdoors.

“It’s also very important to me to encourage the staff. The museum has 200 employees [not including security and cleaning personnel]. That’s a precious resource that’s invisible. A museum is a big enterprise and every person is a part of the chain in that enterprise. We don’t pay the employees enough, these aren’t people who get a high salary, and their sense of belonging and mission is important to me – the fact that everyone is working to fulfill the vision.”

You are coming from the Israel Museum, an encyclopedic museum (showcasing works from many cultures and fields of knowledge). Are you planning to expand the content on display here?

“I think we should have fashion exhibitions and more design and architecture. Industrial design is a field in which Israel is a leader, and just as we are the platform for artists, we should be the platform for designers too. The museum should constantly have its finger on the pulse, and react. When you display modern art it has to be displayed within broad contexts.”

How can you reach new audiences?

Coen-Uzzielli: 'Industrial design is a field in which Israel is a leader, and just as we are the platform for artists, we should be the platform for designers too'

“With varied exhibitions that address different audiences. An exhibition such as ‘In Statu Quo’ is one that could bring in other audiences who don’t necessarily come to the museum, like historians, people who are interested in religion, Arab citizens. We also have to create exhibitions that are suitable for children and families and various events. We’re a museum in a city that’s a bubble. We’re a bubble inside a bubble, and these two bubbles must be burst. It all right that there’s one exhibition that draws more people, and another with fewer viewers. We don’t have to be afraid of the fact that in addition to the main shows there are other ones. I also want to create renewed interest each time in the permanent exhibitions. To display things from various departments.”

Measured transparency

Over the years there has been criticism of decision-making at the Tel Aviv Museum – both with respect to winners of awards that it gives out (such as for outstanding photographers or sculptors, or promising new artists, etc.) and to the choice of launching one exhibition or another. As opposed to other fields where there’s greater transparency, curatorial decisions there (as at other museums) are not public knowledge. Nor do the prize committees publicize their minutes.

In the world of art, Coen-Uzzielli observes, it isn’t customary to reveal the considerations of awards or exhibition committees, which she says “is likely to delegitimize another artist who didn’t win or wasn’t chosen. Every prize has criteria and every judge has criteria of his or her own. I myself do not participate in the awards committees, that’s the job of the curators."

"A Brief History of Mankind" exhibit in the Israel Museum. Credit: Eli Posner / Israel Museum

“In the exhibition committees there’s a group of senior curators. They decide what will and won’t be displayed, based on a mixture of factors. There may be a possibility of a really good exhibition, but perhaps it isn’t appropriate for a certain year or for reasons of budget or mix. There should be transparency at the museum in the context of tenders, contractors and insurance costs, for example – not curatorial decisions.”

In that connection, she adds: “There’s a forum of senior executives and a board of trustees’ exhibition committee, but in the end let’s admit that everyone, the executive director and the chief curator, has a certain taste and vision and agenda. It’s possible that we’ll even include a certain artist who is less to my taste, because he meets certain criteria. I’m less sensitive to complaints because I’m not in the milieu. Ultimately, anyone can get into the museum if he’s good. Our job is to do the sorting. If an artist had a big show at the Israel Museum, I won’t have an exhibition of his work too.”

In contrast to the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum’s budget is based to a considerable extent on the municipal budget: Of an annual budget of 80 million shekels (approximately $22.3 million), 40 percent comes from there, while only 3 percent comes from the Culture Ministry.

Coen-Uzzielli: “We asked the Culture Ministry for a bigger budget, but it was not increased. Even to pay for specific projects such as storage areas, which is aimed at preservation of our collection, which includes 30,000 items.”

Would you prefer to have a source like the Culture Ministry give more money? After all, that could mean an increase in its influence on content.

“The Culture Ministry paid for the entire exhibition we curated in Venice, and didn’t interfere in content at all. I don’t think the ministry can really impose censorship. If there really is censorship the entire country will be up in arms. It’s just noise. Did anyone really stop doing something because of it? I don’t believe in self-censorship. I do believe in respecting different audiences. We as an institution can be critical but we don’t have to be insulting.”

What is your opinion of the removal of the “McJesus” sculpture from the exhibition in Haifa? [The reference is to a controversial work by a Finnish artist that portrayed Ronald McDonald on the cross.]

“At Gil Yefman’s exhibition ‘Kibbutz Buchenwald” [on through August 31], there’s an explanation next to one of the works and there are adult volunteers who serve as intermediaries. The act of removing something from a show is terrible; it’s a difficult step that shouldn’t have been taken. They should have mediated the work in Haifa – for example, to have a religious person at the exhibition, explaining the work. That could have been proper mediation.”

What is the percentage of donations [in your museum’s budget]? How do you increase them?

“Maybe 15 percent are donations. About 12 million shekels annually. The subject of donors is a difficult problem. The generation that contributed to establishing the state, both American Jews and locals, had a Zionist commitment. It was important to them to support the establishment of cultural institutions. It’s a commitment that is less prevalent, however, among the second and third generations. They are far less aware of philanthropy and less interested in Israel. We have to be more original in producing income independently. There are special events held here on Sundays. I want to open one exhibition each time, so anyone who is here at an event will be able to enjoy the museum. This will allow for exposure to it.”

"Status Quo" exhibit in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Credit: Elad Sarig

On the subject of donations, recently it became known that the museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion will undergo a renovation funded by Israeli real-estate and shipping magnate Eyal Ofer, and will be renamed the Eyal Ofer Building for the Arts. The cost of the renovation is $5 million. As opposed to the uproar over a decade ago over the intention to name the entire museum for his late father, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Sammy Ofer – this time changing the name of the pavilion didn’t upset the art world.

“I want to say about the Ofer family that what happened in the past – is in the past,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “Now they’re saying they want to contribute money to renovate the pavilion; the negotiations with them started before I came onboard. We’ll continue to mention Helena Rubinstein along with Eyal Ofer. I don’t see a problem: Also Helena Rubinstein donated only a small part of the budget at the time.”

In response to the claim that the Azrieli Foundation also offered a donation to renovate the building, without demanding a name change, the museum director says she doesn’t know about it and in any case it didn’t happen. In reply to the question as to why the museum didn’t launch an architectural competition ahead of the renovation – but chose Amnon Rechter, son of the pavilion’s original designer, outright – she replies: “We aren’t planning to make significant changes to the building, rather to restore it to the original design and open it in the direction of nearby Yaakov Garden.

“When the negotiations with the donor began they already showed him a brochure of the renovation. Rechter has the building’s plans and the historical materials, and he already worked on it in the past. We decided that a person who has experience with this structure would be able to restore it to its former glory. We’ll probably also add someone representing us, who will accompany the renovation.”

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