Behind the scenes of the Israel Festival

n his first year as CEO of one of the country’s most prestigious events, Eyal Sher has overcome time constraints, BDS threats and the fallout from Operation Protective Edge.

‘Snakeskin,’ performed within a poetic string installation, by Canadian dancer Benoit La Chambre. (photo credit: CHRISTINE ROSEDIVITO)
‘Snakeskin,’ performed within a poetic string installation, by Canadian dancer Benoit La Chambre.
Dreams sometimes come true, but once they become reality they may also turn out to be somewhat of a nightmare. That was exactly the case with Eyal Sher, who until a few months ago was head of the Culture Department at the Jerusalem Foundation and since August 2014 has been the CEO of the Israel Festival.
When Sher presented his candidacy for the festival position (among 23 other candidates), he had planned to manage both jobs for a while but quickly realized that this was not realistic. With barely eight months to prepare a festival that sometimes requires more than a year to mold into shape, Sher soon discovered that not only would he not be able to continue on both fronts, but that even focusing on only the new task would take up almost all his days and part of his nights.
The Israel Festival is one of the country’s oldest festivals and the most prestigious one. It started in 1961 as a summer festival for classical music in the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea, but over the years it expanded to include a large number of other artistic disciplines such as ballet, jazz, theater, visual arts and lectures, combining programs and artists from Israel and abroad. In 1982 the Israel Festival was moved to Jerusalem and became the Jerusalem Israel Festival.
Yossi Tal-Gan, a former head of the Culture Department at the Jerusalem Municipality and a candidate in the 2008 municipal elections, was the festival’s CEO for more than 22 years. Almost two years ago he announced his decision to resign, but for reasons that remain unclear, nothing was done to find a new director. In June 2014, when Tal-Gan turned 70, he definitively resigned his position, right after last year’s festival. By the time the vacant position was officially announced and the candidates presented and Sher was selected, it was already the end of August. At the time, the country was slowly recovering from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, rockets were being fired on the South, there were close to 100 military and civilian casualties, and Jerusalem was besieged by dramatic incidents, with its Arab neighborhoods threatening to drag the city into a third intifada.
“Not the best time to build an international festival program,” admits Sher a few days before revealing the program which he finally, against all odds, managed to put together.
Sher, 57 and the father of three, was born in Jerusalem. The son of a diplomat, he spent years abroad, mainly in France (he speaks French fluently). He was a basketball player with Hapoel Jerusalem, an accomplished screenwriter and film producer (he worked with Claude Lanzmann among others) and director of the Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film Festival. He has a bachelor’s degree in cinema and television from UCLA, was head of the Arts and Culture Department at the Jerusalem Foundation from 2008 to 2014 and for many years served as a representative of the foundation in California.
Sher recalls how he felt on the first days after his being selected as festival CEO.
“I didn’t have a chance to feel thrilled or excited about my new job, there was simply no time for it,” he says. “Yossi [Tal- Gan] did a very noble thing and left me a brand-new ground for ‘my’ festival. He didn’t prepare any program, leaving me the opportunity to make it totally my own. That was exactly what I wanted.
But on the other hand, it was already late August, after Protective Edge, with the security issues in Jerusalem and with budget restrictions on the horizon, it was the closest thing to a mission impossible.
So I had to immediately abandon anything that was not related to the festival. But today, a little less than a month before its opening, I can say that this year’s festival is the fruit of my desires and expectations.”
SHER ADMITS that he had some clear ideas about what he wanted to do if chosen for the position, but points out that there was a gap between what he had in mind and what he could actually do, considering the short time given to book artists, who usually confirm their tours abroad at least two years in advance, not to mention the budget constraints. In fact, Sher says that he had to abandon some of his “theoretical plans for this festival for purely financial reasons; but in terms of content and regarding what I had in mind and wanted to get for this year, it worked out.”
Once he was in position, he not only had to build a major festival – that lasts from three to four weeks – from scratch but also create his own team.
