'How Does a Cultural Institution Exist in a Climate That Censors Culture?'

Doron Rabina, the new chief curator of Tel Aviv Museum of Art, poses the question – and answers it – in an interview in which he lays out his vision, evaluates the impact of the Culture Ministry and blasts blatant 'political art'

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Doron Rabina at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Chief Curator Doron Rabina at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. "The museum not only collects and preserves; it also injects new works into the bloodstream of Israeli art."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

Doron Rabina’s office at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is not large. It has few contents and is meticulously organized. On the desk, a number of books and catalogs are piled in neat stacks. A corkboard features a checkerboard of miniaturized images. The room is free of works of art; no paintings, photographs, sculptures. Nothing in this quasi-modernist monasticism could lead one astray; Rabina has come to the museum to do big things.

“I want to create a museum that changes patterns of thought, which fractures existing insights or hardens new insights,” he says. “Just as art demands that people change following an encounter with it, so too the museum will demand of its visitors that they leave slightly changed.”

Rabina wants to restore the museum to its place at the heart of cultural activity in Tel Aviv, to transform it into “the city square,” a “dialogue-generating” center where a vibrant cultural and artistic discourse takes place.

He was chosen as the museum’s chief curator last January, at the end of a long and complex search. In the summer of 2016, after a search committee was formed, 11 people applied for the job. After several rounds of interviews, the committee didn’t find any of the applicants suitable. Rabina had not applied but after the failure to fill the post, the museum made overtures toward him. He subsequently presented his plans and was successful.

From now on, the positions of director and chief curator will be split. Over the past 20 years they were both filled by a single person: until 2011 by Moti Omer, who was the subject of much criticism from the art world; and Suzanne Landau, who replaced Omer after he passed away. Alongside Rabina, Landau is continuing as the museum’s director.

Rabina has many plans. He promises to “act in large gestures.” He describes Tel Aviv Museum as the museum of a cosmopolitan coastal city, a port city with regular movement of goods entering and leaving. Thus, in contrast to Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, which bears on its back the story of the nation and where Israeli art is the final element in nation-building, Rabina aspires to position his museum in the port model: An open space populated by modern, changing content that people “don’t come to occupy; they come to visit.”

His plans are based on a reorganization of the entire premises – the main wing; the new wing; the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion. The doubling of the museum’s size after the new wing opened in 2011 actually turned the museum into many galleries with only a random connection between them. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art has been empty of exhibits for many months, and the relationship between it and the museum’s wings has not been properly formulated for years.

Rabina promises to confront the sense of dispersion: “Not every section and gallery in the museum is a capsule for a single exhibit,” he says. He is planning exhibitions that spread over a number of separate spaces in the same wing – exhibits that flow from the old wing to the new wing, and ones that extend from the museum into the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, or vice versa.

He has invited Irish artist John Gerrard to create a special project and will curate a comprehensive show for Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner. Rabina will devote special attention to the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, whose separate location away from the museum, at the top end of Rothschild Boulevard, he sees as an advantage: Rabina aims to reposition it as a kind of night museum, which will open late into the evening and constitute “young urban territory.”

“The Tel Aviv Museum will offer a mapping that is an invitation to debate, to awareness and also to self-examination,” says Rabina. “It will take into account the history of art – and from within that history, will attempt to formulate a picture of the current situation, a diagnosis,” he adds. “The museum not only collects and preserves; it also injects new works into the bloodstream of Israeli art. It creates works, produces art.”

You spoke differently a few years ago. In a discussion on the future of Tel Aviv Museum in August 2011, after Omer’s death and in the midst of the social justice protests, you said, “The museum is not supposed to be the main engine of living, kicking art. By definition, it is a collection of deficiencies and what it does happens after the fact.”

“At that time, I wanted to restore awareness and responsibility to the art world itself and not thrust them on the museum. But in my new role I am adopting this demand myself.”


Rabina was born in the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon in 1971, grew up there and studied in the visual art program at the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts. In the army he served as a graphic artist and on furloughs would attend classes at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. After that he enrolled in the Midrasha College of Art at Beit Berl and, before he even completed his studies there, had his first one-man show at the Julie M. Gallery in Tel Aviv.

It seems his path to the heart of the Israeli art scene was preordained. He subsequently curated a number of significant shows, including “Power” (2004) at the Reading Power Plant in north Tel Aviv. During these years he taught at the Midrasha and curated its Tel Aviv gallery, and was chosen to head the art faculty before even reaching the age of 40. “Wunderkind,” the professors at Beit Berl called him. Looking back, though, Rabina says that “ultimately, you reach an age when you can no longer ride the Eros of youth.”

Rabina was one of the artists who took the Israeli art scene by storm during the 1990s, together with Sigalit Landau, Guy Ben-Ner, Nir Hod, Avner Ben-Gal and others.

