Art as urban landscape

The Jerusalem Foundation has been at the heart of the growth of the capital’s vibrant arts and culture scene.

Members of the Muslala artists' community (photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of the Muslala artists' community
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For years after it was built, the drab concrete Clal building on the edge of the open-air Mahaneh Yehuda market in downtown Jerusalem remained a lingering symbol of a failed attempt at innovative architecture in the city. Storefronts remained empty, artificial lighting and horrendous acoustics only added to its saddened state, and one could easily get disoriented going up its circular stairs.
But then last year Muslala, a community of artists stepped in and saw the beauty in the much-maligned building. As a group of creative artistic innovators who deal with urbanization, they decided to create for themselves a home at the very top floor of the building which had long been neglected and ignored. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors leading onto an enormous rooftop, they saw the opportunity of not only bringing new life to the building but also designing a space where the residents of the surrounding community could be invited to participate in creative activities as well.
Muslala is part of a growing art community in Jerusalem that sees itself as an integral and socially active part of the city’s landscape and social tapestry, using the urban background of Jerusalem’s communities and neighborhoods as a canvas for its work as it explores and discovers the city’s uniqueness – among the artists themselves and the city’s residents.
Together with professional guidance from independent architect Zeev Arad and with the help of a donation from the Jerusalem Foundation, they were able to fulfill a potential others had overlooked to build “The Terrace,” a gathering place for community art creation, urban agriculture, workshops, concerts and more in an urban setting.
True to their belief in community involvement, they invited the local community to participate in parts of the planning and creation of the space via a focused workshop that included hands-on work as well as various lectures.
“The Clal building had all the potential to succeed, you just needed a certain imagination to see what had been planned here and find out what its potential was. They were willing to give us a chance on something never done before: let artists be decision-makers. We deal with urbanization in all its elements, the environment, education, the community,” says Matan Israeli, founder and artistic director of Muslala.
“We grow and change our program according to what is happening around us. We are very dynamic. We are artists who create on a background, and the city itself inspires us and inspires our vision of what kind of community and city we would like to live in and create. We do not wait for someone to create for us; we create our own models.”
Israeli notes that they also go out into the community to bring creative works to a larger audience.
“We have the capacity to surprise the city, to show how very fast change can happen,” he says. “People sometimes fall asleep in their daily routine. We are trying to change, to think differently about things.”
Unlike Tel Aviv, where the art scene is propelled by the gallery and art collection market, Jerusalem artists are focused on the creativity aspect of their work, creating for the pure sake of creating. Some people, like Atcha Bar, director of culture and art at the Jerusalem Foundation and director of the Yellow Submarine live music venue, shudder at the thought of having the Jerusalem scene compared to Tel Aviv.
“Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv and it does not need to be like Tel Aviv,” says Bar. “The city needs to use what it has.”
“There is a uniqueness to Jerusalem, but it is not something you can put your finger on as one straight line,” agrees Eyal Sher, CEO of the Israel Festival and former director of culture and art at the Jerusalem Foundation. “It is more of a feeling, a subtext of the thing than the overtone of it. Jerusalem with its religious, political, and social demographic complexity creates a rich cultural lens for artists.”
As Jerusalem’s demographics have changed over the past several decades, so has its cultural scene, he notes, and growing communities such as the ultra-Orthodox and Arab residents of east Jerusalem also need art and culture appropriate to their communities.
“We see buds of art and culture blooming in those communities,” says Sher.
Indeed, Bar says, the Jerusalem Foundation has focused its attention on these two emerging sectors, taking note of the fringe art scene in east Jerusalem as well as the small but growing ultra-Orthodox population – notably women – participating in art, theater, dance and cinema.
Nevertheless, the decrease in the secular middle class of Jerusalem has by nature also decreased the potential audience for culture and art in the city, says Bar.
“There is a clear connection between a blossoming art and culture scene and a society more open to that,” says Bar, so while nurturing an audience for the arts in the other communities is laudable, it is still vital to strengthen and support those who already value arts and culture in the city.
One of Jerusalem’s strengths, Sher says, remains its numerous flagship cultural and educational institutions, such as the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the Sam Spiegel School of Film, the Center for Classical Middle Eastern Music and Dance, the Khan Theater, the Cinematheque, the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum and the Tower of David Museum, says Sher.
“There are a lot of students in the art scene here, and they are an integral part of the scene. People from Jerusalem and elsewhere come here and they become part of the face of Jerusalem,” Sher says.
The building of new campuses of several of these art schools in the city center is also an important physical process that will contribute to the increasing vibrancy of the Jerusalem art scene by bringing in a younger demographic to the area, notes Sher.
“This is a process which is growing and maturing,” says Sher.
