The art of leaving Jerusalem

The lack of affordable workspace is causing a talent drain, as artists are forced to pull up their stakes in the city and find more viable places to create.

Art in action at the Artists’ Studio (photo credit: PR)
Art in action at the Artists’ Studio
(photo credit: PR)
Over his eight years-plus, and counting, tenure as mayor, Nir Barkat has flown the flag of culture and the arts high and proud across the capital.
Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that in recent times, the quantity and spread of festivals, for example, has swelled appreciably. The Mekudeshet (“Sacred”) Festival has been taking place in the Old City for the past six years, and has become an important fixture in the national entertainment calendar.
There is also the Festival of Light, which kicked off in 2009 and, with the help of the municipality along with other major partners, has displayed all manner of wild, wonderful and wacky illuminating creations at various spots around the city, including along the Old City walls.
These high-end, high-profile and highly visible examples of the city’s desire to enhance the quality of life of long-suffering Jerusalemites – who have endured the violence and constraints of the second intifada and continuing economic travails – are welcome initiatives.
However, it seems there is a distressing flipside to artistic endeavors here. The Beit Hayatzranim edifice is a dismal point in case.
The said building is located in Talpiot, opposite the Ahim Yisrael shopping mall. It offers a dismal aesthetic experience, and anyone who has had the need to visit the Cellcom premises on the ground floor will, no doubt, have taken in some of the soulless ambiance that prevails there.
The ascent to the third floor is circuitous. Upon navigating two separately located flights of stairs, one can a sense a cavernous vacuum. Once you get to the third level, however, you become aware of a slight energy shift as you espy the names of artists who enjoy studio space facilities there.
There are currently 11 such premises in use by a range of artists, including internationally renowned sculptor Israel Hadany, veteran painter Chana Goldberg and multimedia artist Sharon Binder. As I approach Goldberg’s studio I note a couple of premises that appear to have been ransacked.
The latter destruction, it seems, is the direct result of cold, hard financial facts on the ground. Beit Hayatzranim was acquired by a company called Kikar Talpiot around 15 months ago. Prior to that, the building was owned and operated by Jerusalem Economy Ltd. (JEC), which provided spaces for artists at reduced rents. The municipality further facilitated artistic exploits here by substantially cutting arnona (municipal taxes). The latter continues to be the case; however, Kikar Talpiot has notified the artists in the building that their rent will probably rise when their current contracts expire.
Two artists have already left – one for family reasons and the other because of the increase in the rent – and more will have to find another, more affordable, solution within a few months, when their own contracts run their course.
“They [Kikar Talpiot] are raising the rent of everyone whose contract has terminated,” explains Goldberg, who has been working from her Talpiot studio for three years now."
“My contract runs out in June. I pay NIS 2,500 a month rent and, with arnona and electricity it works out to be about NIS 3,000 a month. That’s quite a lot.”
Goldberg is not sure how much she would have to pay if she stayed on – which is not an option for her – but she says that, as a Jerusalem-based artist, life isn’t too easy as it is.
“I think the rent will double. When I spoke to the owner he said they might raise the rent by less, but that is immaterial. We have a discount on the arnona, but the municipality makes that contingent on the artist not doing anything profitable in the studio. We are prohibited from teaching here or selling our work. In practice, you get a reduction on the arnona only if you are a poverty-stricken, suffering artist.”
Goldberg has a neat solution for the plight of the Jerusalem artist.
“If they cut just 1% from the budget of all the mediahyped festivals they put on in Jerusalem – the Festival of Light, the Festival of Darkness, whatever – they cost millions, that would solve everything.”
Just down the road on Ha’uman Street, there is the Artists’ Studio facility, a well-appointed place supported by the municipality. It provides studio space for 19 artists, for three to five years each, and there is a performance area, a gallery and a residency program for foreign artists.
“I have a couple of friends who worked from the Artists’ Studio, and finished their residency there and moved to Tel Aviv,” says Goldberg. “It’s cheaper for them there, as Jerusalemites, to commute to Tel Aviv than to rent another studio space here.”
That sounds like a sad state of affairs. It is no secret that artists from various disciplines have been leaving the capital in droves for some years now in search of an easier life over at the western end of Route 1. But with Barkat raising the cultural endeavor banner and the proliferation of festivals, one might have hoped for an upturn in the fortunes of local artists.
Goldberg says she does not know where she will go after her contract expires, but prefers to focus on the general situation rather than her own.
“I really don’t want to moan and groan about myself, but I think this is a great loss for Jerusalem as a city. We had a cadre of wonderful artists here. This is not Tel Aviv. These are different artists, with a different approach, and I think artists here are more daring than artists in Tel Aviv.”
Hadany is perplexed by the whole situation.
“I can understand Kikar Talpiot wanting to raise rents – they are a commercial company. What I don’t understand is why so much of this building is empty. If they offered artists reduced rents, they could fill the place overnight, and they’d be getting income from it.” That sober observation is backed by the gutted vacated studios.
“They [Kikar Talpiot] did that so as not to pay arnona,” Hadany notes. “I really don’t get this. I’m not into all this business stuff, and wheeling and dealing. I’m an artist.”
The boyish-looking Hadany, 75, has been creating his acclaimed works – including items that are permanent public fixtures in Singapore, the UK, Poland and the US – at Beit Hayatzranim for six years. I am a refugee from Hutzot Hayotzer,” he chuckles.
“They started putting the rent up there, so I left. I’d been there from 1969.”
Hadany says he will probably return there when his current contract ends, in a few months’ time.
“I’ll take a smaller studio on the fringes of Hutzot Hayotzer. That will be a lot cheaper than here.”
The sculptor bemoans the fate of the Talpiot building, and the approaching end of creative pursuits there and says it is a missed opportunity.
“This could have been really something. You had a bunch of artists here, with a sort of community spirit. It’s such a waste.”
The current situation state of affairs, says Hadany is simply intolerable.
“The owner renews contracts on a six-month basis, but we artists can’t work like that. We can’t be on a knife edge the whole time. At Hutzot Hayotzer I think I’ll be able to work in peace.”
New York-born Sharon Binder has been operating out of Beit Hayatzranim for five years and says she has not been impressed with the way things have gone.
“They [JEC] promised us all kinds of things which they really didn’t do, except take our money,” she says.
“After this company [Kikar Talpiot] bought the building, they are raising the rent more than double, and only giving us a six-month lease if we want it. I invested a lot of money in this studio – it wasn’t ready to be used when I moved in – but I can’t even think about paying the higher rent. I don’t know where I’m moving yet.”
The 2016 municipality budget for culture and the arts stood at NIS 54,723,000, with NIS 1,192,747 of that earmarked for the plastic arts, and a further NIS 750,000 set aside for supporting young artists. The municipality spokesperson noted: “Artists rent studio spaces at Beit Hayatzranim on an independent basis, and the Jerusalem Municipality has no connection with that.”
Even so, municipal officials recently visited the building together with owners, which, says the spokesperson, was designed to achieve two objectives: “To find a quality and suitable place for artists, in the building,” and “to attain rental rates as low as possible, for the benefit of the artists.”
The spokesperson further noted that the aforementioned tour of the Talpiot facility “is clear evidence of the great importance the municipality attaches to the continued presence of artists in Talpiot. We are continuing to work toward finding a formula for keeping the artists in Talpiot.”
The powers-that-be had better get their skates on.
Judging by the facts on the ground, the artistic talent drain may not only be affecting Talpiot but the whole of Jerusalem.