State of the art?

Things are moving on the Jerusalem culture scene, but the capital still lags far behind Tel Aviv.

Ofer Berkovitch 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ofer Berkovitch 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Budgets have been doubled, there are festivals galore and, as the slogan puts it, "Something is happening in Jerusalem." But when it comes to culture, the nation's capital is still far behind Tel Aviv. Now that city hall has finally issued a tender for a new head of its culture department - albeit five years after the previous one quit his job, citing a lack of authority - In Jerusalem takes a look at the state of culture in the capital. For many of those involved in Jerusalem's cultural scene, the fact that the capital has been without a culture department head for so many years is a key factor. "To build a real cultural life in a city, you need to have someone at the helm, whose job is to show the way, and to build a plan," says an official at the still-orphaned culture department of the municipality. "For the past five years, we have had lots of goodwill, plenty of ideas but zero comprehensive plans of how the cultural aspect of the capital should look. Many of us here believe that it should come even before the issue of budgets." For others, though, the real problem is the city's image in the eyes of its residents, as well as visitors. Jerusalem, they say, is a city that is more identified with poverty, tension, and political and sectorial conflicts than with culture. While those camps argue about where to place the blame, yet another sees the issue as one of highbrow vs lowbrow. Ruth Zadka, director of the prestigious Jerusalem Artists' House, says that the municipality has put a lot of money into culture in recent years but that those funds have been misplaced. "Funds have been aimed too much at entertainment and too little at high-level cultural events. Of course there is place for both, but a capital deserves some real culture, which is not exactly the same as entertainment," Zadka says. The capital's young secular residents, for their part, are striving to attain a cultural profile that fits their bill, such as parties in the city center and activities that suit students and the under-30 set. So while many agree that "something is happening in Jerusalem," the question is whether the menu is suitable for a capital with such a complex and diverse population, not to mention a capital upon which the eyes of the world are focused. In a meeting with cultural institution directors during his election campaign, Mayor Nir Barkat made it clear that he sees culture first and foremost a means to attract more tourists to the city. Some of the participants didn't like what they were hearing from the former hi-tech entrepreneur and businessman, to put it mildly. "This mayor is a successful businessman," says Zadka, "but business and culture are two very different things." Either way, Barkat is backing up his vision with funds. His first official announcement as mayor was to double the municipality's culture budget - raising it from NIS 10 million to NIS 20m. That was followed by an announcement on Jerusalem Day that the government had raised the special grant for Jerusalem culture from NIS 125m. to NIS 250m. Even before that generous infusion of funds, there was no shortage of cultural events in Jerusalem. Festival season opens right after Pessah with the municipality art festival (for amateurs in dance and theater), followed by the prestigious Israel Festival, and less than a month later the International Film Festival at the Cinematheque. In between, we celebrate the Musrara-Mix photography and art-video festival, the Meter on Meter poetry festival at Lev Ha'ir, the Hutzot Hayotzer arts and crafts fair, en route to the Piyut festival of Beit Avi Chai in September, the Oud Festival of the Confederation House in November, and so many more. Recently added were initiatives by the Jerusalem Foundation: Something Else on Wednesdays at Gerard Behar; Something Else in English on Tuesdays at the Leo Modell Hall; the Big Dance series on Saturday nights; Four in the Afternoon on summer Fridays at the Lab; the Five in the City series with the Train Theater; and 18 musical events in the parks in various neighborhoods during the spring and summer. Also, as of this month, there will be weekly events at the amphitheater of the Liberty Bell Garden and a liturgical music series in monasteries around the city. All these have been promoted through the slogan "Something is happening in Jerusalem," discounts and low-cost tickets to enable more people to attend. All these in addition to a large number of music, theater and dance performances offered by the various theaters and auditoriums in the city. And, of course, there is a great number of coffee shops, restaurants and bars that also offer live performances almost every evening, not to mention the galleries and the museums - and the list goes on. Jerusalem has also a large number of art schools, photography, cinema and TV schools, museums, as well as a few radical and even alternative sites, such as the Barbur Gallery in the Mahaneh Yehuda area, the Agrippas 12 cooperative gallery, the Sala-Manca group project in Ein Kerem, the Uganda bar and political club, and the Dayla radical left culture center in