Israel's Richest Family Is Looking for a Home for 120 Artworks

The Wertheimer family decided to close the Open Museum at Tefen, in northern Israel. Without a proper plan, 120 sculptures have been left with an uncertain future

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The Open Museum at Tefen before its closure.
The Open Museum at Tefen before its closure.Credit: The Open Museum at Tefen
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The open-air museum in the Tefen industrial zone in the Galilee always took pride in being home to dozens of sculptures by noted Israeli artists. But recently the museum, founded in 1983 by the wealthy industrialist Stef Wertheimer and poet and author Amos Kenan, has become the target of harsh criticism: After being shut down last year, its artwork has been dispatched to other museums around the country. Several of the artists and their families have told Haaretz that they were not informed.

The closure of the Open Museum at Tefen is an example of the problems that can occur when a private entity manages a cultural institution. While wealthy individuals can make important financial contributions to such institutions, the institutions themselves often suffer when state or local authorities are not involved in funding them.

In early 2020 it was reported that the Wertheimer family was selling the industrial park. As part of the process, the family decided to shutter its sculpture gardens at Tefen as well as other places around Israel, including Tel Hai, Omer, Lavon and Dalton.

For years the museum at Tefen was a special jewel far from central Israel. The well-known artists whose works were on display there include Menashe Kadishman, Igael Tumarkin, Ofra Zimbalista and Yitzhak Danziger.

A 1999 stone and metal work by sculptor Ilan Averbuch titled "The End of Utopia (The Big Balloon is Far)" at the Tefen museum.Credit: Avi Chai

Under the Museums Law, because the museum at Tefen was recognized by the government, its collection could be dispersed to other recognized museums only when it shut down. The person responsible for this is the museum’s curator for the past 30 years, Ruti Ofek. So far, 12 museums have agreed to receive works, with the approval of the Haifa District Court. First the two-dimensional works – etchings, drawings and photographs – were distributed among the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. In the next phase, currently underway, the museum needs to find new museum homes for 120 sculptures.

Some 30 sculptures were sent to the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa, where a new sculpture garden will be established with sculptures by Micha Ullman, Zimbalista and Kadishman, among others. Other sculptures will go elsewhere – a sculpture by Israel Hadany will go to the Wilfrid Israel Museum at Kibbutz Hazorea.

Eitan Wertheimer.Credit: David Bachar

Because dispersing and transporting the collection is a complex operation, the Open Museum received permission from the Culture and Sport Ministry to work with two entities that are no recognized museums. One such partnership is with the Negev Museum of Art and the Be’er Sheva municipality. Under that arrangement, the museum will receive part of the collection currently in the Negev community of Omer, while other works will be installed throughout Be’er Sheva. Another partnership involves Lohamei Hagetaot Museum and the Jewish National Fund northern district. While that partnership ostensibly exists in order to bring 30 sculptures to the museum, in practice they will be installed at JNF parks. JNF, the museum and the attorney responsible for the museum closures, confirmed that this was indeed in the works, but stated that the details are not final.

There are also dozens more sculptures whose new homes have not been finalized.

A 1994 work by sculptor Ilan Averbuch named "Promises, promises" at the Tefen museum.Credit: Ilan Averbuch

‘Something good’

Galia Bar Or, former curator of the Mishkan Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod, is currently fighting to keep the sculptures from being transferred to the JNF and the Be’er Sheva municipality.

“Just as there are rules for when a finance company shuts down, there are rules for shuttering a recognized museum,” she says. Bar Or says a professional should have been appointed to oversee the task and a call should have been put out to museums eligible to take in sculptures.

“Homes should have been found for them in consultation with the artists, transport should have been funded, and the closure should have been carried out in a way that showed respect for Tefen’s and Wertheimer’s legacies,” she adds. Bar Or says no home has been found for dozens of outdoor sculptures. The JNF and the Be’er Sheva municipality’s agreement to take sculptures is a sort of salvage operation, she says, which might mean that “something good will come out of it.”