“At the beginning, I thought that I would have an artistic director for each of the arts disciplines of the festival,” he explains, “but I soon realized that it was not realistic. Today, so many of the artistic fields – dance, theater, music – are not as clearly distinct from each other as they used to be. Today, different aspects are parts of one artistic work, whether it is dance combined with video-art, or theater or music, so I ultimately took a different approach.”
The result was the establishment of a kind of beehive, with one artistic director leading and other persons for various aspects, together with Sher, who is himself an artistic creator.
“I don’t feel that I had to give up my vision for this festival. The vision, my vision, included an appetite to swallow the whole world, to get all the dreams together. But at a certain point I had to say to myself, ‘Okay, this and this will have to wait for another year or more’ because you finally see the reality. And in my case with the first festival, my reality check was the financial aspect, the limits that the financial aspect drew. Nevertheless – and I didn’t believe I’d actually reach that point – I am totally satisfied with the program of this festival.”
Being a creator himself – though his discipline is not included in the Israel Festival program – enabled Sher to see things from different angles.
“My experience in these various fields gave me the ability to see all the aspects – both of the artists and of the public for whom we are creating these cultural events,” he says.
Sher believes in nurturing growing audiences for arts and culture. That is one of his credos from his years at the Jerusalem Foundation when he was very active in establishing venues for local artists and performers, together with creating the conditions for enlarging the scope of local “arts consumers” to enable artists to remain in the city. In that regard, he has gained a lot of experience in bringing new audiences to the cultural events and institutions, and that is also something he is including in his vision of the Israel Festival and how it should look.
“That was the easier part of my new job,” says Sher, “but I also had to find out, and quickly, the latest and hottest things being done here and around the world in terms of theater, music, dance. But then again, I was not alone. With artistic director Itzik Juli (formerly of the dance festival Curtain Up) and the team I gathered, and Emanuel Witzthum and Miri Menirav, the veteran producer, I had enough support and help to build a program that suited my vision,” he says.
HOWEVER, EVEN with the team and the vision and the experience, Sher had to deal with yet another problem – the status of Israel in the world and the limitations on his budget. “When this festival was established, there was no Suzanne Dellal Center, no Israeli Opera, no piano festival, no jazz festivals or other festivals, and people didn’t travel abroad very much,” says Sher. “So the question that arose was ‘What is this festival’s special role? What does it bring that private producers cannot do?’ After all, it is public money, so we have to do or offer something different.”
One of the first rules was – and still is – that programs in the Israel Festival are not presented within the same time period at other venues in the country.
“As a result, it makes the program more expensive, but on that matter I am adamant. What we bring within the framework of the Israel Festival can be attended only at the festival,” he asserts.
Another issue was premiere performances. Sher points out that the festival hosts only premieres. That is another one of its specialties, which, again, increases the cost. Edinburgh, Krakow, Japan were only some of the places from which Sher brought ideas and specific programs, and relatively soon after he stepped into the position and put together the team, things began to take shape.
“We decided that the main thread should be what would interest us, people who love and consume arts and culture. It turned out that we mainly followed the creators and the artists and the division into different arts – such as dance, theater or music – and so it is much less important. What really makes it interesting and worthwhile is to see what the artists do with an artistic idea and how the disciplines merge together,” he says.
Another major question is how attractive Israel is to foreign artists, given the background of its political and security issues. Sher explains that in approaching the cultural departments of foreign embassies in Israel, he not only had to obtain their goodwill to participate – a step that is usually the easiest – but also to acquire the shows he really wanted and not only the programs that were proposed.
“What we did was first to draw a picture of what we wanted, and then to find a way to make it happen – financially, artistically, all the aspects. And I must say that despite all the known problems, the Israel Festival still has a very prestigious image,” he says.
Among the many embassies are the Goethe Institute (also marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany), the French Cultural Center and the Belgian Embassy.
This year, the festival events will take place in several locations in the city, as they did many years ago. Sher says it was not his first preference. He would rather have one compound that would be festive and emanate the festival atmosphere, but due to logistics the events will be spread among many venues.
And last but not least, guest artists from Arab countries are still not part of this festival. But Sher emphasizes that at least all the festival programs and posters will be in Hebrew, English and Arabic as a goodwill gesture.