Take an elegantly restored historical building, throw in three or four major art exhibits a year, then enhance the package with outdoor summer music festivals held on its meticulously groomed lawn, and what do you have? The Negev Museum of Art - the smallest museum in Israel, but unquestionably one of the Negev's finest gems.
"We have two distinct functions," says Noga Raved, for nine years the museum's director. "First, the museum occupies the old governor's residence, the center of operations here during the Ottoman Empire. Part of the museum's mission is to preserve the history of Beersheba and make it accessible to the public, so having the Museum building itself available for tours is part of what we do. Second, the historical building houses our art museum, with everything that entails - reaching out with education, culture and art appreciation to everyone in the area."
The Museum's third role - much less official than the first two - is that of a musical entertainment hub, which accounts for its popularity among music lovers, especially Beersheba's huge student population. As host to a series of "Monday Night Concerts" during the summers - with performers ranging from the Beersheba Sinfonietta to Israeli singer Efrat Gosh - thousands of people made their way to the Museum during the summer to listen, relax and enjoy the cool of the evening.
The museum, a grand and stately edifice if there ever was one, sits well back from the corner streets of Herzl and Ha'atzmaut. "It was built in 1906 in the traditional 'konak' style," Raved says. "It served as the territorial administrative offices, and also as the governor's residence during the Ottoman Empire. The family lived on the second floor, while a series of wide arched doors on the first floor were designed to be open and welcoming.
"This is where the Ottoman citizens came when they had problems, needed help or wanted justice," she continues. "Everything happened here - we have old photographs showing mounted Ottoman soldiers convening on the grounds here during the last days of the Empire. The governor's residence was the center of everything."
With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, near the end of World War I, the Allies took possession of Beersheba. For a time, the building continued to serve as a residence. Then, in 1938, it became a girls' school.
"Ten years later, when 'Operation Yoav' freed the city of Beersheba [in theWar of Independence], the building served as regional headquarters for the IDF," Raved tells. "Two years later, in 1950, when the municipality of Beersheba was organized, the building became Beersheba's first City Hall. But by the early 1980s the city had outgrown the structure.
"When the city administration was gone, the building became a fine arts museum," she continues. "That lasted until 1998, when the structure was declared unsound and was closed to the public."
That's when the complex process of restoration began.
"Everyone knew how to restore Jerusalem stone," Raved says. "But restoring Beersheba stone was something else entirely. This was the first building to be restored, so no one had any experience. The engineers had to perform many new studies to learn what would work and what wouldn't."
Beersheba stone - quarried locally, in Beersheba's nearby "Daled" neighborhood - is basically chalk stone, very crumbly and unstable. The stone also absorbs dampness from Beersheba's high water table, which adds to the corrosion and crumbling.
Throughout the building's history, temporary fixes were attempted. Various sealants and cements were utilized in an attempt to stem the dangerous crumbling, but most solutions only made matters worse. The addition of water and sewage facilities to the building caused further damage, as did the irrigation of the surrounding gardens and shrubbery.
"The engineers decided that the first thing to do was to simply strip away anything that wasn't original," Raved says. "Even that wasn't easy - of course there weren't any blueprints. So they just went in and stripped everything down to the original walls."
Raved recalls being there at the time that the building was emptied out. "They hauled out everything - not just plaster, cement and other building materials, but old carpets, furniture - all kinds of things. It was really exciting. As the work went on, I began to see what an incredibly beautiful museum this would become."
None of the restoration work was accomplished with more Beersheba stone, Raved says. "If they'd used Beersheba stone again, then in another 50 years, they'd be facing the same problem. Instead they found a similar material, stone quarried in Hebron."
"Look at it today, and the Hebron stone appears lighter, almost white," she says. "But in time, it will acquire a patina and will look cream-colored, just like the original Beersheba stone."
When everything had been stripped out and the building's bare bones lay exposed, the interior was refitted to serve as a museum.
"What we have now are glorious white boxes," Raved says, "perfect for mounting exhibitions. Visitors wander from one to another. There's a very homey and intimate feel to the place. In addition to restoring the historical building itself, we added an exterior staircase enclosed in glass to improve visitor access. The glass addition is new, of course, but it replicates the original design, which included an outside staircase to reach the family quarters when the building was constructed back in 1906."
THE MUSEUM was closed for renovation from 1998 to January, 2004 when it officially reopened as the Negev Museum of Art, with Raved serving as director.
"We have no permanent collection here," Raved says. "Our facilities are too small. People would come once, see it, and then they'd never have a reason to come back."
"So instead," she continues, "we have visiting exhibits that come and stay three or four months, and are then replaced by something different. There's always something new to see here."
The visiting exhibitions have covered all manner of Israeli art - sculpture and ceramics, paintings of every possible style, era and medium.
"Not everyone loves everything we exhibit," Raved admits. "But part of our obligation is to bring people closer to art. When kids come to see statutes or paintings, some of which are [unusual to them], I tell them to find something in the exhibit that they find interesting. They don't have to love any of it, but if they just find some little thing they think is interesting - maybe just one beautiful color, one graceful hand, or one perfect flower - then they're growing.