city center. Since its opening some two years ago, Beit Avi Chai has added its special note and flavor to the city's cultural life, focused on Jewish music, art and culture. SO HOW is it that most Jerusalemites and Israelis in general feel that there is no cultural life in the capital? "Perhaps because they are mostly chamber-size events," says Zadka. "It doesn't fit what we all envision in regard to a capital city. In Tel Aviv they have the big things - the Opera, the Philharmonic, Habimah, the Cameri and so on. And you meet all the artists in the streets, in the coffee shops, even at the neighborhood supermarket. Here we have the Khan Theater, and all the actors of the company live outside Jerusalem." Avi Sabbagh, head of the Musrara photography and art school, has a more radical attitude. "Of course there is a cultural life in the city," he says, "but the question is a different one. The real issue is what is the task and the role of the cultural institutions in such a complex and complicated city? Do we propose only entertainment, even if it is at a high level, or do we use culture to bring together populations that do not meet elsewhere?" Sabbagh continues, "This is what I am trying to achieve here, in the Musrara school. We involve the local residents. They take part in our plans and activities; they are not just mere neighbors or spectators - they become part of our endeavor." The 50 year old father of 4, who was born in Morocco, says that for him culture is a sociopolitical issue and that art as social activism is far more important than the question of who consumes culture and who pays for it. "I feel we should step a little forward from the budget issues," he says. "Okay, we need money to promote a cultural life, that goes without saying. But the question is what culture? For what purpose? For whom? For the residents? Which residents? Those who consume art and cultural events anyway? Or do we want to reach those who are not a part of the cultural life and do not reach it or cannot afford it? And whose job it is to care for them? The municipality? The foundations? The artists? The residents themselves?" Sabbagh doesn't wait for an answer to his questions. "All these issue are far more important in my eyes than the old, overused question of how much money we get from the establishment. In any case, money alone does not assure us the culture we need and deserve here. Culture is not only entertainment; culture is much more a social-political task and endeavor. That is why we are launching a special program this year: an incubator for young artists, who will obtain a stipend to allow them to create and work not only as artists but also or perhaps first as social activists whose action and achievements are through art. We have to raise the quality, to open the performances and the exhibitions to more people, and to make room for all the others, those who are not yet part of the mainstream but are an intimate part of all of us and of our society. One of the ways to reach that is to transform these 'others' into partners in our cultural plans." EYAL SHERR is the recently appointed head of cultural activities at the Jerusalem Foundation. Since he took charge less than a year ago there has been a tremendous change. Sherr is convinced that Jerusalem has much to offer. He is deeply attached to and involved in the city and doesn't hide his determination to make these changes more obvious. And he is not ashamed to say loud and clear that some local solidarity wouldn't do any harm, either. For example, in any project he is involved in, he requests the use of local resources. An event that would employ a non-local PR firm or any other resource he will not abide. "These are budgets we found for Jerusalem," he says, "not to promote businesses from Tel Aviv or elsewhere. We have all the facilities here." For the heads of the various cultural institutions, life has become a daily struggle over the years, a fight over the small and sometimes even shameful budgets. For them, the question is mainly an issue of money and support. "Every year we manage to enlarge the Oud Festival, despite all the budget cuts, and to continue supporting our Ethiopian theater group," says Effie Benaya, manager and artistic director of the Confederation House, which produces the Oud Festival and the Ethiopian Theater Company. "But it's a daily struggle for survival. "It's not an easy project to sustain. It's hard to find actors, hard to keep it steady, since we do not use experienced or professional actors. Nevertheless, our last show won a prize at the Acre Festival, and now we're working on our fourth production. We plan for next year a festival of Ethiopian theater, perhaps to reach the Israel Festival next year, and maybe also the Jewish theater festival of Krakow. "We promote Israeli-Ethiopian culture, in music, in dance and in theater. It has nothing to do with folklore, but it is a very high-level result of the encounter between the Ethiopian culture brought here by the immigrants and the Israeli culture they met here. This is a unique blend, and the Confederation House is the only promoter of this special bicultural interface. But instead of receiving the support we deserve, we struggle to survive. It is terrible that this year, the 10th year of the Oud Festival, we are facing such economic difficulties, but I