Dim outlook for arts and culture

With theaters struggling to survive, why is the government refusing to put its money where the Knesset Education,Culture and Sports Committee’s mouth is?

MKs with director Shuli Kislev at the Tel Aviv Museum.  (photo credit: Ya’arah Nahar Davis)
MKs with director Shuli Kislev at the Tel Aviv Museum.
(photo credit: Ya’arah Nahar Davis)
ust in case you missed the bad news, our arts and cultural life isn’t going to get any better in the foreseeable future. There was simply no other conclusion to be drawn after a day spent visiting some of Tel Aviv’s major culture venues, along with four members of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee.
The tour eventually kicked off – after a delay caused by committee chairman MK Alex Miller’s (Israel Beiteinu) tardy showing – from outside the Opera House, and we headed south to the Gesher Theater in Jaffa.
Eli Zohar, the theater chairman, made it plain that he is not at all happy with the current state of affairs and enlightened Miller and his fellow MKs, Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich (Kadima), about the theater’s current dire financial straits.
While director-general Lena Kreindlin provided the VIPs with some impressive statistics – over its 20 years the theater staff has grown from 12 to 150, and has put on more than 60 new productions – Zohar “regaled” the committee members with some far less heartwarming observations.
“The theater is facing closure because we are unable to cover the costs of the performances, and because public assistance accounts for only a third of the theater’s budget,” said the chairman.
In truth, Zohar and the members of the other cultural centers taken in by the day-long tour – including the Suzanne Dellal Center, Tmuna Theater, the Opera House and Tel Aviv Museum – were preaching to the converted.
Miller, Horowitz and Shamolov Berkovich, who were later joined by MK Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu), all expressed empathy and concern for the plight of cultural ventures in this country.
“Cultural institutions in Israel are busy with surviving instead of engaging in the business of creation, which is a patently unacceptable state of affairs,” noted Miller, adding that besides the obvious entertainment value, a thriving cultural sector offers plenty of fringe benefits.
“There are advantages for informal education, positive activities for youth and even helping to represent Israel in the best possible way on the world’s stages.”
But, according to Zohar, the government refuses to put its money where the Knesset committee’s mouth is.
“The main bug in all of this is that state support for culture and the arts is a thousandth [of the state budget] rather than a percent. Most cultured countries promote the miracle of culture – whereas, in Israel, support for the sector is minimal.
“The dream of people like myself, who work with culture, is to get to state support of half a percent.”
Zohar added that he has experienced the wonders that can be achieved when suitable funds are available.
“I was chairman of the Israel Film Council for five years, and I saw what money can do for a cultural sector on the wane,” the theater chairman said. He is not particularly happy with the backing Gesher gets from the Tel Aviv Municipality, either.
“We get NIS 800,000 from the municipality, out of our annual budget of NIS 23 million. The State of Israel provides about NIS 7m.”
Zohar’s grim observation was corroborated by Itamar Gourvitch, manager of the Israel Cultural Institutions Forum, who led the tour in Tel Aviv: “The state budget for culture in Israel is around oneand- half-thousandths of the total state budget, whereas the budget in civilized countries is 1.5 percent,” he noted. “This is a significant difference that adversely affects the institutions’ ability to function.”
Zohar touched on another obstacle to maintaining a purely creative ethos.
“The criteria [for providing state support] are a serious problem,” he continued. “They obligate cultural institutions to produce quantity instead of quality, to produce a growing mass of productions. Theaters like the Cameri and Beit Lessin generate mass-production – shows that have runs of three weeks, with a small cast and user-friendly props.”
Zohar was also keen to point out that the demand for quality entertainment is there.
“We recently hosted [the prestigious Russian theater festival] Golden Mask. We brought over three theater companies, which put on three productions, and the hall was sold out.”
Suzanne Dellal Center director-general Yair Vardi painted a similarly grim picture, adding that the paperwork involved in meeting government demands, and obtaining financial support, added another millstone to the institution’s already difficult workload.
“We have to fill out so many forms, and provide so many figures. We have to employ a bookkeeper and a financial adviser just to handle that stuff – and that costs us even more money.”
Several of the cultural institution heads also complained about the delays in receiving budgetary information.
“We were notified of our state allocation for 2011 only a week or so ago,” said Israeli Opera director general Hannah Munitz, “and we’ve almost finished our season.”
Insult was added to injury.
“We only just found out that our state allocation has been reduced by half a million shekels, and that’s out of an annual budget of NIS 18m.”
Munitz also noted the independent income-state support gulf between the Israeli Opera and similar institutions abroad, pointing out that the opera house in Berlin provides only 17% of its own income, and its counterpart in Vienna has to come up with only 15% of its funding, while the Israeli Opera has to fund 70% of its activities, receiving just the remaining 30% support from the state.
While some complain that the price of opera tickets is prohibitive, Munitz said there were many ways of getting discounts, prompting an inquiry by mother-ofseven Michaeli about cut-price tickets for large families.
Acting Tel Aviv Museum director Shuli Kislev was even more critical of the government. Taking us on a tour of the soon-to-be completed, highly impressive new wing – due to be opened at the end of October – Kislev said that the state-of-the-art addition cost $55m., “not a penny of which comes from the government.”
According to Irit Fogel-Geva, director of the ministry’s Theater Department, much of the problem stems from the convoluted process involved in getting state support to the institutions.
“The ministry does its best to automatically transfer advances, which for theaters can comprise 65% of their support, but the Achilles’ heel of the process is the Finance Ministry Support Committee, which makes things increasingly difficult every year. The demands of the accountants and the legal advisers are increasing, and the ministry officials are becoming increasingly intransigent.”
All in all, things aren’t looking too good for our cultural life here.