The Artists' Nest conference returns for a second year

It should be interesting to see what comes out of this year’s Artists’ Nest conference, and how things progress over the coming year.

HaDag Nahash frontman Sha’anan Streett speaks at last year’s Artists’ Nest conference. (photo credit: NADAV ARIEL)
HaDag Nahash frontman Sha’anan Streett speaks at last year’s Artists’ Nest conference.
(photo credit: NADAV ARIEL)
Let’s face it, living in Jerusalem can be a tough proposition. There is less in the way of employment going around, inexpensive housing is almost nonexistent, and there are the occasional flareups between Jews and Arabs, and religious and secular Jewish residents.
And if you’re an artist just starting out, or even a few years into your career, the survival curve can get even steeper. There have been issues relating to the shortage of affordable studio space here, with quite a few artists decamping to Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Then again, there is also a pervading groundswell of things starting to move in the desired direction.
Part of that is due to the recently discovered willingness of the municipality to disseminate information about support options to the people for whom the funds were presumably earmarked in the first place. While that should really be a given, it seems it has taken a while for the authorities to wake up to that. But, as they say, better late than never, and one year ago the municipality took a giant stride to addressing the situation by holding the inaugural Artists’ Nest conference at the end of 2017.
Founders of festivals are wont to declare, in somewhat chronologically incongruent fashion: “We are starting a new tradition,” in the hope that there will, indeed, be more events in subsequent years. Eyal Ezri could give himself a pat on the back, as the second conference geared up to be held at Jerusalem’s Yehuda Hotel, December 16-17. As deputy director of the municipality’s Culture and Arts Division, Ezri was one of the driving forces behind the welcome venture.
With the advent of the sophomore gathering, one may ask whether that indicates the pressing need for the facilities it was set up to provide for local artists, or the success of the first time out. “Probably both,” Ezri laughs. “You can look at the things the participants received – workshops, training and that sort of thing. And they got information about things going on between them, between them and the municipality, and between them and the general cultural scene in Jerusalem.”
Ezri says it proved to be a fruitful confluence for all concerned. “I think it was important for the artists to know that the municipality is here for them.” Ezri listened to the artists’ gripes and suggestions, referred them to the powers that be, and together they drafted a report, including recommendations regarding how to take things forward. “The artists, as I promised them last year, got a report from me. We told them what we’ve managed, and what we are planning on doing.” Brainstorming also came into the municipal equation.
“I set up a committee, under my chairmanship, to look at the things they claimed needed addressing in Jerusalem. We looked at the more important points, the things for which we are authorized to deal with.
We asked the Jerusalem Municipality to come up with a document with recommendations. The document is due to be discussed ahead of the municipality’s working program for 2019.” The attendees of the Artists’ Nest were to hear about all of that firsthand. “I will present the document to the people at the conference,” Ezri adds. “I want to work with them in the most transparent way possible.”
That all sounds hunky-dory, like an approach that simply oozes bonhomie and positive intent, but what do the people who really need this to work think? Is the situation in Jerusalem, for creative locals, that bad? Is the prospect of following one’s muse in Jerusalem, and making ends meet in the process, that slim? While Ezri, naturally, would argue against this, one could be forgiven for not necessarily taking his word for it. The municipality may be taking steps to improve the lot of the Jerusalemite artist, but at the end of the day, it is the end user who will pass street-level judgment on whether the welcome venture is actually producing the goods.
THERE ARE, no doubt, quite a few local artists who feel things could be done better around here, and take the doom-and-gloom view, but Gadi Weisbart certainly isn’t one of them. And, if anyone can shed some light on how things are going on the cultural front, and what advances – if any – have been made since last year’s conference, it is Weisbart.
Weisbart is a veteran theater professional who also passes on some of his experience, both on the boards and in the cold reality of the job market, to the next generation or two of Jerusalemite thespians. He not only teaches at the Jerusalem outlet of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, he has also been instrumental in helping to improve the local scene for some time, even before the municipality got in on the act with the Artists’ Nest.
“I participated in last year’s conference, and this year I am on the staff. I am responsible for the theater section,” he explains. “Three years ago I created the Branja Forum, which is a forum of theater people in Jerusalem.”
That was a venture that aimed to help actors find work in the capital and to provide them with a sort of support network. It seems to have borne fruits. “We now have projects together with the municipality, through the forum. There are collaborations with the Khan Theater and Beit Mazya. It is working really well.”
Without taking anything away from the Branja initiative, clearly more was needed to be done if the municipality was going to stem the talent drain to Tel Aviv.
Weisbart does not place all the responsibility on the broad shoulders of the municipal authority. He comes across as a proactive type who prefers to get going, when the going gets tough. He feels that it is not so much a matter of ensuring the budget is available to support his, and his co-professionals’, work. It is more about finding out how to make the most of what’s already out there.
“Because of my work with Branja, I began to understand how the Jerusalem establishment system works,” he observes. “I got to know the people at the municipality a bit. I began to understand the difference between the Arts Division and the Cultural Division. There are all sorts of bureaucratic aspects that artists don’t know.
You simply have to know how it all works – especially freelance artists. Artists’ Nest focuses on freelance artists.
It is about people who want to generate work for themselves.”
Apparently, there is something of a mutual support network, regardless of what emanates from officialdom. “Theater artists in Jerusalem are supportive of each other,” says Weisbart. “If, for example, I am offered something that I can’t take because I am bust, I will happily refer them to someone else without worrying that they will offer them future jobs, instead of me, as well. That’s the way I see it, and it’s the same for a lot of actors I meet.”
Others are a little less generous, and feel there is less to go round. That’s not the way Weisbart sees it. “I feel there is great potential, among culture consumers, in Jerusalem. We can increase the size of the pie. The more people that work, there will be more work for everyone. And artists will be able to make a living.” It is, says Weisbart, very much a matter of market targeting. “There are Arabs, haredim, older mizrahim, all sorts of sectors that mostly remain untapped. There are so many potential consumers out there. If culture remains the exclusive domain of young, cool secular Jewish Jerusalemites, artists will struggle.”
Weisbart believes that things are evolving on that front. “There are more religious artists today and more Arab artists – people who come from these communities who know how to do that.”
He is talking from personal experience. “I perform with the Aspaklaria Theater company,” he says, referencing a Jerusalem troupe that performs works based on Jewish sources. “Some of the directors and actors are religious, and some aren’t, but it creates work for everyone.
They know how to target more varied audiences, and there is a very large sector that knows it can come to watch shows without worrying about being exposed to something that might bother it.” In a nutshell, Weisbart says Jerusalemite artists need to get to grips with official channels of support, and also get to know each other. This year’s gathering should certainly help in that regard. “Last year no one knew what was in store for them. Last year’s conference blew my mind. There were 150 of us – this year there will be 200. You suddenly get to know lots of people, who live in the same area as you, who engage in the arts. Artists generally have a common language, other than ‘What the hell are you doing in this crazy business?’” Weisbart laughs. “All those 150 artists from last year became my friends on Facebook, and we began to see what we all do. That’s very important, and supportive. That’s good for everyone concerned.”
It should be interesting to see what comes out of this year’s Artists’ Nest conference, and how things progress over the coming year. Hopefully, besides helping local artists to keep the wolves at bay, we will all end up living richer cultural lives here.