After coronavirus: Will Israeli cultural institutions rebound in 2021?

Some say that the reopening of the cultural sector could be a time for a rebirth of the arts in Israel, particularly if the government chooses to support culture and give it the means to rebuild.

Israel Museum (photo credit: ELIE POSNER / ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Israel Museum
“‘It’s not practical to be realistic’ — my father used to say that, and I am just proceeding along these lines, assuming that the vaccines are going to work and life will return to normal, and people will go back to the movie theaters,” said Avi Nesher, one of Israel’s veteran directors.
His cautious optimism, as he edits his 21st feature film, Portrait of Victory, which he managed to make during the pandemic, is echoed by many in the world of Israeli culture, which may have been hit harder by the pandemic than any other sector.
Except for a few brief periods of respite when museums and theaters were allowed to open under heavy “purple tag” restrictions limiting the numbers of the public allowed in, the world of culture has been closed. Movie theaters have not opened their doors at all since March. Artists from abroad have not been allowed in for performances. Festivals and performances have moved online but the in-person experience has effectively been gone since the pandemic began. Hundreds of thousands in this sector, many of whom are independent workers, have been unemployed for nearly a year. It’s a sign of the times that Time Out, the entertainment and leisure magazine/website, changed its name on its website to “Time In.”
But some say that the reopening of the cultural sector could be a time for a rebirth of the arts in Israel, particularly if the government chooses to support culture and give it the means to rebuild.
Ori Reshtik, the CEO of Shaham, the Israeli Actors Guild, said: “It’s a time of opportunity and danger.” The opportunity, he said, is that, “people have realized how much they have missed theater and the culture world,” during the long months of social distancing and lockdowns, and they will be eager to flock back to theaters.
The danger is that theaters will try to exploit actors. “There will be some who will try to take advantage of the situation and threaten the actors’ salaries. We will fight for them,” he said. “It will be a long recovery,” particularly for theaters, which cannot mount new productions from one day to the next.
Museums, which were closed for long periods and only were able to open under many restrictions, have used the time to renovate and rethink their approach.
Israel Museum director Prof. Ido Bruno said the museum would “be reopening immediately once we receive permission from the Health Ministry... It takes us just two or three days now, we are quite proficient at it.”
 The large campus of the museum, which has made it an alternative study space for schools that needed extra room during the pandemic, means that, “It’s a very safe space.”
Looking toward the future, Bruno said that the crisis had pushed the museum staff to develop in some new directions. “Two or three beautiful things happened in this not-so-beautiful period,” he said.
One was that the museum had time to boost and develop its online activity, particularly for youth, and now has regular art classes and story hour online from the youth wing.
The second was that “for the coming year we are investing more in exhibitions that have to do with our collections. We have half a million items in our collections. It has become more difficult to transfer items among museums in different parts of the world, so we are concentrating now on lesser-known, high quality, fantastic parts of our collection.”
The third aspect of the museum’s program that has been strengthened by the pandemic is exhibitions of new, interdisciplinary works.
Other museums have managed to find the glass-half-full side of the pandemic as well. Dan Tadmor, the CEO of the Museum of the Jewish People, formerly known as Beit Hatfutsot, said: “The pandemic coincided with the conclusion of 10 years of work to renew the museum.” It was scheduled to reopen, in a 72,000 sq. ft. new building, on the first day of the third lockdown.
“The grand opening won’t be anytime soon,” he said. “Circumstances have forced us to have a soft launch.” There will be an online gala opening event on February 21, but he said they would wait until the skies open and their many supporters abroad can be present for a big in-person celebration.
But he was philosophical about the delay in reopening. “For a museum 10 years in the making, a few months won’t make a difference.”
Asked what he had learned from the pandemic crisis, he said “that a museum needs to be a physical experience. We’ve become very adept at virtual online tours. But the virtual world will never replace the immersive experience of visiting the museum.”
One wing of the museum stayed open during the pandemic and it drew crowds in the summer. “We saw that people were thirsty for culture,” he said. But then came the second lockdown, after which the museum did not reopen.
Tadmor credits Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper for his support during the crisis. “He was attentive, supportive and professional,” said Tadmor, who added he was glad that Tropper would remain on the job for the next four months, until a new government is in place.
Nesher also gave high marks to Tropper for giving a grant of NIS 16 million to the movie industry, to cover the higher cost of shooting films during the pandemic, when the many regulations required expensive on-set accommodations.
But although the Culture and Sport Ministry gave a grant of NIS 200m. to established arts institutions, such as Habima and others, the movie industry was designated as entertainment rather than culture and did not receive the same kind of economic relief from the government.
Avi Edery, the CEO of the Cinema City movie chain, one of the largest multiplex chains in the country, thinks that was a mistake. “Movies are one of the most important parts of culture,” he said.
It has not been easy for Cinema City, or any of the movie chains, which have to pay municipal taxes and continue to do maintenance even though they are closed. Obviously, the movie chains have had to furlough many workers and some will not come back. Edery said he would probably have to hire 700 new workers once the crisis is over.
 But he said that he was certain the public would come back en masse to the movie theaters as soon as the all-clear is given by the Health Ministry.
“We are optimistic,” he said. “We are ready to reopen, we have a lot of movies, Israeli movies and foreign movies.” So many movies slated for release in 2020 have not made it to theaters so he said there would be no problem for a year or so with finding films to show. “After that, there could be a slowdown,” he said. “But many filmmakers were able to keep working during the pandemic, so I don’t think it will be a serious problem.”
United King Films, one of the biggest producers and distributors of Israeli movies, which was founded by Edery’s late father, Leon, and his uncle, Moshe Edery, will continue to invest in Israeli movies, he said.
Nesher was pleased to announce that United King Films just purchased the rights to his Independence War epic, Portrait of Victory, “and wants to reopen with a bang,” with the release of the movie when it is finished.
Nesher acknowledged that there was a danger that some people had gotten “too comfortable sitting on their couch” to come back to theaters and said it would be a challenge for filmmakers to lure them back.
“Cinema is best experienced on a screen with other people, it’s best when you’re surrounded by people laughing and crying with you,” he said. “If you want a story well told, you can go to Netflix. They have a lot of them. But cinema has to give you more.”
The crisis has “raised the bar for moviemakers,” he said. “Now it’s about creating a unique cinematic experience that will bring people back to the movies. It doesn’t have to cost $200m. It doesn’t have to be big and noisy. But you cannot make just another movie anymore. You need to aim higher.”