"It's a quality important to all of us. We all have to deal with things we don't like. It may be the man at the next desk - or it could be a statue or painting in a local museum. So what we want is to have people consider it," she says. "Why was this object chosen to be here? What was the artist trying to say? What do you see in it? It's not that we expect people to love everything they see."
On November 11, the museum held a grand opening of an exhibition on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: "Portraits and Texts from the Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art."
"This exhibit was a challenge for me," Raved says, noting that in addition to being the museum's director, she's also the curator. "When this exhibit was at the Israel Museum, it was very large. They had a lot of space. Here, we have very little space, so I had to cut it down considerably.
"The selection had to be made very carefully. There had to be a logical arrangement of what remained, with one thing leading to another," Raved explains. "Because we work with so many children, the connections among and between the objects had to be very strong and obvious.
"Another issue was that much of this exhibit is in the form of books and papers, most of them written in German or French," she says. "Little kids can't read most of that, so I had to find visual connections, easy-to-see links between the artwork on the walls and the books and papers on display under glass."
One of Raved's techniques for making such connections is to make use of very large LCD screens where an introduction, background or history of the objects runs in a continuous loop. In addition, sometimes more oblique commentary runs. For this surrealist exhibit, one screen shows what appears to be a 1930s Parisian film in which three bowler hats blow about, dance, and link one surrealistic scene to another.
"This was a big project, one I had to do on my own," Raved says. "It's not as though I could turn to another curator, and say, 'Here. You do it.' I'm the curator, too."
"There's something else that makes us unique," she adds. "In Beersheba, we're the only art museum. It's not like Tel Aviv, where a teacher can decide to take the kids down the street to some other museum if she wants. We're the only institution of this type in the city, which means we have to try extra hard to be meaningful in what we present."
Raved's penchant for innovation goes beyond just the exhibits she chooses. Sometimes she goes so far as to reverse the process, taking the visitors to the art, as she did with the sculpture of the prolific Negev sculptor Ezra Orion.
"Orion lived here in the Negev most of his life, so showing his work was important," Raved says. "That made it interesting, because his sculpture is located all over the county. Many of his pieces are here in the Negev, some each in Mitzpe Ramon, Sde Boker and other places, so we got creative. These sculptures are enormous - there was no way to bring them to the Museum."
"So we organized a day trip, and took a group of people to see the sculptures where they stood," she says. "Some of Orion's family came on the tour and helped us understand what he was saying with his work. It was a tremendous day and an amazing opportunity to see the Negev through Orion's eyes."
Another of Raved's innovative touches is to use concerts and music to draw people into the museum itself. "Some people are afraid of modern art," she says. "So to make it easier, less threatening, we invite people to come to other kinds of events, things they're comfortable with, like music. Then, while they're here to listen to the music, most will look at the art in the museum, too."
"Maybe they'll see something that interests them. Then the next time, or the time after that, they'll come just for the art."
Among the most enduring of the museum's projects is its foray into book publishing. "After some of the exhibits, we publish a book, as many as we can afford," Raved says. "One of the most important of those is a book featuring artist Nahum Gutman.
"While Gutman is generally regarded as a Tel Aviv artist, he spent time in Beersheba and was very touched by what he saw here," she explains. "He believed Beersheba would eventually be Israel's metropolis. While here, he made a series of drawings which were eventually published in book form.
"The book went out of print long ago, and hardly anyone remembered it," Raved continues. "But I came across a copy, so we contacted the publisher, asking for permission to republish it, complete with Gutman's drawings. It's here now, and available again. That's important for people who care about art in the Negev."
Several other books about Beersheba's history grew out of past exhibitions. There are lovely illustrated books on the Battle of Beersheba, on the history of public housing in Israel, and on Beersheba's distinctive architecture. All have been published and are available in the museum's gift shop.
Today, most of the museum's visitors come from Beersheba and the surrounding area. "Even so, we've had people from the center of the country come down on the train, take a taxi to the museum and view the exhibit. That's gratifying - but of course people who love art will do whatever it takes to see an exhibit."
Just a short distance across the museum's grassy expanse lies another museum - maybe. "Part of the restoration of the old Beersheba Mosque has been completed," Raved notes. "The current plan is that it will serve again as a Museum of Archeology, but that's still controversial. As of now, the outside has been restored and they're working on the inside. Whatever the building will be used for, our first objective was to protect the structure for its historical value."
Raved's biggest dream features more museums. "First we need a much bigger art museum in Beersheba, followed closely by a historical museum. These are institutions Beersheba really needs, cultural assets the people of Beersheba deserve. Look at how the whole music scene here has blossomed in the last few years. It's amazing.
"Six years ago, there wasn't an art museum here, either. Now we're here, and doing everything we can to promote art," she says. "Maybe just by making people aware of the value of art and culture in their lives, we can inspire more museums to be built."