Sensory overload

The capital abounds with an extensive range of cultural events, but some believe that the city’s arts policy needs some fine tuning.

Jerusalem season of culture_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem season of culture_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lina, a culture connoisseur in her 60s, is a great aficionado of theater and music. I was introduced to her through a friend at a concert last spring. Those were the days when even Mayor Nir Barkat’s fiercest opponents admitted that the city’s cultural life was substantially improving under his baton.
We were a group of middle-aged residents discussing the change that we could not help but notice in the atmosphere of the city. Lina surprised us a little when she challenged this consensus and remarked that culture should be consumed like a gourmet and not like a fast-food junkie.
“I see more chaos than culture,” she said. “I agree that we have more, but quality should be the first parameter. And even before the issue of quality is looked into, there should be some kind of programming. But at the moment, I don’t see anything to indicate that there is a cultural policy at the Jerusalem Municipality. What we have is more like fireworks – very impressive for a moment, but once they’re over, you’re left with nothing.”
A year has passed, and it seems that Lina was right. While there is no doubt that cultural events have almost become the trademark of this city within less than two years, this journalist is seriously concerned that all this, however well-intentioned it is, has little to do with what should be the high-quality cultural life appropriate for a city of such international importance.
In terms of quantity, it seems that we are already reaching the saturation point. But a quick glance at the roster of concerts, plays and dance events scheduled for the upcoming season leads to one conclusion – it is indeed closer to chaos than to a seriously planned and programmed issue, as if this city’s cultural life had turned into a no-man’s-land of culture moguls and promoters.
In May and June alone, Jerusalem’s lineup includes, besides the Israel Festival, about 50 dance, theater, music, art and special outdoor events. At the Confederation House, the first Indian Music Festival attracted hundreds of locals and visitors. In the first week of June, the city is hosting the two-day Opera Festival, featuring opera highlights in 50 different locations. Next week, the Festival of Light will illuminate the Old City’s walls, as well as many other locations. Other items on the agenda include special events for Jerusalem Day, the Student Day open concert at Sacher Park, Hebrew Book Week, the One Meter Square poetry festival and more. Not to mention the Jerusalem International Film festival at the Cinematheque, which will take place from July 7 to 17, and though a steady annual event, attracts thousands of visitors – locals and visitors.
Into this jam-packed period, which runs in tandem with the regular concerts, plays and dance programs scheduled during the year, comes the first Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC), an initiative of the Schusterman Foundation.
The JSOC is adding a series of very high-profile events to the existing roster of summer fare. It opened last week with the Philosophers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, to be followed by Verdi’s opera Jerusalem at the Sultan’s Pool (which was renovated for the occasion at a cost of NIS 1.5 million) and a series of music, theater and dance programs that will run until mid-July. While the municipality’s budget for culture has jumped in less than three years from NIS 4m. to NIS 40m., even before the special budgets invested by all the parties involved – the Tourism and Culture ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Beracha Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation and a long list of sponsors. The Schusterman Foundation, for example, is investing $1.5m. a year and has signed an agreement with the municipality to invest the same amount for the next three years.
AFTER MORE than five years without a director of the municipal culture department, Shemi Amsalem was appointed last year. Following the restructuring of the municipality’s bureaucracy, the Administration for Culture, Social and Leisure Activities, directed by Yossi Sharabi, oversees the culture department. Since the resignation of Pepe Allalu, leader of Meretz on the city council and former deputy mayor who held the culture portfolio, that portfolio has been in the hands of Mayor Nir Barkat. He has his own culture adviser, Nava Dissenchik, in addition to a local committee for culture, headed until this week by city council member Ofer Berkovitch. Nevertheless, there seems to be no culture policy as such.
The culture budget has grown, the donations and fund-raising are present, but it all seems like a huge warehouse, where everyone comes with an idea, and as long as someone is ready to finance it, events just happen.
Another aspect is the strong correlation that Kikar Safra makes between culture and tourism. Not that it is a bad idea that tourists will want to come to Jerusalem because there’s a concert or a theater production they can attend here, but the question of whether it should take the place of a steady, well-planned and well thought-out policy of culture for the city and its residents should be asked and answered.
