Not your average museum

‘I continue to buy things that I like, and I continue to create. I only want to do better.’

Artist Ilana Goor has curated an eclectic collection in Jaffa from ancient artifacts to video installations (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Artist Ilana Goor has curated an eclectic collection in Jaffa from ancient artifacts to video installations
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Anyone who likes to collect interesting or beautiful things has probably heard at least one friend or acquaintance jokingly say something like, “You know, with all the stuff you’ve got here, you ought to open a museum.” Most people don’t. Artist Ilana Goor did.
Born almost 78 years ago in Tiberias, Goor grew up in a family of doctors, artists and intellectuals. She began creating art at an early age, making small statues out of discarded odds and ends. Although she attended the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem for a year, Goor is largely an autodidact.
She began her career, in both Israel and the US, designing clothing and jewelry, and then broadened her oeuvre to include furniture, lighting, sculpture and multi-genre art installations for solo and group exhibitions in Israel, the US, and throughout the world.
Among her better-known local statue installations are Never Again at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; Mother and Child at the University of Haifa; Birth at the Municipality Building in Tel Aviv; Woman against the Wind in London Park in Tel Aviv; and War Memorial for Fallen Soldiers, an indoor monument at Yad Lebanim in Ra’anana.
Along with creating art, Goor became a dedicated and driven art collector, traveling the world and purchasing paintings, sculptures, installations and antiques literally everywhere she went, along with works by up-and-coming Israeli artists.
In 1983 she purchased a picturesque old building in Jaffa to serve as her private residence and repository for her ever-growing collection of art.
Built in 1742 as the first Jewish home outside the walls of Jaffa, the building soon became an inn for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
It later became the home of an Arab family, who used it as a factory for the manufacture of olive-oil-based soaps.
In 1949 it became a synagogue for a community of Libyan Jews, and later also as housing for Jewish immigrants from the Balkans. Goor used it as her residence throughout the 1980s, purchased and renovated adjoining buildings and opened the place as a museum 19 years ago.
Today, the Ilana Goor Museum has upwards of 500 works of art, ranging from Canaanite pots to recently created video art. Perhaps no other museum in Israel is as militantly eclectic.
Works of every sort, from myriad places and time periods, are displayed together cheek by jowl. No more than 10 steps away from the top of the oven where the 19th-century Arab family made their olive oil soaps is an antique European baby grand piano, directly below a mass-produced plastic lamp from IKEA.
Why a plastic lamp from IKEA? “Because Ilana likes it,” says Elinor Rose Solan, head of the museum’s education department. “If she likes something, she’ll bring it here to make you ask questions, to provoke you. This lamp asks, Is it art? It has been mass produced, but does that make it of less artistic value than something else? Even the kitchen is an installation, with pots, pans, samovars and kettles from all over the world. Ilana Goor says the whole museum as such is her biggest sculpture, which will never be completed.”
Despite the eclecticism, however, there are a few areas that are more or less dedicated to specific kinds of art.
A notable example is a very impressive “African room,” crowded with African tribal art.
If you have never been to the Ilana Goor Museum or have not visited it lately, now is a very good time to go. Something bold and new is waiting to surprise you within those 18th-century walls. Almost 19 years after opening its doors, the museum is staging its first temporary exhibition.
A little over two months ago, the museum called for young Israeli artists to participate in a three-day workshop, hosted by curator Sophia Dekel Caspi and artist Shahar Sarig.
Ninety young artists responded, of whom 15 were chosen to participate.
The plan was for the 15 artists to create work that would engage in a dialogue with the museum’s ethos, architecture and permanent collections, and be integrated with the art works currently put on display. The result is an interesting exhibition called “Gathering+” showing until the end of October. The exhibits include sculpture, painting, installation works and video art.
“We came up with the idea of doing something completely different,” says artist and co-curator Sarig. “We decided to open the place to young artists, inviting them to create new work to be exhibited here at the museum, while making them responsive to the museum’s permanent collection. We say ‘young,’ but we’re talking about artists ranging in age from 20 to 40.
I think one of them is actually closer to 50. They’re diverse, but they are all working artists.”
Says Caspi, “We were lucky because we really did have 90 very different approaches.
We didn’t expect so much diversity. Many young artists don’t know about the place, and many didn’t like the idea. But these 90 artists were attracted by Ilana’s idea of thinking out of the box and were curious enough to come and see the museum imagine possibilities for their own work.”
One of these young artists is 30-yearold Liran Shalev, whose work Meora is a perpetually moving and changing light display projected onto the floor, with accompanying sound.
“Meora is a Hebrew play on words on ‘from her light,’ ‘event’ and ‘bad event,’” Shalev explains. “We were invited to create and display in different spaces in Ilana’s museum to experience and share ‘her light.’ When I began to explore the space, I was immediately drawn to the massive chandeliers that in a way create anchors in the space. Afterwards, I wanted to move and rotate them to create constant movement. A few hours later, when I made up my mind about the artistic directions that I wanted to work in, I watched the first rocket from Gaza intercepted above us from the top floor of the museum.”
Shalev says that the kaleidoscopic spin of her “chandelier” of light represents the warmth of the sun and the darker “water emotions” of the moon.
“The second time we came here for the workshop, we saw the rockets coming. And the approximate end of the rockets was on the day we opened the exhibition. So it was kind of a magical thing, a synchronicity of events. And for me, there was also the magic of art,” she says.
