The impact of COVID-19 on Israel's art community

With slashed budgets and shuttered galleries, the local art community expresses cautious optimism but raises a warning flag

ISRAELI ARTIST Boaz Noy created paintings under lockdown. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAELI ARTIST Boaz Noy created paintings under lockdown.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On March 11, Israelis were stunned to hear that the government had forbidden gatherings of over 100 people due to the coronavirus outbreak. Within a matter of days, all local cultural institutions had to turn off the lights, lower the curtains and close their doors indefinitely.
While the majority of the population grieved the loss of leisure pastimes, Israeli art world leaders found themselves suddenly thrust into an unprecedented economic crisis and potentially facing the end of decades-long careers.
Larger institutions such as museums could rely on the financial support of the Culture Ministry, and were assured that at one point in the future they would receive visitors once more. But local artists and gallerists were far less certain they could recover. Four months later, The Jerusalem Post spoke to some of Israel’s leading artists and gallery directors, to understand whether the coronavirus has really spelled the end of the art market and what might come next.
Complete shock
“The coronavirus crisis was a surprise to all of us. After it was announced that everything was shutting down, we were still open for another week,” admits Zaki Rosenfeld, the owner and director of Rosenfeld Gallery, one of the country’s veteran contemporary art galleries.
Rosenfeld, whose family established the gallery in 1952 and who took over the reins in 1995, says he could not recall any instance in the recent past when he and his staff were forced to shutter the gallery.
“This is a gallery that is open every day of the week. The only other times we closed were throughout wars in Israel, like the Independence War or the Yom Kippur War,” he tells the Post at the gallery’s showroom, a sunlit room in south Tel Aviv that houses creations by some of the country’s most prominent artists.
While he continued to frequent the gallery several times a week during the lockdown in order to carry out necessary maintenance work, Rosenfeld was forced to send his team home on unpaid leave. Gallery curator Maya Frenkel Tene shares that she felt utter disbelief when she and Rosenfeld understood that they had to halt operations.
“Until the second we closed the door behind us, we didn’t believe that this was going to happen. We kept repressing it, because in the beginning there were only a few cases being diagnosed in Israel.”
While Rosenfeld was struggling to devise a strategic plan to ensure the gallery would survive financially, Frenkel Tene kept in touch with the artists whom the establishment represents. The curator tried to come up with creative ways to showcase their art in the absence of a physical space where it could be displayed.
“We were thinking of doing a virtual exhibition related to the coronavirus, but were limited in terms of resources. By the time we wanted to, the restrictions were eased so we knew we were going to reopen the gallery,” she recalls. “We weren’t really interested in showcasing art that dealt with the pandemic. The artists, too, preferred to create art that didn’t touch on it.”
Rosenfeld Gallery opened its doors to the public in May with an exhibition by painter Olga Kundina. But Rosenfeld says that while “people are slowly coming in and we do have a sale here and there, it doesn’t help cover the losses of the past several months.”
Frenkel Tene asserts that as a commercial gallery, “sales are our only way to survive.” Most of the buyers, she explains, are tourists or individuals who live in Israel part of the year. “They all left when the virus broke out here. It doesn’t seem like they will come back anytime soon.”
Making art to survive
Haifa-based landscape painter Boaz Noy, who was forced to leave his studio and create from home during the lockdown, shares his gallerist Rosenfeld’s feeling that the pathogen has altered his life.
“Financially, the coronavirus rocked and changed everything for me. I was in touch with several entities regarding exhibitions and projects, and it all got suspended.”
Nonetheless, Noy remarks that he experienced a peak in interest from potential art buyers in Israel as well as in Europe and the United States.
“I had a very intense dialogue with people who wanted to buy my works, and I found myself haggling over prices and giving them so-called corona discounts. It wasn’t a simple process for me mentally, but it was also very honest and real,” he says of parting with artworks he crafted in which he depicted the visual experiences he had during quarantine.
Addressing protests that were staged by art world professionals who suffered financially from the pandemic, Noy reflects, “The fact I continued creating was my own quiet protest. My paintbrush is the megaphone through which I express my viewpoints. During the lockdown, I really felt that as an artist I was an essential worker and that it was my responsibility to continue making art, even more than usual.”
Up-and-coming artist Aviv Grinberg, a graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, echoes Noy’s sentiment that creating was his only way to pull through while his routine became shrouded by uncertainty. Grinberg is known primarily for his colorful, large-scale sculptures and installations in which he uses cleaning supplies as materials. The artist tells the Post that he felt that his personal preoccupation with hygiene was rendered more relevant than ever at a time when the whole world suddenly became obsessed with sanitizing every surface.
“When the coronavirus broke out in Israel, I was slated to give several talks about my art and its connection to cleaning rituals, but everything got canceled. Instead of mourning the lost opportunities, I decided to erect in my studio an installation of all the artworks I ever did that were related to cleaning supplies, and I exposed it on social media. So even though none of us could leave our houses, this story got to so many people, and I think it managed to move them.”