The first thing one realizes is that there has been no sense of balance over the year regarding the events proposed. While the spring-summer season is packed with a dizzying array of events, there are long periods without anything special.
The first result of this situation is a tremendous burden on the residents’ pockets. How many people in this city can afford to go to six or seven events in the same week, even if many of them are offered at reduced prices? And little of the funding is allotted to the local culture bodies. As a result, too many of the art and music students who go to school here don’t stay in Jerusalem after they graduate.
“Jerusalem is the largest city in the country,” says Eyal Sher, director of the culture department of the Jerusalem Foundation, “yet we all know that when we talk about culture consumers in this city, we’re talking about some 25,000 people, more or less, residents of Jerusalem, for whom culture is a way of life. But they are not particularly rich, and frankly, the feeling is that the cultural renaissance of the city is aimed far above them.”
Berkovitch, until this week chairman of the culture committee on the city council (he was replaced by Merav Cohen), says he is aware of this aspect and that most of his efforts for the last months have been aimed at building a more appropriate level of programming. But he remarks that his capacity to do so is reduced due to private initiatives.
“Take the Jerusalem Season of Culture, for example,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t appreciate what they are doing. On the contrary, it is clear that in its first year the JSOC is already achieving unprecedented international status for the city, and that is a blessing. But they have their own agenda. Our efforts, including my own, to convince them to hold some of the events at different periods of the year to avoid overload during the peak season, were not successful, and there’s nothing we could do about it.”
Allalu is even more critical. “Let’s tell it like it is. There is a lot of balagan in this domain. One can see that there is no true policy, there is no directing hand that takes into consideration all aspects and establishes a comprehensive culture policy. There is no coordination, no advance planning. No one takes into consideration all the aspects of holding large events in such a city. For example, this week we had two mega outdoor events on the same day at the same time. The result was a huge traffic jam. It’s not fun to enjoy an event and then be caught in a major traffic jam, but nobody even thought about that.”
Dror (not his real name) says that the real picture is very complicated. As a high-ranking employee for years at the municipality, he says the problem is not the lack of policy but the nature of the policy that does exist.
“Once the connection between culture and tourism was established, the current situation was inevitable. From the time the success of upgrading the cultural life of the city was linked to hotel occupancy, it was clear where things were going. From that moment on, importing mega-events became unavoidable. Not that this is not legitimate, but we have to understand what it means and where it takes us.”
In one sense, Jerusalem has indeed taken a huge step. From a city identified with poor cultural life, it has become a city where cultural events – and not security or political ones – stimulate interest not only among people around the country but also abroad, and that’s no small achievement.
“There is nothing wrong with that, of course,” says Dror. “However, I’m concerned that we’re dangerously close to reaching the point where it might turn Jerusalem into a city that focuses more on hedonism than intellectualism because, parallel to that, there is not enough room for a steady, normal cultural life for the local residents, who have some rights, too.”
He says he is also opposed to having so many free events, explaining that people should not become dependent on complimentary culture. “There is a big difference between exorbitant tickets and ones that are free, and both are counterproductive. People should not be fed by an establishment that decides for them what culture is.”
“It’s all a question of balance,” says Sher, who is responsible for many of the changes we are experiencing. “There is no question that the situation has improved greatly, but what we should ask ourselves is ‘What will be left after these kinds of spectacular events end?’”
Sher believes that while the current situation is far better, there is no clear indication as to whom the events are aimed at – the residents or the tourists. In fact, he adds, “There is no doubt now that the connection between culture and tourism has been established. This is Barkat’s vision, to bring 10 million tourists to the city; and to achieve that, cultural events are the answer. Not that anyone is opposed to seeing millions of tourists arriving here either, because the cultural life proposed by the municipality is a dream that all lovers of this city share. But the question remains, what about the residents, those who cannot afford a ticket to a concert by [American soprano] Renee Fleming or an opera performance? And, above all, what about the artists who study and perform here and the institutions that should serve as a platform for them? Who is going to take care of them?”
The JSOC denies that it hasn’t taken programming and the residents’ needs into account.