As the Jerusalem Foundations celebrates its 50th anniversary, Sher notes the foundation’s “massive contribution” to this process, helping in the physical construction of the cultural institutions and in the development of the artistic and cultural programs made available in the city.
“When they finished doing the physical building, they became very involved in the programming. They looked at the cultural scene and identified what was missing and created a model of where the arts can be strengthened,” says Sher.
The partnership between the municipality, the Culture and Sport Ministry, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Jerusalem Foundation and other foundations is critical to the growth of the art and cultural scene in Jerusalem, he says.
Though the city budget for art and culture is small, the municipality under Nir Barkat has supported artistic and cultural initiatives, note those involved in the art scene, though a distinction needs to be made between “art and culture” and “street festivals,” they say. Art should be a goal unto itself and not used as an attraction for another purpose such as tourism.
“I am of the belief that art is important enough to create for its own sake. The creation of high art, culture, should not be for another side effect,” says Bar, voicing the opinion of many in the art community in the city. “There is an atmosphere of real study and creation here. The art here is deeper, but unfortunately there is less of an audience for it here. The government has to decide that this is something they want to invest in. It is difficult though because we are a poor city. They have to decide what they want to prioritize.”
As a meeting point of past and present, of sacred and conflict, and of different cultures and religions, the city of Jerusalem provides a richness of cultural raw material for artists, Israeli says.
Indeed, sometimes the daily reality of the city becomes an active player in the art, says Lee He Shulov, co-director together with Rinat Edelstein of the weeklong Manofim Contemporary Art Festival now in its ninth year, which will take place in venues throughout the city in mid-September.
Last year the opening of the festival coincided with the outbreak of what became known as the “intifada of knives,” and while there were tensions in the city, the festival continued and the feedback was very supportive, says Shulov.
“People told us how important it was at that moment to touch art and to open their hearts and minds and air themselves out and think and hope for something else. That also has importance. Suddenly, we can open our thinking and widen our hearts,” she says.
One festival event this year will take place along the seam line in the Abu Tor neighborhood, using the Green Line as the background for the event.
“We chose that scenery because we wanted to investigate that [issue], to look at that and for them to know us and for us to know the other,” she says. “The work will relate to both sides of the stories, the good and the bad. We are not trying to create pain but something beautiful.”
Reacting to the reality in which it exists is precisely the role art should take in a society, she says.
“Maybe that is why some artists prefer to stay here. Because of the complexity of the situation, they can find all kinds of meetings with all kinds of people. It is not a homogeneous environment,” says Shulov. “There is more possibility of things happening here, because of this meeting of people different than you. I have to be optimistic; I do believe and see and think that we and others need to meet in a place free of tension, to see them as people and not just the way the media shows them.”
The final event of the Manofim Festival this year will take place in the Clal building, making use of the newly opened Muslala “Terrace” as well as the other levels of the building, and will include multilingual choral performances by various choirs, including the Oratorio Singers, the Piyut Ensemble of the Ben Zvi Institute and the Armenian Church Choir.
“There is a lot of cooperation among all kinds of groups in terms of art and culture in Jerusalem,” says Shulov.
Shulov and Edelstein came to the city as art students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. They were among those who decided to stay here after their studies.
“Back in 2008 it was a bit depressing to be here. A lot of young people left the city when they finished their studies. But Rinat and I decided to create more platforms to attract more people who would be less judgmental and be more interested in what is happening here,” says Shulov, noting the numerous studios, some of those subsidized for a specific time, now available for artists in the city.
In 1982 the Jerusalem Foundation helped found one of the first subsidized art studios in Jerusalem, the Art Cube Artists’ Studios, which is a center specifically for contemporary art and culture for visual artists. It provides selected Jerusalem-based artists with subsidized studio space, as well as an exhibition space, curatorial visits, public lectures and special events. It is also the sponsor of an international residency program which includes collaborations with Israeli and international art institutions. Three Swiss foundations were also instrumental in purchasing and renovating the facility.
Shulov says young artists are increasingly deciding to stay in the city, despite its challenges. She believes that if there were more investment, that circle would widen even more, she says.
“We very much in our work turn towards the society here. We are not your classic art community. It is important for us at the moment to reach out to people, to expose them to this art,” she says.
The future of the Jerusalem art scene depends on a myriad of factors, including the general political climate of the country, the results of the next municipal election and even the completion of the fast train, says Sher. But he believes there will be a continuation of the process of strengthening the arts and culture scene in the city, he says.
“The people who work in the arts in Jerusalem have a deep connection to the city,” he says.
Still, caution is a key word when working even in the arts in Jerusalem, Israeli says. Artists learn where the redline is in each community and learn the city’s rhythm to find a common ground of every community.
“Muslala tries to do art that is above local politics, that is about the human connection. Instead of thinking of what divides us, we try to think of what unites us,” he says.