Sculptor Ilan Averbuch, some of whose sculptures are to be transferred to JNF, says he was not told that the museum was closing and he found out only by chance. “They added that I have nothing to say in the matter, although this is a matter of copyright and intellectual property,” he says. The museum was good to him over the years, he says.

A 1988 sculpture, "Havdalah," by artist Micha Ullman. Credit: Yair Talmor / Wikimedia

“Sometimes a private place has powers that public places do not. I was very happy to have an exhibition at Tefen because there were lots of visitors and Stef bought pieces. It’s fine to move the sculptures, but there needs to be a dialogue with the artist. A work of art in one place is not the same as in another,” he says.

Igael and his partner Karnit Tumarkin heard only recently that the sculptures would be moved, and sent a warning letter telling the museum that relocating Tumarkin’s work without coordination would be a violation of the artist’s moral rights. In the past, Tumarkin sued local authorities for violating his moral rights and received significant compensation.

A 1982-1985 sculpture by Igael Tumarkin titled "Goren" ("granary").Credit: Yair Talmor / Wikimedia

There are also sculptures that were at Tefen on loan, like a monumental work by Yael Artsi. She is apparently transferring the sculpture to Hebrew University. “It’s a shame that a pearl like Tefen is disappearing,” she says. “It expanded the soul. There isn’t any other museum in Israel of that quality.”

Among the sculptures whose fate is unclear is Kobi Harel’s “Torso” (1993), a work in silicone-covered Styrofoam that rests on a tin drum. Harel was killed in an accident 11 years ago, and his family was left to deal with moving the sculpture. “They phoned me from the museum and told me, ‘You have until the end of May to come and take the sculpture,” says Harel’s widow, Rivka. “I replied that the sculpture is large, and I have nowhere to display it or store it. I told them they should send the sculpture to another museum but they said no one took it. If I don’t go get it, I don’t know what will happen. Will they throw it in the garbage?”

Some families have been in contact with the museum. Conductor and percussionist Chen Zimbalista took part in deciding where the sculptures by his late mother Ofra Zimbalista would go. He says that Ofek, the curator, has gone to “great lengths” to find a home for his mother’s works. “It’s true that it’s hard to find a new home for 30 children, but it seems that at the end of the day, all of them will find a home,” he says.

Attorney Karen Reichbach Segal was appointed some weeks ago to be responsible for dismantling the museum. “We have contacted many museums and asked them if they wanted works. There were many museums that didn’t want anything. There were those that have taken a lot,” she says.

“There are two categories of sculptures for which we haven’t yet found takers. One is portable sculptures. There are about 20 such works under discussion with various institutions that haven’t yet given an answer. There are another 20 or so sculptures that aren’t portable. They are much more complicated, since the cost of dismantling and transporting them is very high.”

A 1993 work, "Torso," by artist Kobi Harel. Silicone-covered Styrofoam resting on a tin drum.Credit: Avraham Chai

Why were some artists not notified their sculptures would be moved?

“The Copyright Law looks at whether a work or its content is damaged while being moved. We very much want to preserve the works and find a place for them in good museums.”

Reichbach Segal says the museum staff would have been glad to have transferred sculptures to hospitals, but the law limits this. “A museum is permitted to make a loan to a local authority,” she explains. “We are making considerable efforts to find homes for the works so that the public will continue to enjoy them. Hundreds of millions of shekels were invested in them, and we are giving them away for free.”

All the sculptures have to be moved out of Tefen by the end of May, and the museum’s team believes the state has to take responsibility for the sculptures that cannot be found homes, she says.

The Culture Ministry responded: “The museum never asked for support from the state and operated independently. The ministry is not opposed to transferring the works in accordance with the [Haifa District] court ruling [that would transfer works to a dozen museums] and approved the non-profit’s actions. The museum has contacted all the recognized museums, and the sculptures will be transferred to them in accordance with the Museums Law. The ministry is doing all it can under the provisions of the law regarding recognized museum in order to preserve the public interest and respect for the works and for the artists.”

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