wouldn't dream of giving up. Despite all the problems - the serious cut in the support from the EU and the municipality - we keep it at a high level. It is a tremendous challenge. As for the poetry side, I'd like it be much more developed. We have now entered into a cooperative endeavor with Lev Ha'ir and a Place for Poetry. It is working well, and all the events are packed." For the future, he says, "It is my vision that we become a platform for local artists in terms of our speciality - classical Oriental music, with our unique venue for Israeli-Arab musical encounters." DIFFERENT CIRCLES of residents think of different kinds of cultural activities. For example, the recent mayoral elections brought to the fore the cultural and entertainment needs of the city's youth. "I was born and raised in Jerusalem and I don't plan to leave it, but if we don't have things to do here after studying or working, it won't work," says 26-year-old Ofer Berkovitch, a city council member from Hit'orerut (Awakening). Berkovitch, in charge of the youth programs and deputy to Pepe Allalu, the head of the culture portfolio, says, "the first aim is to develop an infrastructure for cultural life in the city so that we have a steady stream of culture and not just sporadic and large ad-hoc events. It has to be both popular and a highbrow culture. And, above all, we have to create a buzz that will spread the news that something is going on here, that something has changed as far as cultural life is concerned," says Berkovitch. "The youth in the city are absolutely right," remarks Zadka. "They deserve a cultural life that will keep them here. The question remains: Who decides which spheres deserve public support and what should the initiative of private people be? Who decides what is culture and what is entertainment? Who decides what is aimed at the residents of the city and what should be proposed for the tourists? And the most important question: Should there be a direct link between culture and money? In other words, are the criteria to judge art and culture only financial? I hope not, but I'm afraid that in our current economic situation, this attitude might prevail." "It's an image issue. It is very 'in' to say that there is no cultural life in Jerusalem, that everything is in Tel Aviv," says Sherr, "but the truth is that there is a huge gap between the reality and the image spread by the PR companies and the media. There are plenty of events, but not all of them are announced widely enough. Too often they are announced too late. The feeling is that if it's happening in Jerusalem, it's not important enough. And, of course, that is simply not true. I believe that we all make the same mistake: We judge things happening here from a Tel Avivian point of view - and that's wrong. We judge ourselves through the eyes of people from Tel Aviv, and we create a mixture of atmosphere and image based on outside and fail to create our own image. We have an audience of 10,000 people for cultural events. These are the people who go to all the events. But we're talking about a city of almost 800,000 residents! So where are the rest?" Sherr believes that once local artists are taken care of, many things will improve. "Another issue is the 3,500 art students studying here because Jerusalem offers them the best art schools in the country and a wide choice and variety. But once they finish their classes for the day, they have only four options: the Khan Theater, the Psik Theater group, the Mikado, and the Jerusalem Theater company - that's all. So it is imperative that we create more platforms. But then again, those that already exist hardly make it, anyway! Of course, we could try to enlarge the support, but I really believe it is wrong. Besides the support that should of course be assured, we should strive to reach a point where the local market supplies its part of the financial support needed. "So the real question is how do we enlarge the current culture consumer market. In other words, how do we reach a larger number than the current 10,000 we have? Once we achieve that, the other issues will be resolved as a result. If we have a larger audience, it means we will have also more work to offer the artists who graduate from our art schools, etc. In Tel Aviv, the number of culture consumers is about 60,000. That includes people who do not live in Tel Aviv itself but come from surrounding areas, including Jerusalem. But that's the reason for the large number of job opportunities that Tel Aviv offers young artists who graduate from our schools!" Mayor Nir Barkat has often pointed out that an increase in the number of tourists to the city is closely related to the cultural activities to be found here. In Barkat's vision, tourists would attend what is appropriate to their needs, mainly in terms of language, and thus would strengthen the financial aspect of cultural life of the capital. "We should not create culture for tourists," says Sherr. "In London there is no theater for tourists, and yet their productions are booked months in advance, including by tourists from abroad. The same goes for all other culture capitals in the Western world. We have to concentrate on creating a quality culture that can eventually be offered under some circumstances to tourists (such as translations) or productions that do not need any translation or