“It was easier to be a young artist in the 1990s,” says Rabina now. “It’s much harder to be a young artist today, if only because of the ratio between rent and income. Also, there was hardly any art market back then, until the mid-1990s. At that time, the galleries took the reins of shaping the culture. They put on a lot of thematic exhibits, introduced artists they weren’t representing and were dominant in encouraging cultural discourse. And like elsewhere in the world, those were the years when a lot of attention was directed at young artists.”

Rabina would eventually describe the condition of youth – with flaming passions and a death wish at its core – as the central tenet of that 1990s art in an exhibit he curated at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, “Eventually We’ll Die – Young Art in Israel of the 90s.” This was one of six exhibits marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state, in 2008, each devoted to a different decade in Israeli art. Rabina was the only curator who was himself an artist and curated an exhibit about his own and his friends’ period of artistic activity. He was also the only curator who didn’t come from the ranks of one of the museums. He came from the outside but slotted easily in as an insider.

What was your attitude to the museum when you were younger?

“For me, the museum was a totally autobiographical place – both the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum. There are exhibits I saw many years ago that I could reconstruct from memory today. From the time I was in high school, those two places were more familiar to me, with respect to both values and emotions, than the home I came from. In those years, the way of looking at the museum was a kind of identification. It’s not an age at which you think of art institutions, about questions of canon and history, or injustices of various kinds. You recognize a territory that speaks in a language that is simultaneously both your mother tongue and an unknown language.”

At what point did you realize that the art world isn’t only about creativity, but also has narrow entry gates and zealous gatekeepers; that the public entering this world is very distinct in terms of class and ethnicity, that the possibilities of becoming involved in it are limited, that economics reigns – everything that is known as “institutional critique.”

“This understanding was connected with understanding of the world in general. But within the art world, these were things I read about more than I understood them. I learned to reel off all those categories before I learned to feel distress as a person who knows what world he is living in. People are continuing to declaim the ‘institutional critique’ of the 1990s, even though the discourse has changed and the institutions themselves have changed and their problems are different. But people still identify the concept of being critical with institutional critique. However, the injustices are more complex; they are located beyond the institutional framework, and the situation, the money and the balance of power have not remained the same.

“They say the art world is white, exclusionary and elitist, but the art world today is the contemplative and thirsty version of meaning in a capitalist and destructive era in which the sicknesses are on a large scale. I feel like leaving criticism of the art world for a moment and defending it and loving it. After all, the gatekeepers of the art world themselves already know how to declaim the criticism of them and err on the side of excessive caution, in order not to fall into the mappings, types of usage of power and chauvinism that are expected of them.”

Yet the identity of the gatekeepers remains clearly delineated, and their rules are strict.

“Yes, the gatekeepers are a continuation of a historical continuum in which there are those who are stronger and those who are weaker. And the artists are people who could afford to study art. In the world of Israeli art, though, because it is so small the volatility is greater. It’s worthwhile to be conscious about guilt and responsibility – provided you invest real energy in thinking about it and being a real tool in creating a shock within it. Many times, institutions, curators and artists content themselves with marking out an injustice, mapping power, pointing out topographies of reorientation – moves that lead to the ‘ostensibly political.’”

Rabina in one of the galleries in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. "I don’t know of many major art institutions in the world that are being led by an active artist."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

It’s hard to ignore the fact your appointment as chief curator doesn’t deviate from the ethnic and class identity of the gatekeepers. It didn’t herald a new spirit, but rather maintenance of the status quo.

“Every choice always preserves certain arrangements and disrupts others. I don’t know of many major art institutions in the world that are being led by an active artist. Defining my appointment as chief curator by the Tel Aviv Museum as maintaining the status quo isn’t the obvious description in my opinion, despite my ‘ethnic origin.’”

The politics of breathing

Although he was shaped as an artist, curator and writer in the 1990s – the years of politicization in the art world – and later curated the exhibit “Power,” in which he examined the effects of political power on art and within it, Rabina is now proposing to redraw the relationship between art and politics.

The first show he curates will be at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion; it will open in December and be called “Current Affairs.” At its center will be six murals by prominent Israeli artists: Tsibi Geva, Yehudit Levin, Irit Hemmo, Gilad Ratman, Avner Ben-Gal and Michal Helfman. There will also be works representing the entire age spectrum of Israeli artists – from Moshe Gershuni, who passed away in January at 80, to Karam Natour, who completed his master’s degree at Bezalel this year.

Although the exhibit may deal with contemporary problems, none will depict or represent them in a simple way: the works will not contain easily identifiable political content. Instead, Rabina explains, “The exhibit will examine the readiness of the artistic object to absorb political content.”

Hasn’t the possibility of creating oppositionist political art in Israel narrowed in recent years? In the past 40 years, there has been a split between the mainstream of the political world, which is veering rightward, and the mainstream of the art world, which is a kind of incarnation of the Zionist labor settlement movement and Mapai (the precursor of today’s Labor Party).

