Tel Aviv is a town of immigrants and refugees from Europe, and art galleries began to open here as early as the 1920s. The first museum was founded in 1936 in the home of the legendary Mayor Meir Dizengoff. If, until then, Jerusalem under the British mandate had been the sole place where artistic activity (in the modern sense) occurred, Tel Aviv's visual arts scene quickly took over as the country's center of artistic life, including the performing arts and literary worlds. Apart from a short period during the early 1970s, the city has maintained its premier status ever since those distant times. Today, galleries, museums and alternative spaces are part of the city's cultural spine, key components that make Tel Aviv what it is.
The first decade of the new millennium is marked by a new stature for the Tel Aviv scene, as well as for the Israeli art world at large. Galleries are moving from basements and small, sometimes stuffy spaces to more spacious locations, and are becoming ever more professional. Art is gaining presence in public life in both the metaphoric and concrete sense.
The long-standing gallery quarter is located in and around Gordon Street, in the modern center of the city, with established galleries such as Gordon Gallery, Givon Gallery, Rosenfeld Gallery, Nelly Aman Gallery, the five-year-old cutting edge "Cheder" gallery and the new DAP gallery that opened less then six months ago.
Another new gallery quarter is emerging to the south, in the rejuvenating historical center whose main axis is the trendy Rothschild Boulevard. The Sommer, Noga and Braverman galleries, together with Alon Segev Gallery (situated just a minute's walk from the Tel Aviv Museum) form the leading quartet here, promoting contemporary art with impressive stables of artists. All are working simultaneously in the Israeli and international scenes. Adding to the energy, the new "Solo" gallery opened near the boulevard in February, and a couple more spaces are planning to open during the coming year. Offices of art consultants and dealers are also mushrooming, most of them short walking distances from the offices of Sotheby's Israeli branch, whose move from Gordon Street to Rothschild Boulevard initiated the new art district.
All this art scene growth and expansion is evidence of the strong economic boom that Israel, especially in its affluent central region around Tel Aviv, has enjoyed in recent years; a flourishing that has proven to be resilient even under the tension of last summer's Lebanon war and its aftermath. This economic growth, together with an ever-growing quest for what is referred to in Israel as "normality" (denoting a civil society not solely oriented toward survival), has encouraged new collectors both private and corporate. It's no coincidence that the new art quarter is extremely near the stock exchange and the headquarters of top investment funds.
Surveying the art scene, it is nevertheless worth noting that many leading Israeli artists are not represented by galleries here. Barry Frydlender (see related story, Page 6), whose upcoming solo exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art is a source of pride to the local art scene, exhibited in a group show in Israel four years ago, and his last solo exhibition here was at the Israel Museum in 1985 -- 22 years ago! Similarly, two other internationally known mid-career artists, Philip Rentzer and Michal Rovner, have no gallery representation in Israel. Each has found his own way in the art world, cooperating at times with different Israeli galleries, but not committed to any single one (Rovner and Frydlender are both represented by galleries in New York).
The situation is different with the younger generation; most successful artists are represented by galleries that make a considerable effort to build their international reputations. Tel Aviv's galleries are players in the international scene -- both by exhibiting artists from elsewhere and by having their artists shown overseas.
Among them is Yehudit Sasportas, who will represent Israel at the next Venice Biennale and is represented by Sommer gallery, as well as by a gallery in Berlin. Sommer also shows Sharon Yaari, whose work uses photography and has been exhibited widely in various venues in Europe and New York (where he is represented by a gallery). Gilad Efrat, whose main medium is painting, is represented by Noga Gallery and is now in residence in Texas and represented by a Houston gallery. And Sigalit Landau, a local superstar who is generating a lot of interest in Europe after a successful exhibition in Berlin, is represented by Alon Segev.
It is quite common for Israeli galleries to represent foreign artists locally, and, in varying arrangements, on the international scene. Segev represents Belgian Wim Delvoye and American Chloe Piene. Sommer Gallery has British artist Darren Almond, German Wolfgang Tillmans and Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra.
