Sergio Edelsztein said he would not have come from Israel to a cultural exchange in New York. "Los Angeles is so much more open, and it's still about regular people -- not so much of an establishment," said the director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv.
Edelsztein was one of seven Israeli artists, curators and educators who came to Los Angeles Feb. 10-15 to view art and establish professional dialogues, as part of The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Participating local institutions included the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA Gallery, Craft and Folk Art Museum, Otis Art Institute and Inner-City Arts.
It may seem an auspicious time to bring Israeli artists over to America, as Israel has been in a virtual state of war since the beginning of the second intifada, and America is on the brink of war as well; but in a way, the timing could not have been better to discover what role museums play amid chaos.
"Where you're heading now, we've been for years," Edelsztein told Angelenos about living with violence during a panel discussion at LACMA on the impact of political turmoil on arts institutions. LACMA Lab Director Bob Sain and others wanted to know how Israelis and their art were affected by the situation?
"A lot of people are still doing personal art," said Nili Goren, curator of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Yael Borovich, director and curator of education at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art said that Israelis -- artists and non-artists alike -- make a point to keep on with their normal lives. "We still go to the theater, we go to museums, we go on living," she said.
For some, the situation has had indirect influence their exhibits. For example, Nitza Behroozi, curator for Judaica and folklore at the Eretz Israel Museum exhibited a Hamsa exhibit shortly after the intifada started in September 2000. Although the exhibit was planned way before the situation erupted, she felt it still was positive, considering the tensions. "We wanted to do something that was about what Jews and Muslims share. We share a lot."
Similarly, American curators and educators are considering holding exhibits that defuse the charged political atmosphere. Gabrielle Tsabag, senior educator from the Skirball is considering doing exhibits on Islam.
"The museum's role is not just to be a showcase but to be pertinent," she said. Exhibits on Islam could "possibly be a way to empower the moderate Muslin community in this country to feel they can come out and speak out."
War was hardly the only thing the Israeli and American groups had in common; art discussions -- on education, exhibit selection, technical subjects such as preservation -- peppered the frenzied week of touring.
Fowler Museum curator Polly Roberts, led the group through the "A Saint in the City" exhibit, teaching them about the secret Sufi wisdom painted into Senegalese street murals.
At the home of Cliff and Mandy Einstein, Ohad Shaaltiel, artist and Meyerhoff Education Center's Workshop director in Tel Aviv, was overjoyed at viewing an Ad Reinhardt painting: "Look at the brushstrokes. I can see his later work in the brushstrokes," he said.
In addition to viewing art, the Israelis found practical lessons to take back home. Nachum Tevet, artist and director of the MFA Program at Bezalel Academy of Art, fostered artist-in-residence programs. Edelsztein discovered festivals and other venues for Israeli video artists. Behroozi learned how textiles are preserved at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
The Los Angeles group began to establish professional connection that would continue long after the trip ended. Bob Bates, who founded Inner-City Arts, said that he is willing help the Israelis create successful arts education programs for kids. "Please stay in touch," he told the group repeatedly.
But what the Angelenos might have learned the most from their Israeli counterparts was how to continue working with art in an atmosphere of fear, which is relatively new for Americans.
"Yihyeh tov," Hebrew for "all will be well," could have been the motto throughout the week.
"When you come to the museum, you see we've always been threatened, we've always struggled, and still look what we did anyway," Behroozi said. "So we should take strength from that."