Bringing Art to the Masses: Israel's First Museum on Wheels Delivers Culture Everywhere It Goes

The Zumu art collective is bringing art to the underprivileged in far-flung communities. Now it aims to expand its mini-revolution overseas

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Visitors walking through the exhibition at Zumu Kiryat Yam, January 2020.
Visitors walking through the exhibition at Zumu Kiryat Yam, January 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

It’s exactly 56 miles between Tel Aviv, Israel’s bustling hub of arts and culture, and Kiryat Yam, a town near Haifa that’s home to some 40,000 people, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Unlike the vast expanses of the United States, where a trip through a rural region can last for days, in Israel it only takes a few hours by train to reach this sleepy town on the Mediterranean coast.

The journey may be short, but the social gaps between the center of the country and the outskirts are significant. In Tel Aviv, there are almost as many art galleries as restaurants. Kiryat Yam, in its 42 years with city status, never had one official art institution. That changed in December when a group of eight art curators, educators and social entrepreneurs descended on the place.

The collective, known as Zumu, took over an ice factory-turned-abandoned supermarket in the center of the city. In a matter of weeks, the team members transformed it into a museum of contemporary art that drew 16,000 visitors in the first month. Entry, they stress, is free of charge.

Their success wasn’t born out of thin air. The members of the team had set out on similar missions in other far-flung Israeli communities over the past three years, introducing art to cities like Arad and Yeruham in the south and Hatzor Haglilit in the north.

An installation on display at the Zumu museum in Kiryat Yam, January 2020.
An installation on display at the Zumu museum in Kiryat Yam, January 2020.Credit: rami shllush

Each time, they send their educational and community outreach staff to sniff out the location they choose, get to know the locals and understand their needs. Then they pick a space to host their pop-up museum and get down to work. After an average of two months in each locale, Zumu closes shop and moves on to the next destination.

If you ask the team members what their mission is, they’ll tell you they’re quietly revolutionizing the Israeli art scene and aspire to bring their innovative concept to other countries worldwide. If you ask a cab driver for directions to the remote art space from the train station, he might inquire, as he did of me: “Zumu? Is that the name of a native American tribe?”

Days before Zumu Kiryat Yam shuts its gates in a festive goodbye party accompanying its closing Friday, Haaretz spoke to its founders and the local artists taking part in the initiative to understand whether this is a colonialistic endeavor of a few art aficionados fed up with their small milieu, or a barrier-breaking social project that will actually have a ripple effect.

A museum that offers tea and biscuits

A colorful installation by Israeli artist Aviv Grinberg at the Zumu museum, January 2020.
A colorful installation by Israeli artist Aviv Grinberg at the Zumu museum, January 2020.Credit: rami shllush

Greeting museum-goers at the entrance to Zumu Kiryat Yam is a group of friendly local guides, almost all of them as fluent in Russian as in Hebrew. Some of them can also carry on a conversation in Arabic and Amarhic, which is spoken by many of the Ethiopian Israelis living in the town. Before I get a chance to take a look at the art on display, they offer me a cup of tea and biscuits.

Milana Gitzin-Adiram, the director and chief curator of Zumu who came up with the idea for a museum on wheels, explains that “every person coming in is greeted with our breaking-bread tradition. We want people to feel comfortable. Afterwards, kids who see artworks here will feel comfortable going to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and seeing the same artists’ works there because they will already know the language; they saw this in their backyard.”

As she embarks on a tour of the grounds with several visitors, she says that “kids are scared to approach museums because they don’t know what the rules of the game are, because they aren’t invited to go in, because their parents don’t take them there. So after they’ve been to Zumu they can ask their parents to take them to other museums.”

Indeed, the art on show is difficult to digest even for an art critic. Zumu is one of the largest exhibitions Israel has had in recent years, showcasing the works of some 50 artists, both established and emerging. The oeuvres are diverse: from a colorful installation of cleaning supplies by an up-and-coming graduate of the Shenkar art college, Aviv Grinberg, to a powerful video by Arab Israeli artist Morjan Abu Dib, who filmed herself sweeping up sand on the beach while dressed in traditional religious attire.

According to director Gitzin-Adiram, who previously headed the Bat Yam Museum of Art, many of the visitors who view these intense artworks are actually children. “Nine classrooms show up here every day,” she notes.