Grinberg reveals that his fascination with the aesthetics of the cleaning process stems from his own life story, which he wishes to expose in order to support others.
“I served in the Israeli Army as a guard in a military prison, where I had to organize cleaning roll calls as part of the soldiers’ daily routine. This was not foreign to me because I grew up in a house where cleanliness dictated the rules of my childhood,” he remembers.
Another aspect that pertains to Grinberg’s interest in the cleaning process was the loss of his sister, who passed away earlier this year.
“My sister suffered from a mental condition. For 18 years, my family and I had tried to wean her of the psychiatric medications that she took, which caused several side effects that got worse over time.”
For Grinberg, making art is a cathartic practice. But choosing to be an artist is a perpetual uphill battle that just became more challenging because of the pandemic.
“In financial terms, I took a very big hit. I really need to sustain myself economically to be able to make art,” he says. “You have to understand that many institutions in Israel don’t think that artists need to be paid for their work. They offer you an exhibition space and what you’re getting from the deal is so-called exposure. So sometimes I find myself working on more commercial projects because I have to survive somehow.”
Political fight
The struggle to survive in the local art scene is very familiar to Abraham Kritzman, an artist, art teacher and co-curator of the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem. The art institution he directs came under fire in recent years after it hosted an event in 2017 by the former CEO of the nonprofit Breaking the Silence.
The group, composed of IDF veterans, provides testimonies of ex-soldiers’ service in volatile areas such as the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Former culture minister Miri Regev called for the gallery to be shut down for facilitating a talk by the left-wing organization, and received the backing of the Jerusalem Municipality.
Thus, a three-year legal battle ensued, causing a rift between supporters of Barbur and those who pegged the arts and community center as an endorser of anti-Israel activists. Kritzman, speaking to the Post from his home in Tel Aviv, says that eventually Barbur was closed during the lockdown like all other galleries. Soon it will resume operations in a new location in the capital, he promises.
“None of the people who claimed to be so disturbed by the event that happened on our premises ever came to the gallery or protested. It was mostly expressed through rage on the Internet. And it’s really sad, because this saga comes at the expense of the community as well as the social and artistic activities that we have at Barbur,” he says of the drawn-out affair.
The gallery’s exit strategy, both from the scandal and the financial repercussions of the coronavirus, “is to just open a new place where we will continue our creative path,” Kritzman concludes. However, he expresses concern that the future remains uncertain for Barbur. “
We receive funds from the Culture Ministry but who knows what kind of budget the ministry will have in a few years’ time. Basing our operations solely on donations is also not possible because with the current situation plaguing everyone, who knows whether people would be interested in contributing money to an art institution?”
The artist and curator, who attests to a personal loss of income after he was forced to stop teaching and to postpone several exhibitions overseas, insists on remaining optimistic.
“There are fears but we’re used to working with what we’ve got.”
A light at the end of the tunnel
Over in Jaffa, the situation is just as complicated. Earlier this month, Gallery Har-El opened an exhibition by esteemed Israeli artist Sigalit Landau. Titled Green Scream, the show consists of various installations in which Landau sought to express the fragile and often violent relationship between mankind and nature. The artworks were inspired by a “A Hymn to Green,” a famous poem written by Israeli poet laureate Nathan Zach.
Monique Har-El, the owner and director of the gallery that also functions as a publishing and printmaking institution, gladly acknowledges that “visitors are really moved by Landau’s exhibition, which is so relevant to our times and the epidemiological disaster we’re in the midst of.”
Nevertheless, Har-El voices concern that the popularity of the art shows her establishment puts on won’t help it recover financially after it stood vacant and closed for months.
“The Israeli public is always very enthusiastic to come to exhibitions and see art as a way to entertain themselves, but I don’t see them putting their hands into their pockets and actually buying art,” she says.
Har-El notes that the gallery “only got a very minimal amount of money from the government, which doesn’t really cover any of our costs, and so we’ve had to dig into our own private pockets.”
But while the financial worry that Har-El mentions seems to be a common issue shared by many in the local art world, some believe that it’s too soon to declare a crisis. Art critic and founder of online art magazine ARToday, Gili Sitton, tells the Post that the government didn’t necessarily abandon the creative scene.
“We need to remember the positive things, like the fact that the Culture Ministry allocated a budget of eight million shekels to support culture.”
Sitton, who is also an artist, led her own initiative when the pandemic broke out. She ran a virtual pop-up sale to support artists, with the proceeds split between the creators and the NGO Pitchon Lev.
She stresses that the challenges that came with the virus are just one factor among many that the art world has to juggle in the long run.
“The art market is always influenced by countless external factors, from the economy to real estate prices. I don’t think that the coronavirus dealt the death blow to the art field. Those who are used to creating on minimal budgets and with hardly any support from the government are going to continue to do so.”