Israel Museum to Reopen After Months of Uncertainly and Internal Conflicts

Bolstered by a monetary 'safety net' of $4 million from its U.S. Friends group, museum set to welcome back embittered furloughed workers and to reopen on August 16

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The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, closed since the outbreak of the coronavirus and the initial lockdown in mid-March, June 30, 2020
The Israel Museum, closed because of the pandemic since mid-March, in June. It's general situation was problematic, some sources say, even before the crisis.Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The Israel Museum announced Monday that it will be opening its doors on August 16 for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March. The decision comes after tense and lengthy negotiations with furloughed employees, pressure from the museum's board of directors and the receipt last week of a $4-million grant from the American Friends of the Israel Museum. Director Ido Bruno described the donation as a “safety net” that will enable the museum to move forward.

According to a statement issued by the museum, “Due to the coronavirus crisis and the loss of revenues from tourism, it was estimated that the Israel Museum was likely to reach a deficit of about 50 million shekels ($14.6 million) by the end of 2022, and therefore without a promise of an immediate sum of money, it hasn’t been possible to open the museum until now. The donation, which will cover only about a quarter of the deficit, now gives us room to breathe and enables us to get things moving.”

In mid-May the Health Ministry had approved the opening of museums around the country under certain conditions, and accordingly most of them opened their doors again. However, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – which sent a vast majority of its employees home on unpaid leave during the lockdown – remained shuttered. Now all those workers will be able to return in the coming days to their jobs.

Last week, before the American Friends group formally announced the transfer of its grant, some 80 furloughed workers demonstrated in front of the museum to protest the management's foot-dragging regarding their situation. Another demonstration, planned for Tuesday morning, was called off after announcement of the museum's reopening.

An exhibition at the Israel Museum. The museum can look forward to reopening and its financial situation has improved, thanks to AFIM.Credit: Elad Sarig

For weeks the workers' committee has been conducting negotiations about returning to work. Management, for its part, had called for salaries be cut by 4 percent to 12 percent in a graduated manner, among those earning a monthly salary of up to 17,000 shekels (which means that the directors themselves will suffer less, according to the committee), and for there to be more mobility among jobs at the museum.

At one point, Ghiora Elon, chairman of the workers’ committee and head of the museum's painting conservation laboratory, accused the administration of conducting the talks in a misleading and distorted manner, and claimed that it was behaving like a dictatorship.

Tensions erupted early on in the pandemic crisis following the museum’s request that furloughed staff "contribute" their services. In March, Dganit Israely, head of human resources, wrote that “workers on leave who are interested in contributing of their time and energy to developing ideas, are invited to contact us.”

Pre-pandemic troubles

During the last two months, Haaretz has spoken to members of the staff, both past and present, as well as others in-the-know (they have all requested to remain anonymous), about the Israel Museum's general situation. It was problematic, many of them said, even before the coronavirus outbreak. The directors' efforts to cut expenditures and the resultant damage to the content and quality of the institution began over two years ago, they added, and have been reflected, for example, in the voluntary resignation of dozens of staffers.

There are those who date the onset of problems and tensions between management and workers to 2016, when veteran Israel Museum director James Snyder stepped down (although he has continued to play a dominant role in the institution, even up until today, according to sources). In January 2017 he was replaced by veteran architect and scholar Eran Neuman, but he decided to resign after three months. (Prof. Neuman is currently dean of the Faculty of the Arts at Tel Aviv University.) In November of that year Bruno – a veteran curator and designer who taught for 25 years at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design – assumed the position.

The staff, who suffered for years from Snyder's toughness, were happy about the new director. But starting in 2019, there was criticism of Bruno and of Deputy Director Yoav Mark, and the coronavirus period has since brought problems and anger to the fore.

“Ido is our greatest disappointment,” says one employee. “We were really waiting for him. We thought that he had come to do the opposite of James. There were people who said that we had to give him time, but crises bring out good or bad things from leaders, and the coronavirus crisis brought out bad things.”

Ido Bruno, director of the Israel Museum. "The American Friends' donation, which will cover about a quarter of the deficit, now gives us room to breathe.”Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

To better understand the complex situation at the museum in recent years, it's important to recall its unique nature, and the way in which its strength could turn into a weakness. The museum was built in 1965 at the initiative of legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, and as opposed to other museums here and elsewhere, it has remained independent (it operates under the co-ownership of various entities, including the government, the municipality, the Jewish Agency, the Bezalel Academy, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Book Foundation). This independence gives the institution a big advantage in managing its content, although some people have doubts as to who oversees its operations – besides its voluntary board of directors, chaired by attorney and diplomat Isaac Molho.