Zumu director and chief curator, Milana Gitzin-Adiram.
Zumu director and chief curator, Milana Gitzin-Adiram.Credit: Naama Porat

So how does Zumu render the art accessible to young students? Igor Milkutski, a 25-year-old artist and a guide at Zumu who grew up in nearby Haifa, says he and the other guides received training from the museum’s education department in order to “make the art relevant to the students who come here.”

Milkutski says the guides, who are at the museum from its 8 A.M. opening all the way to closing, “take groups of about 10 to 15 students. We give them a tour of the space. You look at the group, you gauge their age, their understanding, their energy. For example, if it’s a group that comes early in the morning, they’re much more attentive and awake, but if they come in at noon the kids are often tired.”

The guide, who says he was drawn to the project because he didn’t have such exposure to art when he was a child, believes that Zumu “is a real revolution. I say this because I see art getting to the masses; this platform is being used to stir a dialogue. At the end of the day, the interaction I have with the kids here could be about a million things that aren’t necessarily related to art, but this exhibition and this neutral space enable a conversation.”

Ending the segregation

The idea for Zumu was building up in Gitzin-Adiram’s mind for a while. “I felt that many people in this country don’t take part in the cultural discourse. The fact that there are people who are part of it and people who aren’t is, in my opinion, the biggest rift in Israeli culture,” she says.

“Our society has closed up culturally, each community is shut into itself and there’s no dialogue between the communities. There’s no reason it should be this way. If I discover the other then I’m no longer scared of him or her and am instead rather charmed by the culture he or she has. I come from the world of museums, and I thought that if many communities don’t get to the museum, why not get to them? It started this way.”

Ephraim Wasse, a 33-year-old artist who was raised in Kiryat Yam and lives there today, agrees with Gitzin-Adiram’s notion that art shouldn’t remain a pleasure for the elite. Wasse, a photographer and fourth-year student at the Minshar art college’s photography department, is presenting a poignant photograph at the exhibition: His mother is seen looking out a window of their house at a large cabinet that was left on their street for weeks and hadn’t been cleared away by the municipality.

Ephraim Wasse
Ephraim Wasse, a 33-year-old artist who was raised in Kiryat Yam and still lives there.Credit: Courtesy of Ephraim Wasse

“Everything about this picture represents the place I came from: The wall, the sidewalk, the flowers sprouting in the middle of nowhere,” he says.

Wasse, an active member in an art collective of Ethiopian Israeli artists, stresses that his own childhood was the result of the social stagnation that Zumu’s team aims to change.

“In my childhood, I only went to a museum once and I had no idea what I was looking at,” he says. “People who go to college with me grew up in Tel Aviv, and they had a subscription to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art from a very young age, so they were exposed to so many things I had never heard of. When I heard they were going to do Zumu in Kiryat Yam, I was so moved.”

Wasse’s art often takes on a political meaning. He says he has been to almost every protest by the Ethiopian Israeli community over the past four years against racism and maltreatment by the authorities.

“When Solomon Teka died, we couldn’t stop talking about it,” he says, referring to the Ethiopian Israeli teenager who was shot to death by an off-duty police officer in June. “I don’t want to define myself as a political activist, but it’s something that I can’t escape because I experience it where I live and it’s around me. I can’t ignore it.”

Artwork on display at Zumu Kiryat Yam, January 2020.
Artwork on display at Zumu Kiryat Yam, January 2020.Credit: rami shllush

Photographing the protests “is really hard,” he says. “Usually when I create I try to put a distance between myself and my subjects. At the protests over the killing of Solomon, it was very hard for me to create. I was there and I held the camera in my hand but I could hardly take pictures because I was really in the moment.”

Mama Watching, by Ephraim Wasse, on display at Zumu in Kiryat Yam.
"Mama Watching," by Ephraim Wasse, on display at Zumu in Kiryat Yam. Credit: Ephraim Wasse

Zumu in Africa

Altogether, the four temporary museums launched by Zumu have raked in some 45,000 visitors, inspiring dreams of expanding across the ocean.