Sarig adds, “Part of the magic also is that this place is as far as it gets from a ‘white cube.’ The place is already saturated with other work, other information, as well as the architecture.
To me, this is more interesting than displaying art in a blank place, a white cube. That was part of the challenge, the fun. The artists were attracted and inspired by what was already here.”
Sarig himself was inspired to contribute a work called Box of Love Letters.
He explains, “When my ex-wife left, I found a box full of love letters I had written to her over the six years we were married. And there were more love letters from her relationship previous to that. So there is a box of her love letters, which also have a lot of drawings. So I put that up here.
It kind of relates to the whole purpose of the museum of its being a place in which artifacts are often detached from their original context and put into the context of art. And next to that work I put like a small tin can in which you can put any amount of money and take a love letter or drawing home,” says Sarig.
Although based in New York, Goor visits Israel several times a year, staying in her small private apartment in the museum. Couples, families and entire tour groups blithely walk by a simple door marked “Private,” which leads into her apartment, right near the museum library. It is furnished to look like a fin de siècle Central European drawing room and is decorated with paintings by Goor’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Joseph Sapir. One never knows when that door may open and the doyenne herself will step out into the gallery to greet and chat with museum visitors.
That is precisely what happened during my recent visit. Goor quietly sauntered out of her apartment, accompanied by her enormous dog. We shook hands as I introduced myself, and she turned back toward her residence and beckoned me to follow. She tapped the door as we walked through it and remarked, “The door says ‘Private,’ but you know Israelis. As soon as they read ‘Private’ they immediately have to see if they can open the door and see what’s inside.”
She led me through a small vestibule festooned from floor to ceiling with photographs of Goor with the who’s who of the past 50 years. These ranged from local political figures such as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ezer Weizman, Teddy Kollek and Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai to international icons such as Michael Jackson, Robert De Niro, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Warhol, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton.
Of Clinton, she said in passing, “He’s a regular here. Mr. Lover Boy.”
Although small, the apartment was very much a part of the museum – full of artworks and enlivened by a spectacular view of the sea.
When we were seated and settled, I asked if her home in New York was anything like her place here.
She laughed and replied, “A lot. It was a carriage house that rich people from Fifth Avenue built to keep their servants. I still have the post where they tied their horse.”
Asked how Ilana Goor came to be “Ilana Goor,” she thought for a moment and said, “Taste, I always had. I came from a very intellectual home, six generations of doctors. And it was always beautiful. It wasn’t glamorous, but beautiful. I was born in Tiberias, in a Bauhaus, a beautiful home.
My mother studied medicine in Switzerland.
And she used to go there – this was in the 1930s – two times a year just to buy the right shoes, Bally shoes. She was the best-dressed woman in the country. So I came from there. And then, because I am an artist and I live in the United States and I travel quite a bit, I became more,” she said.
“I wasn’t a student,” she continued. “I always wanted to play. I’m still playing.
This place is my toy. And sometimes when I hear tours of people in the museum – my bedroom is near the wall – and I hear people talking about me, I would love to go out and meet this person, this ‘Ilana Goor’ I hear them talking about.”
She laughed and continued, “They make something else out of you. It’s hard to understand. I do what I feel like doing, and they make up these stories about my creative process. Listen, what does anyone really know what Picasso was thinking or feeling when he made a work of art? He was playing all his life.”
What does she think about when creating her works of metal sculpture? “To be a sculptor is a big problem,” she said. “The material is always much stronger than the art itself. And only now, after 40 years, I feel that I have conquered the material. When you look at my furniture, which is what I’m making now, I control it. Before, I was afraid to bend it, afraid to put a hole in it. Why? Because when you do this, you don’t know where it’s going to take you. You have to know. And now I know what I’m doing. It took me 40 years.”
The conversation drifted to the current exhibition, to the contemporary art scene in Israel and to young artists today in general. Although she praises many of these artists and eagerly buys a lot of their work, she expressed a distinct disappointment in their lack of artistic curiosity.
She said, “When I see a stone that doesn’t look like all the other stones around it, I will pick it up, look at it, feel it, and try to see why it’s not like all the other stones. They don’t have this drive. It’s like they are dying.
Each one is so involved in his own work, they don’t have the drive to see, to touch, to feel. It’s a different generation from me. I drive a lot. If I see something by the side of the road, I’ll stop the car, get out, pick it up, and I’ll keep it, knowing that someday a crown will appear on this piece that nobody wanted. I take those things that nobody else even noticed, and I make something out of them. This is the pleasure I find in life. To find something that no one else wanted and give it another life,” she explained.
When asked why she thinks young artists lack this sort of fascination with things, she replied, “Pressure.
They are scared. They’re even afraid to smile.”
As Goor prepared to leave her museum home to attend the funeral of film director and producer Menahem Golan – “We grew up together in Tiberias,” she told me – I asked her one more question: Will there ever come a time when she decides that the Ilana Goor Museum is a completed work of art? “Never,” she replied immediately.
“I wish I could. But I cannot. I get up every day and start working. I sometimes get up in the middle of the night to move things around. I continue to buy things that I like, and I continue to create. I only want to do better.”
“Gathering+” is on display until October 31 at the Ilana Goor Museum, 4 Mazal Dagim Street, Old Jaffa. Visiting hours: Sunday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Holiday eves from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For further information, call (03) 683-7676 or visit