“At the JSOC, there is no doubt that things should and are done in complete collaboration with the municipality and the culture department. The JSOC has studied and researched the situation in Jerusalem for the past three years, and uses its own resources to develop and enrich Jerusalem’s cultural life,” a high-ranking employee told In Jerusalem.
IS THIS the result of a typical capitalist attitude and policy? Apparently, yes. The connection between tourism and culture is exactly that. People come and spend their money to purchase a product that Jerusalem offers. That does not include local residents who want to attend an event and then return home. So it seems that the well-intentioned people involved in the cultural revolution of the city do not have the residents in mind.
“I think it is great that the cultural life in this city has improved so much,” says Avner Rothenberg, a former high-ranking official in the municipal culture department. “We should all be happy and grateful for this. We all remember how bad the situation was not so long ago.”
But Rothenberg admits that things are not so simple. In his eyes, the key is not in the municipality’s hands but in the government’s. “The question is when will the State of Israel understand that Jerusalem is the capital? It seems to me that this basic understanding has not reached the minds of our leaders.”
Rothenberg adds that no foundation, no private money and no municipality budget can replace the “real thing” – a state policy to give the capital what is needed to help it reach the cultural level it warrants.
Berkovitch also agrees that there are quite a few improvements, which he does not hesitate to link to the influence of a party representing the young generation on the city council. But he says that as far as the Jerusalem Season of Culture is concerned, there is also public money involved, hence his opposition to the way it was included in the city’s programs.
Berkovitch is not alone. Gilad Meiri, founder and director of the Place for Poetry, says he doesn’t understand why his organization, which works in the city and whose members are residents, have to fit the “criterion committee” before they obtain one shekel, while the JSOC was exempted from that. “We all appreciate what the JSOC is doing, but we, the locals, also exist.”
Dror says that, of course, nobody can tell anyone what to do with their own money. “But we have to look carefully into the situation. Is it really only private money or is there some public money involved as well? And there is a rather patronizing attitude about an organization that comes, puts its money in and decides what we will see and hear, without considering the residents’ needs at all.”
Meiri says that the improvement compared to past years notwithstanding, a city that brings in too many foreign productions sends a negative message. “It’s as if we were saying, ‘Look, we don’t have anything of our own, so we bring you the stars from afar’ – and that’s wrong in my eyes. And it is not happening because we don’t have talented people here – on the contrary – but because the money, public first and philanthropy too, goes somewhere else or has a different agenda. We have one band here – Hadag Nahash. We have all danced around them in circles for years, but who says we can’t have more? I’m sure that with the proper support, we could have 10 more such groups. The same goes for writers and poets. We have poet Haim Gouri, who lives here. It’s great, but then after him – nothing. They all had to leave and find their place elsewhere, since no public fund supports them. How is it possible that in Jerusalem – in Jerusalem! – we don’t have a writers’ house? A writers’ house in Jerusalem could become a mecca for the world, not just the country. And yet we don’t have such a place. It should be a place where groups of poets and writers could work and present their art for the benefit of all. But what chance do we have to see such a place developing if there is no public money invested?”
Sharabi reacts harshly. “Who said we don’t have a culture policy here? We have a very detailed policy, and I am in charge of its implementation, after I spent three months establishing it.”
He adds that encouraging tourism was at the base of this policy and that any event – large or small – has to fit into that view before it is included.
“Yes, absolutely, tourism and culture go together,” he says. “Tourists contribute very much to the consolidation of this city. Our official position and policy is very simple. We aim to turn Jerusalem into a place towards which the eyes of the world are focused in connection with culture and tourism. That is our concept, and that is our goal: to see that Jerusalem becomes a place where people want to come to see a play or hear a concert they can’t see anywhere else. This city will become a major destination, through culture. Is that a lack of policy?”
So there is no doubt that things have changed in Jerusalem. Gone are the days when this city could hardly offer one concert a week or one imported play. This city has stepped out of a kind of cultural desert into a vibrant, varied and highly publicized succession of concerts, parties, theater and dance performances. The question that remains is who’s enjoying all this? It seems that among the producers of this new line, as long as Jerusalem’s evenings and nights are packed with cultural events, who cares who attends? According to others, who are no less involved in the cultural activities, it does very much make a difference, though nobody wants to see the bad old boring days return.