adaptation, such as music and dance. There is plenty of culture that is not dependent on Hebrew. In any case, it is important to keep in mind that the tourists who go to Tel Aviv after they have finished visiting the Western Wall or the Via Dolorosa do not go there in search of 'culture' but just to have fun, to have entertainment or perhaps go to the beach - nothing more," he says. "The most problematic issue is the lack of direction in all the different aspects of cultural life in the city. There's no master plan, no comprehensive planning, or overall supervisor. As long as we have no head of the culture department here, things will not improve, no matter how much money we can bring in. We need a head to decide what the direction is, what the aims are and how we can assess the achievements," says Sherr. "What's wrong with culture in Jerusalem?" asks deputy mayor and holder of the culture portfolio, Pepe Allalu, and answers: "That we don't have a head of the culture department. That's the first thing. I understood the mayor's position: he wanted to make a few dramatic changes upon taking charge, so he wanted to wait until things became clearer. But I think we should have a head of the department as soon as possible. Five years without one is more than enough. So he finally accepted, and we are launching the tender this week. Since I am in charge of the portfolio, I have received quite a few unofficial applications. Some of them are a great source of pride for the city. One of the first things I have discovered is that it is not true that we do not have culture in this city. We have to fight here against a false image that doesn't reflect the reality. I think it is part of problematic image of the city in general; the poorest city, the conflict with Arabs and with haredim - all these things have contributed to damaging our image. We have some of the most prestigious things in regard to culture - the best art schools, in music, in many artistic venues. But we do not have a large enough audience, so we cannot offer enough for artists to make a living here. To make a decent living, most of the artists have to exile themselves to Tel Aviv, and that's a pity. So the most urgent thing to do is to enlarge the audience we can have here. "Take for example the Vertigo dance ensemble. They recently gave a performance at the Sherover Theater, the largest hall in the Jerusalem Theater complex. We decided not to subsidize the performance, but we did finance the tickets for a larger audience that otherwise couldn't afford it, and the hall was packed. Another example is the film festival at the Cinematheque. We have reached an agreement with the administration that we will have huge screens outside for people who cannot afford the tickets prices. We recently brought the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra to Kikar Safra; 3,000 people came, many of whom were not regular concert goers. People stopped me in the street days after and told me it was the first time they had heard classical music. That's enlarging an audience," says Allalu. Sherr also has concrete ideas about how to improve the situation. "Some of the rather simple things that could be done are, for example, maps for the cultural landmarks in the city, gallery areas and a gallery path. There is no such map and there are no such signs. A tourist, whether Israeli or from abroad, cannot know how and where to go to see what's on display in the art galleries. Above all, there is no cohesion, no planning, no coordination among the many organizations and bodies working here. We had a culture committee meeting two months ago, where everyone presented his plans and programs, but we could feel the lack of a director, someone to organize and coordinate things. Local artists and lack of infrastructure: it seems that both Allalu and Sherr agree that these are the issues that require the most urgent attention. "We need to coddle the artists, to hold them tight, to help and support them, to seduce them to stay here, both on the personal and on the financial level. We need to offer them immediate solutions and answers to their needs and not to let them drag their feet before they can obtain anything," Sherr points out. "One of our main problems is the lack of infrastructure," adds Allalu. "We need more appropriate halls and venues, especially smaller halls, since the large ones are too expensive and not that easy to fill. So we're working hard on a replanning of the cultural facilities available in the city, such as the building behind the Mashbir [department store] (for small and medium theater companies); the Tenne art school; the Hansen Hospital we just received from the government, and a few other places as well. The idea is to create a new mapping-out of the cultural events in the city so that each place or complex will have its special quality. Soon we will ask people and organizations to submit proposals, and we will check them all very carefully. We work in complete cooperation with foundations, such as the Jerusalem Foundation and the city auxiliaries, as well as private donors, but there is no question that the municipality and the culture department have to lead. In addition, we will implement the mayor's vision, which is focused on the needs of the youth and the desire for an increased number of tourists," concludes Allalu.