“These have also been 40 years of maintaining the status quo. When a challenging, possibly political image emerges and a politician rails against its existence, a negotiation is conducted that isn’t based on the political act. ... In most cases, when the government is able to identify a political signifier, there isn’t really a political act. A work of art that truly demands a change in thinking will not necessarily be registered on the seismograph of a nervy government.”

On whose seismograph will it be registered?

“Seismographs of those who don’t operate seismographs. Those who don’t try to filter, to maintain, to channel, to fence in.”

And what about a work of art that sets forth a clearly political image opposed to the occupation – and is indeed understood by the government, which tries to stop its display?

“A work that reminds you that you are a human being who breathes at a certain rate, that you are transient, that the other is a human being, is a work that performs a meaningful political act with regard to the occupation more than any inflation of images of the separation barrier that have been made in recent decades. Those images are often a product of intellectual and political laziness, all kinds of narcissism, opportunism and lack of imagination – as well, of course, as privilege and nonchalance. Art is not about the narrative that is depicted in it. Art is about the way in which it is done. And if an artist resolves the difficult stance against the self-demand to be political by depicting a political image, in many cases the work gains its political capital too quickly, before it has asked about the conditions of its coming into existence and about what it has done to the image and what it is doing inside the system of images into which it is received.”

Are there simple and easily decipherable images that are also dangerous?

“I don’t think so. There is something charming in the regime’s belief in the power of the image. ... The question is how does the museum, as a cultural institution, exist in a climate that censors culture. My sense is that there’s a lot of photogenic background noise surrounding what is happening to culture. The impact of the Culture Ministry, with its small budget and the legal constraints imposed upon it, is far less than the impact the Education Ministry has – a strong and long-term influence. This began when they removed art from the core curriculum in schools, and it continues with the nationalist values being emphasized at the expense of humanist values. If this trend continues, there will no longer be any consumers of culture.”

So there’s no self-censorship by artists or art institutions? Has it not increased in recent years?

“There is always self-censorship. I don’t know whether it has increased in recent years.”

The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art. Credit: David Bachar

There have been obvious cases in recent years – for example, the cancellation of the joint exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Miki Kratsman that was planned for Tel Aviv Museum a few years ago.

“In that instance there was a total misunderstanding.”

Perhaps we’re in a state of political emergency where art must abandon its complex aesthetic values, its demand for a complex perception and profound thinking, and mobilize in the struggle?

“You’re asking this inside the museum. Among all the kinds of things it’s possible to do in the world, there are things art knows how to do – and there are quite a few of them. Asking art to relinquish complexity, to be fast and communicative, in order to rally around a flag means asking art to relinquish its strongest asset. The [late] artist Félix González-Torres spoke about beauty as a political tool, but there is no sharp dichotomy between the political and the complex. When you do something that arouses complex emotions and thoughts, it is a political act – looking at the world becomes less one-dimensional.”

"FINAL STAIN" by Doron Rabina. Credit: Doron Rabina

Does that mean we should we return to universal humanism?

“Ultimately, it’s a humanism that is manifested in the most concrete contexts.”

There are no works on the occupation in “Current Affairs.”

“All of the works are also works about the occupation, and none of them contain an image of the occupation. Every work in the exhibit is about every political aspect. This exhibit attempts to create a position that accepts the museum’s commitment to deal with the current moment in which it exists, without providing the obvious – being political at the level of the subject matter or the image. A bodily position can be changed. Much political art doesn’t allow for any change of position; it has a weird knowledge and ownership of justice.”

Capitalism without the capital

From public money to private money: You have taken upon yourself the management of relations between a public institution that displays art and the private capital that invests in art. How do you understand that operating space?

“I think the public has to thank the private capital that supports the museum, while knowing that the person creating the museum’s agenda is strictly ethical. Suzanne Landau has significantly increased the museum’s activity and the resources it needs to pursue this activity, whilst scrupulously observing the dos and don’ts connected to the museum.”

At the same time, private collectors have been given a more extensive role in the management of the museum.

“The era in which you could see connections, even if presumed, between private money and the exhibit schedule has been history for a decade now.”

And what about the numerous “prize exhibits” being held at the museum – exhibits held following the award of a prize to an artist, not always on behalf of the museum?

“These are exhibits that cost a lot of money – money that goes to the exhibit and the artist. ... Private money helps us maintain a museum of this scale ... it could not be done without it. These wealthy people who express their faith in Israeli art should be blessed. There are not enough of them. Israeli art operates in a capitalist world – only without the capital. And if a large audience, which isn’t able to travel abroad to see an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, sees international art on the scale on which it is seen in Israel, this happens mainly thanks to the private support of a museum that isn’t motivated by economic speculation.

