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For decades, Tami Katz-Freiman has been one of the top curators of contemporary art in Israel. It's easy to spot the Tel Aviv-based Katz-Freiman at exhibition openings, peering through her signature black eyeglasses and her blonde curls piled high.
If it's a cutting-edge art event, she's there - everywhere from Berlin to Istanbul to Miami, where she lived for five years in the 1990s.
Yet Tel Aviv is her home. She was born in Petah Tikva, and Israel is still the place she knows best. Katz-Freiman worked at the Tel Aviv museum from 1980 to 1989, but it's her work since then as an independent curator that made her a minor Israeli celebrity. Without the responsibility of a full-time museum post, Katz-Freiman was able to fly to dozens of major art fairs and biennials over the years, enabling her to see some of the greatest contemporary art and meet some of the most influential players in the art world.
"Tami has a great sense of the contemporary art world," says Norman L. Kleeblatt, chief curator of the Jewish Museum in New York. "She's an imaginative curator who absorbs new ideas in recent art and is able to present art in a way that tells us a great deal about society, culture and not least, aesthetics."
Her interest in the ideas that matter to "regular" people means that her exhibitions are accessible and exciting to the masses. For example, her 2004 show "Love Is in the Air: Romantic Love in Contemporary Israeli Art" in Tel Aviv drew 16,000 viewers - a lot for an exhibition outside a major museum.
However, in her catalogue essays she plants contemporary art's portrayal of human ideas such as love within an academic context heavy with art historical references, so that the art world cognoscenti also think her shows are rather smart. Yet it's the street-smart element - the way she uses art to highlight what's happening right now - that makes her exhibitions so popular.
On the other hand, the Haifa Museum of Art has, frankly, fallen off the international art world's map. The youthful 50-year-old was chosen as the museum's new chief curator to "resurrect it from the dust," according to Katz-Freiman. Since she began her new job in October 2005, the museum has been in a constant state of transformation. As she says, "I'm like a healer here."
But what is Tami Katz-Freiman healing?
The Haifa Museum was founded in 1951 as one of the three museums that the State of Israel would officially commit to support. The other two - the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem - have achieved far more than their little sister in Haifa. Both the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum have grown into world-class institutions, in terms of their permanent collections, changing exhibitions, publications, educational programs, public image and more.
Katz-Freiman will not comment on why she thinks the Haifa Museum failed to become great. All she'll say, without the slightest hint of doubt, is "The museum's presence is going to change because of me."
Since 1977, the Haifa Museum has occupied a 1931-built high school containing 1,300 square meters of exhibition space spread over three floors. Most of the museum's galleries are spacious, well proportioned and lovely. Some have excellent natural lighting and even a sea view.
However, compared with the sprawling campus of the Israel Museum with its expansive view of Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv Museum's 1971-chic building in the center of town, Haifa Museum seems like a 1931-built schoolhouse in a downmarket area of town.
The museum calls its location on the southern edge of Wadi Nisnas "the meeting point between Christian, Arab and Jewish neighborhoods," which might sound appealing to liberal art folk, but in reality the area is simply grimy and devoid of the gentrification-friendly perks of grungy art zones like Miami's Wynwood district or pockets of south Tel Aviv.
But contrast can be a useful tool, and the museum's jagged neighborhood might turn out to be a fantastic foil for its polished interior spaces. Marking the transition from life to art by way of the entrance hall was one of Katz-Freiman's first major accomplishments as chief curator.
"I wanted it to be clear: You are entering a museum. That was the street, now this is the museum, not a bank, not the post office... "
Today when the viewer crosses the threshold, there is a bright yellow form hovering inches below the ceiling, a bold curve sweeping in from the entrance. It's a clever visual device, flirtatiously pulling the viewer's eye into the museum while immediately imparting a sense of contemporary art space - albeit one more informed by Miami aesthetics than that of the Middle East.
Katz-Freiman also decided to move the right-hand wall, tightening the foyer and enlarging the adjacent museum shop.
"This is not a space for art. Here we'll put some text about the current exhibitions, what's on each floor," she declares. "We will no longer put emerging artists on the way to the bathroom."
According to the museum's new plan, there are physical spots dedicated to five different categories: emerging Israeli art - artists who have never shown in a museum before; new media; a corner-specific installation; personal choice - an Israeli cultural figure's selection from the museum's collection with commentary; and a headlining exhibition.
These five categories are color coded. Personal choice is a raspberry color on the printed materials, map of the museum, and the door frame of the gallery space will be raspberry, too. The changing exhibitions are synchronized so that all five will open and close on the same day, four times a year, allowing viewers to have the most rewarding experience possible each time they see a new exhibition.
Art people will probably try to make it to each exhibition cycle, especially since Katz-Freiman has a reputation for including international artists who have never before shown in Israel.
Certainly, all eyes will be on her first exhibition, "Mixed Emotions," premiering on February 18. "Mixed Emotions" will present the work of 17 Israeli and 13 international artists, chosen for their use of emotions as subject matter.
Katz-Freiman divided the exhibition into five chapters: "Emotion-Language - Words as Carriers of Emotion"; "The Body Language of Emotions"; "Adolescent Angst and Romantic Love"; "Emotions in Familial and Parental Relationships"; and "Collective Emotions in Israeli Political Reality."
As in "Love Is in the Air," Katz-Freiman chose art that reflects the challenges of expressing emotions in an authentic way. Some of the works consider how emotional images have lost credibility since advertising regularly toys with our emotions as a marketing tool. Even more so, the exhibition highlights the changing status and role of emotions in society.
During the Gaza withdrawal, the IDF effectively said that it is all right to become emotional. Here, contemporary art reflects the somewhat bizarre phenomenon of a military operation that also featured crying. In fact, the "political reality" gallery might be the most powerful, especially Pavel Wolberg's images juxtaposing settlers, Palestinians and evangelical Christians immersed in dramatic moments and making similar gestures. By presenting real emotional experiences out of context, Wolberg's Contact Sheets emphasize how the ability to feel - and its expression - is a visible common denominator among diverse groups of people.
Katz-Freiman includes outside scholarship in the exhibition catalogue, suggesting that emotions are a hot topic in various fields of academia today. While her essay naturally seems to be written by an art historian, there are two other more scientific-sounding essays included in the "Mixed Emotions" catalogue. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, president of the University of Haifa and co-director of the university's Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Emotions, wrote one. Danielle Knafo, a New York-based professor of psychoanalysis, wrote the second.
Knafo suggests that the ultimate goal of art and therapy is to force people to deal with their emotions. When asked if this is the objective of the exhibition, Katz-Freiman replies. "It's a bonus. I'd be happy if people walk out feeling something, but there is no single message."
Especially in the context of this show, where the works are deliberately ambiguous and multilayered, she says, "If it's a one-liner, it's a weak piece - I wouldn't have included it."
The viewer has to decide how s/he fits into the emotions of today's collective consciousness, as presented by Tami Katz-Freiman at the Haifa Museum of Art.
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