Israel Festival 2019: From the directors’ desks

In the 1980s, mayor Teddy Kollek managed to move the Festival to Jerusalem, and already then it began to enlarge the scope to include other arts, such as theater and dance.

EYAL SHER (left), the festival’s general director, with artistic director Itzik Jolly. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
EYAL SHER (left), the festival’s general director, with artistic director Itzik Jolly.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Israel Festival has returned to the halls and streets of Jerusalem every year for 58 years, gathering aficionados from across Israel and abroad. 
The event has changed significantly over the years, as veterans who have followed it for decades will readily attest. Established in a period when few Israelis could afford to travel abroad, it provided an opportunity to bring the hottest names in classical music, dance and theater to local audiences, and provide a bit of what was happening on Israeli stages to tourists. Classical music was always at the center of the program, enabling music lovers to hear some of the world’s greatest musicians perform live.
Eyal Sher, the festival’s general director, and Itzik Jolly, its artistic director, spoke with In Jerusalem about their understanding of their mission and how they translated it into action.
The first thing that comes to mind when reading this year’s program is the disappearance of classical music. Can you tell us why and when have you decided to minimize its presence?
Sher: The festival was established as a festival of music in Caesarea. It was very prestigious, dedicated to Western classical music. We know that and we remember it. We have never regarded this festival as a small local issue, but rather considered it a serious high-quality event. In the 1980s, mayor Teddy Kollek managed to move it to Jerusalem, and already then it began to enlarge the scope to include other arts, such as theater and dance. Slowly it became a multi-discipline festival in the last decade or so. Now people organize their schedules and vacations to make sure not to miss any of the program. It was always considered a beacon of quality, of prestigious performances, of excellent taste and programs. 
Would you add also elitism?
Sher: Yes, elitism, but in the right meaning of the term, not as an act of condescension. And our mission, when Itzik and I came to run it, was how were we going to maintain its high quality, its prestigious name, while we searched for a way to bring the public back to it – because we have to admit that the festival lost much of its audience over the years. 
What does that mean in numbers?
Sher: In the 1980s, we had about 120,000 attendees, which dropped in the past few years to only 30,000 to 35,000. We had to address that decline. I must add that it was not only a matter of numbers, but also how relevant the festival still was in an era of people traveling abroad almost routinely, with the ability to see any artistic event that interests them in Europe or in America. Our mission was to find a way to present something to the public that would still be interesting, relevant, worthy to come to – specifically, this festival. 
What challenges did you face?
Sher: I had to find a way to propose something still relevant in an era when almost every city in Israel has its own festival, with significant new trends in public taste, with changes in the demography of Jerusalem, with the presence of numerous private producers and a lot more. I went to my interview for the job of festival CEO with an article that asked how relevant the Israel Festival still was, and I said, ‘It is.” But I thought it had to widen its range and this is what we did. 
The bottom line is that you’ve introduced a significant change in the festival’s DNA.
Sher: When we submitted our first programs to the board five years ago, the question asked was, "OK, we need change, but what changes?" When it was ready, the question was, "But where are these things we are used to have here?"
What was you answer?
Sher: Our answer was that people look at the festival program for changes in what they used to get. Other people look at the program, like you, for classical music. What we ask ourselves is, "What does this festival do or contribute in order to enrich the art and culture landscape of Jerusalem? What is it doing that it is impossible to see in any other events?"
Jolly: We want to enlarge the artistic discourse in Israel, and we want to do it here, in Jerusalem. 
Sher: Our line is one that challenges the existing options through bringing the changes occurring in the world outside here – the new trends, the new approaches – and this we can do because we are a sponsored institution, we can take risks that a private producer will never take. To bring things here that are happening abroad, but nobody will bring here, except us, the Israel Festival. As for music, we see that good things regarding classical music are already taking place here, so we don’t feel we have to contribute something special on top of that. 
But from what I see in the program, it’s like introducing a new artistic language. Music is intertwined with dance, with theater, not standing by itself. Is it on purpose?
Jolly: Let’s say that we are now in a world that is "post." It is a world of post-theater, post-genre, post-dance. It enlarges our existence and our perception. I want to add that if art is not that thing that will bring down walls, we would still be trying to copy the works of Titian. But we’re not there anymore, obviously. That’s the task of art – being busy all the time to conquer new territories to look into new possibilities, new horizons, new options. 
Do you believe that the Israel of 2019 is the right place for these experiences?
Jolly: Every place is the right place for these experiences. That’s exactly what the human spirit is about. That’s a question raised all the time and everywhere. Certainly, wherever the freedoms – of expression or artistic or civil – may be getting narrower, the most important and the right thing to do is to flood in new blood and spirit and freedom of artistic and cultural expression. That’s the most important thing to do now. Here and everywhere, now and all the time. Because this is something that is for good. And the first reason why it is necessary is because the natural tendency of every society and sector is to stick to what is familiar, in fact, to stagnate. Life – and hence art – is a "becoming| process, a process of change all the time.
Sher: I think the question is also about how far these messages fit the state of mind of the population we are addressing.
Do you have enough of an audience for this?
Sher: This is our fifth festival, and yes, we have more of an audience, growing year after year. There is also a change in the character of the audience. More than 20% of the audience is young adults. That was not the case a few years ago. It doesn’t mean that we ignore the more aged, but we enlarge the scope to a sector that was not among our earlier audiences. It’s like asking if most of the public will follow the Discovery series or the Ach Hagadol (Big Brother) show. You must understand that you have both. 
Jolly: From year to year, what we focus on is to enlarge the core of this festival, which is made of the breakthrough events brought to our public. We dare more, we explore more. 
Is BDS an issue? How much damage does it cause?
Sher: There are very few cases of artists who simply announce that they have decided not to come. If right from the beginning it is clear that they are adamant about not coming, we withdraw. But in cases where we understand that they are hesitating, we engage in a dialogue. We try to convince, very sensitively. We try to bring the whole picture. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t – this is the reality in which we work.
Both of you are deeply engaged in arts. You, Sher, in films and scenario writing, and you, Jolly, in theater – it’s not the regular team of one in management and finance and one only in arts. How do you make it work?
Jolly: It starts on my desk. I begin to collect ideas, directions, thoughts, proposals. Then we work on them together. It is totally teamwork. We exchange tips, information, ideas, all the time until we come out with a final setting. The great advantage is that when I am very excited about something I want to bring to life, I know the language that Sher will understand in order to describe to him what it is about. 
The Israel festival runs from May 30 to June 14. Most events take place in the evenings at the Israel Theater. Info and tickets: