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.
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