The main problem apparently stems from the museum’s reliance on donations. Its annual budget, about 130 million shekels (about $38 million), comes from foreign donors, independent revenue (ticket sales, educational activities for children and adults, the museum shops) and public support (the Culture Ministry, Jerusalem Municipality and so on).

In 2015, for example, the museum received donations to the tune of 50 million shekels, while ticket sales that year brought in 14 million shekels. Another 30 million shekels came from revenues accumulated from previous years (such as a sum earmarked for a specific exhibition).

Three years later, in 2018, donations fell to about 38 million shekels, and less than 18 million shekels came from revenues from earlier years, although revenue from ticket sales increased relatively – to 19.5 million shekels. The museum declined to answer questions regarding its financial data for 2019, although it disclosed that ticket sales totalled 20.8 million shekels last year, due to the surge in tourism in Israel.

'Original sin'

In a conversation about half a year ago with director Bruno, he told Haaretz that the budgetary component of independent revenues has changed vis-a-vis the scope of contributions, but he didn’t provide figures. On that subject, one employee told us that “there’s no access to the data, but everyone knows that there’s an overall decline.”

Bruno also mentioned what he called a new relationship with the Australian Friends of the Israel Museum and about the branch of AFIM on the U.S. West Coast – but our examination indicates that in the case of the Australian group the relationship is an old one and regarding the West Coast, it wasn’t Bruno who initiated the connection.

Moreover, in general, the idea of compensating for a decline in donations by means of ratcheting up ticket sales, if possible, is divorced from the DNA of public museums.

Furloughed Israel Museum staff protesting last week. "Crises bring out good or bad things from leaders. The coronavirus crisis brought out bad things,” says one worker. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“All over the world, even at museums that work well and have large audiences and active shops – the independent revenues are about one-third of the budget,” explains Prof. Micha Levin, founder of the art department at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, who wrote his doctoral thesis on museums.

“Museums in Europe receive most of their support from municipalities or governments. The Israel Museum has a problem in that sense, because when it was built, it was based on donations. The 'original sin' was Kollek. During his tenure he managed to procure contributions, but today the State of Israel is less attractive to donors, and there is a lot of competition for their affection.”

In a recent Zoom discussion as part of the series “Museums – the director’s point of view,” Suzanne Landau, former director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, spoke with Bruno about the problems of relying on donors and “the absence of philanthropy in Israel.” She asked how he deals with that, to which he replied, optimistically, that “the museum has an Israeli friends’ association, which has collected something in the vicinity of 80 million shekels in the past decade. That’s dramatic support. It’s the biggest donor to the museum except for AFIM."

He also noted that “the museum has 16 [Friends’] associations throughout the world.”

In January Prince Charles visited the museum during his state visit to Jerusalem, and Yoav Mark and board chairman Isaac Molho accompanied him. Bruno wasn’t present. In general, during 2019 and pre-coronavirus 2020, he has been trying to focus on raising funds worldwide. When he is in the office, he is closely involved in the work of the curators – particularly in the Fine Arts Wing, according to some sources.

“He interferes with everything,” one of the workers says. “There's a kind of totalitarian structure, and he’s the supreme authority. In the more distant past, the status of the chief curators was higher. He talks like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

In addition there has been criticism among employees about the administrative situation in the museum’s important branches: The Youth Wing and the Fine Arts Wing are currently headed by acting directors.

But at least at present, the museum can look forward to reopening and its financial situation has improved, thanks to AFIM. In that context, the Friends group made the following statement: “AFIM is dedicated to supporting the Israel Museum during this challenging time. While we provide ongoing support, we have also committed funds to help address the shortfall brought on by the pandemic. We look forward to reopening the museum and welcoming audiences back soon.”

The Israel Museum offered this comment: “Since Director Prof. Ido Bruno and Deputy Director Yoav Mark assumed their positions, the number of visitors has soared to over 100,000 people a year, and the operating deficit, which in 2017 was about 5 million shekels, achieved a balance in 2018 and apparently [will do so] in 2019 as well. We’re proud of our commitment to bringing the entire staff back to the museum, without exception, and are excited at that possibility.”

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