Art Centers: Survival and Operation in an Unstable Environment / Iris Pshedezki

In our cultural and political climate, an art center enjoying relative stability for twenty years is cause for celebration. The problem of funding and resources in the field is always an issue and always relevant (and now more than ever) – and the 20th anniversary celebration of the Center for Digital Art in Holon is an excellent opportunity to present an up-to-date picture.

This text draws from conversations with a number of local artists, innovators and curators: Tamar Lev-On of the P8 Cooperative Gallery in Tel Aviv (12 years active), Shira Lapidot, director of the MA program in Cultural Studies at Sapir College; Adi Engelman and Omer Krieger who two years ago founded the 1:1 Center for Art and Politics in Tel Aviv; Masha Zusman from the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem (15 years active); and Udi Edelman from the CDA.

This list is hardly exhaustive but useful for considering the lasting survival of centers for art under the Israeli sun.

The Ministry of Culture’s support for art depends on a list of criteria: geographical location, the size of the gallery, the renown of the curator, a minimum of six exhibitions per year, representation of established artists, marginal and communal activity. Each criterion is worth a point and the final tally of points determines the extent of funding – in other words, financial support is tied up in a form of obligation to the funding body, such that different strategies for economic survival variously influence the institutes that adopt them.

Art centers, independent and cooperative galleries, municipal and independent initiatives, with and without government funding, all manage to survive in their own way and it is important to learn their modes of operating and come up with new approaches. All such existing institutions feed off the Ministry of Culture and are suffering (some more than others) from the cultural crisis. Each maintains connections (some closer than others) with the relevant municipal bodies. The foundations to which all apply are the same, as are the grants. These are the conditions of our position in this place, which begs various questions. What possibilities do these conditions offer, can they be met while still maintaining independence, and how can independence generate artistic relevance and meaning?

Let’s start with the Center for Digital Art.

In terms of authorities, its connections with the municipality of Holon are particularly successful. The good working relationships between the center’s founder Galit Eilat and Mayor Moti Sasson have given the center continued stability over the years, as has the understanding between the center’s staff and the Mediatheque CEO, Danny Weiss (the center currently operates under Mediatheque). What about community involvement? In addition to being a criterion for support from the Ministry of Culture, it also scores the center symbolic points in the art field. It is possible that the municipal interest in promoting culture in disadvantaged areas also motivates cities to allow relative operational freedom to entities operating in the margins. This is precisely the case with the CDA.

“The move to Jessy Cohen in Holon protected us in terms of municipal budgets,” confirms Edelman. “It was another form of validity in the city’s perspective. One of the center’s strengths is that it is an institution without an explicit character or role. It’s hard to compare its activities with those of other institutions because the center does a million things and that in itself gives us enormous freedom. Ironically now, during the pandemic, I feel it even more. It’s simpler to shift from one activity or project to another. If there are no exhibitions, we will create an archive, we will run online workshops or publish new issues of our journal “Ma’arav”. There is freedom because we spread our activity across many platforms. There is no one goal. This can lead to difficulties in mediating the center’s activities but it also has many benefits.

“The center’s relevance is often judged with regard to the broad field of art,” Edelman went on. “As to the question of ‘what it means to make art today,’ the center can move ahead with whatever we’re interested in. There’s freedom here. The present CEO of Mediatheque supports this, he understands that this can appeal to the international audience and position the CDA as an influential body. So the two primary arms of the center are the local branch, that is, in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, and the professional branch, which is more global. This strategy decentralizes both the center’s resources and audiences.”

What about other art centers?

Let’s look at the 1:1 Center for Art and Politics, established and managed by Adi Engelman and Omer Krieger in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. It is a complex urban area with a mostly downtrodden population; the Tel Aviv municipality has been involved in several artistic initiatives in the neighborhood, and recently announced that the Batsheva dance company will soon be moving in.

“In terms of administration and budget,” Engelman and Krieger explain, “1:1 was established as an entity run by the Marcel Art Projects Non-Profit Organization, and self-financed, with part of funding coming from studio rental income.” 1:1 does not currently receive governmental support, but not for lack of interest on the part of its founders. The path to funding is long. Meanwhile, Engelman and Krieger say, “we enjoy the great freedom of choice in content and in operations. We aren’t concerned with the degree of provocativeness or controversiality of an idea, exhibition, show or other art project. And this independence allows us to be open to many experimental projects and, likewise, more than a few bitter disappointments and even abject failures.” But, they add, that independence and freedom are not absolute when it comes to art activity that involves the public. “We operate within a very socially, culturally and economically heterogeneous environment. And we try to act with great sensitivity to all things concerning the community-art actions that we carry out. Independence and freedom don’t mean acting without discretion[1].”

In general, the matter of municipal resources earmarked for cultural activities is not simple. “Local government has no law requiring a municipal or local authority to allocate a resource manager to the culture department,” says Lapidot, director of the MA program in Cultural Studies at Sapir College. “So everyone does as they see fit. There are municipalities and local authorities that allocate resources to the arts and those that combine education and art funds which might otherwise give nothing to cultural interests. Every authority does what it wants. That’s how you have a situation that allows for the CDA in Holon, on the one hand, but can also simply halt the Bat Yam Festival after many years of operations. When the mayor changes, the budgets change.