“This is an art scene where galleries are working with small amounts of money relative to the world, and they cannot finance large projects and catalogs. Recently, many of them have shut down or are on the brink of shutting down. Ask all those purists who are only prepared to accept public money whether they are interested in a poor art scene.”

The increasing commercialization of the art world has far-reaching effects. It is also changing artistic creativity itself, most of which is already happening in the early stages with the horizon of its marketability. Don’t you think the role of the museum should be to look for artistic work that isn’t commercial?

“Alongside my work with the museum’s curators, I have begun to create a dialogue with people outside of the museum – some of them outside the world of visual art – and I have asked them to create a presence and activity in the museum. They offer worldviews that are the opposite to the commercialization of art and the mainstream narratives of art, the privatization of art. I have done this in an attempt to explore uncharted territories and bring them into the museum. However, it must not be forgotten that there could be something ridiculous in the contrast. I am trying to avoid a naive place where it is believed that anything that is marketable is not critical and anything that is not marketable is of value. Things are more complex, and the powerful force that keeps it all in motion is capital.”

At the heart of the first exhibit you're curating is a string of artists whose works are very commercial.

“I chose artists who, primarily, were stretching the border of their art into the political. You can feel the vexation with the political situation.”

But the vexation with the political situation is often also a sign of the commercial potential of the art.

“And if there were only young artists in this exhibit who don’t have galleries, would that be better? There is nothing bad about art being bought and sold. It is bad in the local discourse, in a state that has socialist roots. When art is traded, that is a good thing. When arms are traded, that is a bad thing.

“It seems utterly naive to believe that the museum is supposed to oppose the commodification of art. At the end of every art exhibit, there are the people who clean up the art world’s trash – and they aren’t from the First World. The difficulty that faces someone who wants to create the content of a museum is not the commercialization of art, but rather how to create breathing spaces from capitalism within the capitalist existence; how to expose the places where capitalism blocks thinking. The power of art versus capitalism and the injustices of the world is minute, but it does have tremendous power to create meaning.”

Respect for the institution

What are the challenges facing the Tel Aviv Museum of Art today?

“First, the challenge every museum faces today – the heterogeneity of the target audience. It used to be that the museum had an imagined audience, but today it cannot allow itself a stance like that. The question is how to create an abundance that nevertheless coalesces into a position. There’s also the virtualization of the community in the age of digital mediation, while the museum is based on the physical encounter with the thing itself.

“Art is about complex thoughts and emotions, and demands attentiveness, while the Tel Aviv Museum exists within a culture in which vulgarity and crudity are on the rise. The challenge is to take part in the conversation not by increasing the volume nor by creating relevance by means of issues the museum engages with, but by creating an essence. This means finding a way of telling this place – without scolding or flogging it – something new about itself. The museum embodies a need for stability, even if momentary – not stagnation, not conservatism, but a strong commitment to a certain statement, with all its intents and means. It offers a moment of respite for thinking.”

Is the museum too elitist, detached and alienated, incomprehensible – or has it become a playground for youngsters?

“I think about models like [novelist-playwright] Yaakov Shabtai or [filmmaker] Quentin Tarantino. Shabtai, who worked wonders with Hebrew literature on the street, and Tarantino, who taught us there is no contradiction between meaningful art and a wide audience. The commitment to the audience is of primary importance. And at the same time, it is the most unknown, mysterious and disturbing place for me.”

What audience do you want for the museum?

“I don’t know who the users are – this is an ongoing puzzle. But it’s not good for art to know its addressee – whether they are the most radical anarchists or the most bourgeois salons. Knowledge of the addressee is a product of cultural cowardice. My position requires courage. We know how to criticize the role of private money in art, but we know less about seeing the places where we censor ourselves, places where we weaken values or principles, places where we want to deliver merchandise.

“When I was the head of the Midrasha, I tried to take every single stone of this art school institution and turn it over – art, critique of works – and made a lot of moves to lessen the authority of the institution and the lecturer. And ultimately I came up against the basic need for authority; the student’s need to hear what we think of them. When the wider public comes to the museum, it perceives the institution of the museum as a palace of justice. There is respect for the institution, which we forget when we are on the inside of it.”

What’s concerning you currently?

“I have very distinct desires about things I would like to give the museum, but curating isn’t my clearest calling. I’m busy learning the territory of the process I’m leading. Now try to link boldness to modesty. Part of me was in the studio, another part in the art academy, and a third part in curating. But the validity of all three of them was my self-definition as an artist. Something in this composition was jolted as soon as I sat down in this office.”

Is Israeli art in good condition?

“It’s not possible to separate art from the culture. The art academies are having difficulty in this era and the Israeli market is having difficulty in this era, but Israel is a complicated and conflicted place – and therefore a place where a lively culture is created. In that sense, the condition of Israeli art is good.”

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