The reluctant schnorrer

Former Israel Museum director Martin Weyl, who will be honored by the city on Jerusalem Day, talks about development and fund-raising.

Dr. Martin Weyl (photo credit: IMJ/JERUSALEM POST PHOTO ARCHIVE)
Dr. Martin Weyl
Dr. Martin Weyl had heard a few rumors before he received the phone call from the mayor’s office informing him he would be a recipient of this year’s Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem award.
Asked how he feels about getting the award – which he will receive on Jerusalem Day in recognition of his contributions to the city and its residents – the former Israel Museum director hesitates a moment, then says with a large smile, “It’s nice, especially for my grandchildren, to have a grandpa honored and come to the ceremony. As for myself, I don’t feel comfortable being at the center of attention, but it’s nice.”
Weyl was born in the Netherlands in 1940. During World War II, he was sent to the Westerbork transit camp in Amsterdam, and from there to Theresienstadt. At the end of the war, the family returned to the Netherlands, but Weyl, who had joined a Zionist youth movement, made aliya a few years later and went to a kibbutz. After his army service, he began to work as a mason in Jerusalem – including aiding in the Israel Museum’s construction.
“So I was involved with the museum right from the beginning, first as a mason, and then as a guide when it was opened,” he recalls. “I conducted guided tours at the museum while I went to study art history at the Hebrew University. Later on, I was appointed curator and then chief curator of the museum, and finally director – a position I held between 1981 and 1996, before retiring.”
During all his years at the head of the museum, he was close to legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, from whom he learned a lot.
“A year after the opening of the museum, Kollek was elected mayor of the city, and one of the first things he told me was that from now on, his task would be to collect money for Jerusalem – meaning that fund-raising for the museum would from now on be my personal task. I had no experience in the schnorrer [fund-raising] business, but he was a very good teacher.”
One of Weyl’s first large projects was the creation of a youth wing at the museum.
“It was very innovative, something nobody had seen before, but over the years it has become a beacon [for] youth to get to know art and to love it,” he says. “Today it seems obvious to have a youth wing in a big museum, but that was not so obvious then. Nevertheless, it is a big success.”
He developed his own personal method of acquiring artworks for the museum. Whenever Kollek introduced him to rich Jewish art collectors, Weyl would never ask them to donate a whole collection to the museum; rather, he would ask them to consider the museum “another heir in the family,” and to designate one piece of art for the Israel Museum in their wills – “something that was always welcome, and not considered too greedy,” he recalls.
In addition, the museum’s neutrality was useful during the years after the Six Day War, when many prospective Israel donors were uncomfortable with the political situation in the country or in Jerusalem.
“Donating for the arts, for a museum, was a solution for donors, since art was not controversial,” he explains, though he adds that the increasing need for money was dominant in his work.
“We had some of the best artists and people here,” he continues. “It was a pioneering atmosphere; we had the strong feeling that we were creating something new and very important.”
WEYL IS a consummate art lover. For him, art and culture are not just about staring at a work of art, but also about day-to-day engagement.
In that regard, his decision to ask French sculptor Niki de Saint-Phalle to design and build a sculpture that could serve the city’s children was a real innovation. The idea was unpopular at first, but Weyl recalls that he was so convinced it was the right thing to do that he didn’t care about the opposition. Today, the famous “Mifletzet” park has become an integral part of the city’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood.
“I am concerned that the little things that turn our lives into a lovable experience are so often disregarded,” he says. “Take, for example, public gardens and parks. Their number has been growing over the past few years, and that’s great – but have you noticed that people can’t just sit there and enjoy, [for the simple reason that] there is no shade from the blazing local sun?... No one paid attention to the need for shade – that’s what I call lack of culture. Culture is also about paying attention to the people, to the individuals.”
In his study on Emek Refaim Street, the retired Weyl – who until recently presided over the philanthropic Beracha Foundation after leaving the museum – says he is concerned about the changes he sees in the approach to art, from both the public and the artists.
“Art should serve the community,” he asserts. “It should not be appreciated only [for] its financial aspect, as it is so often today.”
After living in Jerusalem for many years, he finds that there are many layers to the city.
“The spiritual aspect is so important – it makes this city so fascinating. It has never ceased to surprise me; it is so complex. In fact, in my eyes, Jerusalem is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. I know that people say Tel Aviv [is the one that has a worldly] flavor, but for me, [Tel Aviv] is provincial; there is nothing to be compared to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Jerusalem.”