These new ties with the international scene have changed the sense of Tel Aviv from a marginal arts community to an updated world scene: Ori Geshet last fall exhibited simultaneously at Noga Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Philip Rentzer exhibited part of his successful piece "The Five Continents" at the Gordon Gallery prior to bringing it to Los Angeles. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla currently have a show at Givon, corresponding to their new solo show at Whitechapel Gallery in London. The discussion on what these developments mean for Tel Aviv's art scene definitely continues, but the city now feels more like a "center" than the "periphery."
Interestingly, the Herzliya Museum and the Petach Tikva museum, two museums that contribute significantly to the contemporary art scene, are both members of the Israeli forum for "peripheral museums," although both are situated less then a 30-minute drive from the center of Tel Aviv. Both are municipal museums whose charismatic new directors turned from dreary, conservative shows to celebrate the contemporary scene, and they have become places booming with activity favored by artists, the public and critics alike.
Dalia Levin made a dramatic change in the Israeli contemporary scene when, in 2000, she inaugurated the new wing in the Herzliya Museum, which had been just a small space adjacent to a city memorial home for soldiers. Levin initiated an energetic exhibition program with a strong emphasis on video work. She exhibits cutting-edge international and Israeli art, sometimes in thematic exhibitions and sometimes in more loosely connected groupings. Her activity has already won recognition, and in 2003 Levin was part of the international Jury in the Venice Biennale. These days she is in the midst of preparations for the first Herzliya Biennale.
Petach Tikva, another long-standing institution, opened as a contemporary art museum just two years ago, encouraged by Herzliya's success. Its director, Drorit Gur-Arie, is emphasizing contemporary art in the local context, including a reference to interior social matters that have so far not been the focus of art scene discussions, such as trade in human beings and prostitution. Gur-Arie, together with guest curators, is exploring the collection of mainly old and conservative art she has in her collections, juxtaposing it with young art and infusing it with new meaning, allowing a new reading of local art history.
The past year has seen a mushrooming of artist cooperatives and alternative spaces. Some artist cooperatives run galleries, such as the charming Alfred Gallery or the "Sandlaria" (shoe repair shop). The "Salona" artists group, exhibits on a more or less regular basis in a bar carrying that name. Art shown in bars or clubs has become increasingly popular; a new characteristic is that some of these spaces, such as the Levontin bar, have started to host intellectual activities including discussions, talks and lectures that attract audiences ranging from the mainstream to the margins.
Other initiatives include exhibiting art in a shop window in Jaffa or a booth in Dizengoff Center mall; the Center for Contemporary Art focusing on video; and a host of art showrooms catering to the growing market of art consumers. The majority of these enterprises are situated south of Rothschild Boulevard, in areas that were considered, until very recently, to be the seedy side of Tel Aviv, an area where rent is still affordable.
There is a growing need for more art spaces, and as is the case in many cities, the attention they attract has helped turn some neighborhoods around. In this new arena, the fringe mediums and pronounced socially aware art flourish. In the newcomer bus station, popularly considered the biggest architecture fiasco in Israel, the Bamat Meitzag performance center keeps up a lively program of performances by artists who were not absorbed by the mainstream and who work in generally poor conditions.
Not far from there, near the old central bus station, a new school for figurative painting has been established, and in a feminist cultural center in the same neighborhood a new gallery focusing on women artists opened a short while ago.
Tel Aviv's art world had high hopes of having an international art event in the fall of 2007, either before or after the Istanbul Biennale -- an event that is often quoted in Israel as a model of a peripheral city that has gained recognition and became one of the most important events on the art world calendar. The war in Lebanon brought an end to those plans; however, recently they have once again begun to seem possible, even promising.
Sharon Yaari, "Freeway," 2002, color photograph.
Smadar Sheffi is the art critic for Haaretz and lectures frequently on Israeli art.