“Zumu may run like a museum, but it’s primarily a vehicle for social change,” says Ariel Adiram, the project’s director of communications. “The most important insight we cultivated is that this isn’t only an art project. Art matters to us and it’s our tool to do something much bigger than art for art’s sake.”

As he puts it, “The Jewish communities in the United States, for example, could really adopt this concept.” In September, the group was invited by the European Union to participate in a conference on art in nonurban areas. “We were the only entity that was invited and wasn’t an EU member.”

Ariel Adiram, Zumu's communications chief
Ariel Adiram, Zumu's communications chiefCredit: Yair Meyuhas

Gitzin-Adiram remembers that “people were shocked when they realized we were from Israel, but when they heard about our project they were impressed. A lot of projects are either community-oriented, artistic or social,” and she’s not sure if “any other project does all three in the way and to the extent that we do.”

She adds: “I can imagine Zumu in Africa. We can make a lot of communities feel comfortable being a part of the cultural dialogue. Take Germany, for example; think of the refugee crisis. Asylum seekers are people who are surrounded by museums there but they don’t feel comfortable going into them. Their voices aren’t heard.”

When I suggest that before they go on to give the gift of art to the rest of the world, maybe they should take a look at sidelined communities in Israel – namely the Arab Israeli community – members of the group say they’ve set their sights on that goal.

“We’re definitely thinking of doing Zumu in Arab communities. We started a dialogue with several of them. Our next stop will be in the Lower Galilee, which is comprised of 19 communities, some of which are Arab and Circassian,” Gitzin-Adiram reveals.

“We hope that the sixth stop will be Lod,” she adds, referring to a mixed Arab-Jewish city in central Israel. “And we also want to open Zumu in an Arab-majority city.”

‘We deserve art’

The social cause is important, but the art still takes center stage, insists Ofra Harnam, one of Zumu’s curators. She created a residency program for artists who came to present their work at Kiryat Yam.

“Our residency artists stayed at the city’s intake center for new immigrants, which was a very interesting experience for them,” she says. “They really experienced what it was like to enter a new city and not know it, the experience of immigrating in a way, and each artist set out to work with a community.”

Ofra Harnam, left, and Ruth Oppenheim, art curators at Zumu.
Ofra Harnam, left, and Ruth Oppenheim, art curators at Zumu. Credit: Noam Giger / bigfoot

Harnam also made sure that alongside young artists, a few art world heavyweights would present their work. One of them is video artist Oded Hirsch, who is acclaimed worldwide and currently heads the art institute at Oranim Academic College in the north.

Hirsch, whose video work on show at Zumu depicts his wheelchair-bound father being dragged through muddy fields, says he hopes more young artists like his own students will see projects such as Zumu and get inspired to base their studios away from the center of the country.

“I studied art and lived in New York for eight years,” he says. “There is something very saturated in working as an artist in places like New York, Chicago or Tel Aviv. I don’t think students should necessarily aspire to get to New York. Returning to your hometown and to the authentic place where you’re from – there’s a lot of strength in that as well as a very significant artistic and social role.”

Sharon Glazberg, an artist and the head of Zumu’s community engagement, would likely agree with Hirsch. She usually arrives in each stop six months in advance and maps out the city, meeting with entities like the municipality and social welfare services.

The Zumu art collective at Kiryat Yam near Haifa.
The Zumu art collective at Kiryat Yam near Haifa. Credit: Rami Shllush

“I also sit at the local falafel stand or the local hairdresser and listen to people’s stories,” she says. “I understand how to make the connections between the art and the locals, I look for local artists. I come with a clean slate, I literally knock on doors. It’s about understanding how to do it together. It’s not ‘we’ll tell you what culture is all about’ – rather, we ask that question together with the community.”

As the sun sets on the makeshift museum and the last few visitors trickle in, curator Harnam expresses hope that the ambitious project will leave its mark everywhere the group arrives.

“The atmosphere Zumu creates in every city it gets to enables a different perspective that remains long after we leave,” she says. “It allows locals to see that it can be done; the municipalities understand that it’s feasible, the people who participate see that it can be done. It leaves them with the will to do more.”

Glazberg announces that the museum has just launched a fellowship program aimed at accompanying local partners in projects set for every stop Zumu makes. “People come to us and say: ‘We deserve to have art in our city.’ So for us, this is what remains after we go.”

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