Teddy's museum

Teddy said art buffs thought of collections as kids; Jews want their children to have a good home.

israel museum 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
israel museum 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Back in the Fifties, Teddy Kollek was director-general of the Prime Minister's Office when he realized that Jerusalem and the nation needed a national museum of art and archeology located in the Capital. It was obvious that the tiny Bezalel Museum established by Boris Schatz in what is now the Jerusalem Artists House would not do. Teddy sat down with leading archeologist Yigal Yadin and the two submitted a proposal to the government that would enable a two-wing museum to be built on a rocky hillside overlooking the little Jerusalem suburb of Neve Sha'anan. Yadin had other fish to fry and the project became the baby of Teddy. Early in the Sixties, well before the museum was built, he told this writer that as there were no funds for acquisitions of art and artifacts, these would have to come from private Jewish collectors and/or their estates. He explained to me that collectors thought of their collections as their children; and that "every Jewish family wants their children to have a good home." The Israel Museum provided a good home long before it was filled. Designed by Mansfeld and Gad, it looked good from the outset, even though the expandable modular pavilions were riddled with flaws: the central columns were an obstruction, the top windows leaked and the long walk from the ticket office was a trial in hot and cold weather. Redesigns took place during decades of expansion and the addition of a sculpture garden and the Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. A major renovation will soon take place as part of the biggest redesign of all. But the heart of the museum is its collections. It had opened with nothing but loan shows. And it was Teddy who became the prime mover in its wooing of donors. An art lover but not over-much of an art maveen himself, Kollek, as chairman of the Board of Governors, rarely trod on the toes of his able curators (though after one contretemps he offered me the top curatorial post; I declined). But his fabled mixture of charm, good-natured bullying and Zionist vision won heart after heart for the museum. Nothing succeeds like success. The more art flowed into the museum (and also into its Bronfman Wing of biblical archeology) the more was donated. The initial standard of acceptance was set by adviser Willem Sandberg, the sometime director of the Stedilijk Museum in Amsterdam. Sandberg threw out most of the stuff in the Bezalel Museum (the art wing of the Israel Museum is still known as the Bezalel Wing). He also designed the Israel Museum's logo, which is based on the obsolete mushroom pavilions. Teddy also promoted the expansion of the museum's Jewish ethnology wing and the Judaica pavilion, currently host to the biggest collection of Judaica in the world. Pavilions of African and pre-Columbian artifacts as well as classic photography added views of other cultures. Teddy's personal contacts, not only with thousands of international collectors but also European and American officials, won many hearts for Israel as well. His standing as Jerusalem's most successful mayor was an enormous help. Yet Teddy remained down to earth. He tried to play soccer with the municipal team but never ever made contact with the ball. Decades ago, at a meeting with this paper's editorial staff, I protested that his traffic plan for the entrance to Jerusalem would result in a massive bottleneck. "Sit down!" he shouted at me, "Stick to art! You know nothing about traffic!" On another occasion, stricken by a drop in blood pressure, my wife was walking me to a Rehavia doctor while holding our infant daughter and several bags of baby things. We were suddenly accosted by Teddy, out for a walk with his wife Tamar. "Mike! he shouted at me, "why are letting your wife carry everything?" I tried to gasp an explanation, but Teddy would have none of it. Later he sent me a bottle of whisky.