“The world of culture is in a stuck state, mentally,” she concludes. “There is a basic assumption that the state should support art. That assumption is shared by artists and institutions alike – and it’s convenient, because if you enter into the system it gives you security. It’s stable. But it’s a gilded cage because it creates a commitment to specific criteria.”

Lapidot suggests seeking other ways of managing: “The mechanism is bureaucratic, which means it is meant to maintain itself. It does not develop or get renewed from one year to the next. This creates a kind of mental bondage in the field. To be free of it is to create an alternative source of income, neither from the government nor foundations.”

Tamar Lev-On, from the P8 Cooperative Gallery admits that the government funding the gallery has begun to receive is a source of confusion. “Our cooperative gallery was founded with the private funds of its members, and without support it will wither away. It would just cease to exist. So part of our annual work, unfortunately, is to seek funding, which only contributes to the uncertainty and deliberation. The collaborative value of the gallery and the absolute freedom of choice are what make it worth the effort, and are unique in the field. As with any cooperative, it depends on the character of its members at any given time. They constitute the gallery and operate it through cooperative decision-making. Since receiving government funds, there is a lag in the spontaneity and freedom, and making decisions is no longer autonomous to the group, but requires that we meet the criteria, some of which are difficult for us to accept. For example, the controversial parameter of representing ‘established artists’ creates frustration and reduces the potential stage for young artists. On the other hand, the funding also raises the bar – you need a curator, you need texts, and every exhibition gets a catalog.”

The Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem is also a unique case with its own ups and downs. It is run but not funded by a collective, receiving its funds from subsidies. In recent years it has been at the center of a media war with Miri Regev, then Minister of Culture, which broke out following a meeting of the organization ‘Breaking the Silence’ at the gallery. As a result, the Jerusalem municipality threatened to expropriate the gallery space from the collective – and did. Recently, after a long legal battle, the gallery moved to its new home in the Mamilla neighborhood in the city center, alongside other initiatives such as the Koresh 14 Gallery and the Mazkeka Venue – perhaps a more organic home for Barbur.

Masha Zusman, of the gallery’s founders, says, “you can think of varying degrees of dependence versus independence. There are three central considerations: financial, content/ideas, and real estate. In reality, they are interdependent. In a more functional place they would not be dependent. There is always freedom and dependence: some flavor from inside or outside, one agenda or another. Even in the making of art there are open and covert axes of dependence and independence which are constantly being examined. Independence from internal patterns is much more slippery – to discover that we ourselves are the gatekeepers of something. In terms of finances, we are supported by external funds that come from the Ministry of Culture, the Jerusalem Fund and contributions. I like thinking of the synagogue model: a community maintains the space that it deems important to them. That is also dependence, but in a good way. The city of Jerusalem doesn’t support the gallery, but that only made us stronger because we managed without them. The community was in a tricky spot and people mobilized. In a functional place, it would be mutually beneficial to have symbiotic relations with municipality as well, and not a relationship of dependence and ultimatums. That’s where the real estate component comes in: when the gallery was located in a municipal space, we did not have to pay rent. Now, since they kicked us out and we are renting a new space, there is independence from the city, but our expenses are higher. Our position shows that a kind of spiritual independence is more important to us than financial survival. It’s easy to say ‘an independent space’, but when you ask, independent of what, who and how, it becomes more complicated. Financially, I don’t think anything is truly independent. And in fact, that is not the goal. The real goal is symbiosis, a healthy ecology of things: with the community, with the public entities, with officials. Like in nature.”

As with other aspects of Miri Regev’s conduct as Minister of Culture, her struggle with the Barbur Gallery and her attempts to dictate the bounds of artistic discourse through government support were seen by the artistic establishment as a breach of convention that the role of government is to fund art regardless of its content. But the Regev story is also a wakeup call for creators which might encourage them to strive for financial independence. Does the tension between the art institutions and the government not exist anyway, even without these overt struggles? Does this power not work in covert ways even without Regev, who just made matters plain for all to see?

And another word about the local government. A city hall or local council that appreciates the value of art and of cultural initiatives can operate across a variety of channels beyond producing cultural events. They can support artists themselves, for instance, or give them a break on property tax (in Tel Aviv, for example, non-profits or associations that operate galleries pay commercial property taxes). They could support cultural initiatives, and leverage and promote projects that arise from the field.

 

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Sustainable thinking about art and culture can be fostered by a sustainable community, an encouraging local government, creative thinking and decentralization of ideas and sources of income. In addition, it requires the right people and some good luck. It is possible that the pandemic and the current budget crisis will be for the world of arts and culture what the economic crisis of 2008 and the Madoff scandal were for the third sector then: the necessary motivation for organizational change and the search for revenue beyond subsidies. From my own experience as an entrepreneur trying to maintain an independent gallery, The Refrigerator, I can attest to two new modes of organizing: sharing information between independent galleries in Tel Aviv and a national group for civic cultural communities. Both are to some extent a natural development of the current crisis, and perhaps herald the beginning of change.

[1] The conversation took place in September 2020. Since writing it up, in October 2020, it seems that Engelman and Krieger will have to close 1:1 due to the tightening of the Ministry of Culture’s terms of support, which were renegotiated at the same time as the start of Israel’s second Coronavirus lockdown.

Translated by: Zoe Jordan